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The imp of southern Texas

With its extraordinary speed on the ground and its wraithlike ways, the scaled quail makes its cousin, the bobwhite, seem like a hunter's patsy

Where, at the peak of winter, when most thoughts point toward snowy slopes or southern sands, does a man go when he wants to swing a shotgun at a covey rise? Why, he goes to Texas, of course, where the quail are plentiful, where the open season is three and a half months long and where the bag is an abundant 12 birds a day. And where else but in Texas would he find not just ordinary bobwhite quail but the cocky, canny, chestnut-bellied scaled quail (Callipepla squamata castanogastris) as well? The scaled quail thrives throughout the south Texas brush country, and it is by far the most ornery, the most frustrating and the most maddeningly challenging bird any quail hunter could ever hope to hit. Last month, with the scaled-quail season in full swing, there were plenty of birds that were not being hit all along the Rio Grande from Brownsville to Eagle Pass.

Missing shots now and then is not exactly a unique experience for the most skilled upland shooter, but missing scaled quail is the rule rather than the exception. Even a knowing scaled-quail shooter is outwitted, outrun and outraged at every bush and bramble. He is tantalized by birds that are there one instant and gone the next. He is tortured by thorns, stickers, burrs and barbs, and he is driven to wild and foolish tactics which seldom work but invariably make him bristle in frustration and blush in memory.

Considering the violent emotions evoked by the scaled quail in even the calmest of hunters, it is probably a good thing that castanogastris is found only in the southern counties of Texas and nowhere else in the U.S. There are, however, two other species of scaled quail, all so named because of the scalelike pattern on their breast feathers. Callipepla squamata pallida, popularly known as the Arizona scaled quail, ranges from north-central Mexico through all of west Texas, most of Arizona and into the southeast corners of New Mexico and Colorado. The third species, Callipepla squamata squamata, is found only in Mexico. Both are blood brothers to castanogastris, sharing many characteristics, but neither is quite as handsome or as exasperating to hunt.

All three species are the same size—they stand about 10 inches high. Males average about 6.6 ounces, females slightly less, but both give the impression of weighing about one-third more than they actually do because of the density and length of their feathers. The sexes are so similar in appearance that only a scaled quail can be sure of the difference at first glance.

The back and wing plumage of all scaled quail is predominantly blue-gray, but in the two more common varieties these bluish feathers dull into a drab, smoky buff on the breast and abdomen, giving the birds the incongruous look of somber little morticians wearing party hats. In contrast, the southern Texas bird sports a pearl-white bib and brilliant, burnished-copper breast and belly. It has the jaunty air of a dandy decked out in a dinner jacket.

Even the bird's fashionable finery is misleading. For a bird turned out so elegantly, the chestnut-bellied scaled quail disports in pretty rough territory. Its range is some of the most rugged in Texas—barren, sparsely inhabited terrain, subjected to periodic droughts and temperatures that soar as high as 110° in summer and, on occasion, dip to bitter lows of around zero in winter. It is a land of mesquite and catclaw, blue thorn and huisache, cactus and prickly pear, where every bush seems covered with thorns and every limb thrusts sharp, savage spines to the sky. It is a vast, flat, beautiful land, where the honey-sweet smell of white brush hangs in the air and the horizon looks at least a week away.

Centuries of evolution have adapted the various creatures that inhabit this country to its idiosyncrasies, and this explains, at least in part, some of the habits of the scaled quail. For one thing, unlike most conventional quail, this one would rather run than fly and, except for the ostrich and the roadrunner, there is probably no bird that runs faster.

Its favorite gambit is to dart from one clump of brush to the next, every now and then giving the hunter a maddening, momentary glimpse. With its stiff-jointed legs moving in staccato rhythm and its garish topknot bobbing, it looks like a street-vendor's goose-stepping wind-up toy.

About the only thing more damaging to the psyche than trying to run down one of these fast-fleeing singles is the effort to run down an entire covey. Scaled quail are very social creatures. When feeding and foraging in the mornings and afternoons, or just dozing, dusting and picking at parasites during other times of day, they gather in groups of 20 to 50 or more birds. The safety-in-numbers concept does not seem to make them any more eager to fly in a group than when they are alone, but it certainly makes for more confusion when an entire covey takes off on foot. The birds scatter in every direction, scooting back and forth across sandy channels in the brush, diving into islands of prickly pear, always appearing—fiendishly—just at the periphery of the hunters vision.

A normal hunter, accustomed to normal quail shooting, will probably try to flush at least a few of the birds by running them down—a disastrous approach at best. Even a professional trackman would be hard pressed to keep up with the birds' 15-mph ground speed. Throw in half a dozen birds going in half a dozen directions at the same time and a hip-high sea of brush, which the quail effortlessly slip beneath but which the hunter must go around, through and over, and the true hopelessness of the situation begins to be apparent.

This is the point at which some hunters simply give up, unload and go home to a stiff drink. Others go berserk, dashing into thorn bushes and cactus plants, chasing blindly after one bird and then another until finally they collapse in a tattered, bleeding heap. A few hunters will even shoot the birds on the ground, but this, aside from being a sorry breach of sportsmanship, is also an outright admission of defeat. No scaled-quail hunter worthy of the name gives up that easily. After all, beating the bird at its own game is the challenge.

No hunters are more skilled at doing so than the brothers Burnham of Marble Falls. Over the years, Murray and Winston Burnham probably have outwitted more scaled quail than anyone else in Texas. They have learned how to stalk a covey with the stealth and cunning of a coyote, sneaking up so close before springing that the startled birds take wing in sheer surprise. The brothers know how to imitate the chop-chuck, chop-chuck call of a single bird when it is trying to join a scattered covey. They also know how to anticipate escape routes and cut the quail off and then run them into cul-de-sacs from which they are forced to fly. The brothers have countered the tricks of psychological warfare that are the scaled quail's strongest defense with some of their own—freezing beside a bush in which a bird has taken cover and waiting, motionless, until the unnerved quail, deciding it has been discovered, makes a desperate flight for freedom.

The Burnhams lease hunting rights along with a small cabin on 7,000 acres of the 54,000-acre Benavides Ranch northwest of Laredo. This is in the center of some of the finest scaled-quail country in the state. Although most of the land in this area and throughout the bird's range is privately owned, hunting rights are generally sold each year either to individuals like the Burnhams or to commercial operators, who then sublease them on a daily, weekend or weekly basis.

When I hunted there recently, almost every gas station and shop on the road from Cotulla to the Mexican border had a sign in the window beckoning hunters, and the classified columns of the local papers were filled with ads touting day hunting at $10 to $15 a gun, complete with guide, transportation and sometimes even lunch thrown in. In fact, about the only thing not included in the bargain price was a pair of tweezers. These and a sense of humor, I discovered after being tricked into a patch of prickly pear by a bird that was not there, are definitely essential equipment on a Texas scaled-quail hunt.