Quail in War and Peace


“Levitan the painter and I went out to the woodcock mating are yesterday evening. He fired at a woodcock and the bird, wounded in the wing, fell in a puddle. I picked it up. It had a long beak, large black eyes, and magnificent plumage. It looked at us in wonder. What were we to do with it? Levitan closed his eyes and begged me, “Please, smash its head in with the rifle.” I said I couldn’t. Levitan kept twitching his head and begging me. And the woodcock kept looking on in wonder. I had to obey Levitan and kill it. And then two idiots went home and sat down to dinner leaving one less beautiful, adored creature in the world.”

Anton Chekhov in a Letter to his friend Suvorin, April 8, 1892.

Perhaps Cheney should have whacked Whittington’s skull in as the wounded lawyer looked up at him in wonder, while the covey of bobwhite quail rejoiced at the happy chance of Mr Whittington’s head and upper chest intercepting the vice president’s salvo from his 28-gauge shotgun.

Even so, the bobwhite and scaled quail have little to cheer about these days. Quality-of-life indicators for the bird have been on a steady downward tangent ever since the late nineteenth century.

When the early settlers came, quail were abundant, flourishing where natural grasslands were interspersed with forests. Indian burn policies helped too. By the mid nineteenth century you could buy a dozen quail for 25 cents. A single hunter could kill a hundred, even two hundred in a day, sometimes in a single haul if he used nets.

Fields in those days weren’t “clean farmed”, and the topsoil was so rich that quail could forage from an extravagant menu of weeds, grasses and crops. Progress, as so often, spelled doom for creatures caught in its path, not least the quail which require very specific habitat in which to flourish, or even survive: nesting and screening cover, bushy overhead to stop the hawks, yet open at ground level for spotting terrestial marauders. Quail literally live on the edge, where different kinds of cover come together. As Frank Edminster puts it in his `1954 classic American Game Birds of Field and Forest,this relationship of convenience in types of cover is absolutely necessary, “for the quail must feed, rest, roost, dust-bathe, nest, court, escape enemies and avoid heat, cold and wind to a considerable extent concurrently.”

Cheney is never far from his ambulance and in similar style the quail follows the so-called Huggins 50:50 Rule which, in the words of the Texas-based Quail Technical Support Committee “provides guidance on the proper amount and distribution of woody cover: ‘A bobwhite should never be more than 50 yards from a clump of brush 50 feet in diameter.'” Another rule of thumb, advises Quail Tech Support, “holds that you should be able to throw a softball from one covert to the next.”

Quail parenting is a demanding business. As Edminster describes it,

“Discipline of the chicks is strict; a continual ‘conversation’ of low clucks and cheeps goes on, but when a parent gives the danger call every youngster freezes in its tracks. If the threat materializes in an attack, the old birds try to draw the intruder away from the young ones by pretending injury. After the danger is past, the gathering call is sounded and the family quickly reassembles and goes about its usual activity.”

The bobwhite lives “a rather grim existence”, Edminster concluded in the early 1950s and the past half century hasn’t changed the story. Ironically, similar decline in the habitat of a larger and often less alluring species, Homo latifundicus Texanicus, the owners of vast Texan ranches, may offer the bobwhite a modest reprieve.

As Mary Lee Grant outlined it in a very interesting piece in Corpus Christi’s Caller-Times, cattle ranching on these big spreads is not nearly as profitable as leasing them to hunters. Grant cites the Texas Department of Agriculture as saying that hunting brings about $1 billion annually to ranches across the state, and out of 200,000 farms and ranches statewide, 40,000 have leased their land to hunters.

Fred Bryant, director of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Institute in Kingsville told Grant, the cattle and oil markets are “played out” and “hunting is the only stable income many ranchers can rely on. As the old ranch families grow and the pyramid of heirs expand, there are more people to support and they don’t know how they are going to do it – to keep heirs in the lifestyle to which they are accustomed.”

So the bobwhites have not only their own broods to worry about but the well-being of vast coveys of Texan human trustfunders, scanning the skies for swooping taxmen and looking for safe habitat with decent carrying capacity. Quail habitat is minimally improving, as the ranch managers try to adapt the terrain from the needs of longhorns to quail and the other targets of Cheney and his fellow hunters.

Out here in California, the California quail has it pretty good, to judge by the two or three coveys which scuttle out of my way as I make the two-mile drive to the Petrolia store. A few years ago I shot one, and just like Chekhov felt bad about it as I gazed at the quail cock’s once jaunty crest. Since then I just like to look at them.

Bush should publicly invoke the California quails’ family values. The birds are monogamous when paired, though as so often there are limits to the male’s faithfulness, as evidenced by an observation
of Sumner in 1935 on two pairs of birds in a large pen enclosing natural cover:

“The reproductive cycles of the blue [refers to leg bands] pair coincided, whereas those of the red pair evidently did not, as shown by the fact that the red female refused for about a week to allow her mate to copulate (although they later reared a brood of young). Balked in this direction, the red male tried repeatedly during the week to copulate with the blue female whenever both pairs came out of the brush to feed together at twilight. In every instance observed, the blue female refused to accept his attentions, although she received theadvances of her own mate, while the blue male was evidently aroused to anger (the word is used after due consideration) by these attempts on his mate’.”

A few years ago you could buy a nice postage stamp of a quail, part of a US Post Office series featuring endangered species, though the status of the stamps’ subjects wasn’t announced anywhere on the stamp, the
Postal Service obviously having been cowed by the hunters’ lobby. They’re hard to find now. Cheney probably had the series withdrawn.
Fall of the House of Mohu

Here’s a question for you. Which scion of which well-known newspaper dynasty assembled a squadron of bulldozers in May of 2005, mounted the lead bulldozer and led this rumbling squadron into a ferocious assault on the house his mother left him on her death in 2001? When it was over, a house which had seen visits from President William Jefferson Clinton and First Lady Nancy Reagan lay in splinters and rubble.

Mohu? It was the name of Katharine Graham’s large house, which roosted on over 235 acres on Lambert’s Cove Road on the north shore of Martha’s Vineyard. When the chairman of the Washington Post company died in 2001 she willed it to her second son, Billy. A couple of years ago Billy got in an increasingly acrimonious series of battles with the local township of West Tisbury at the property taxes he had to pay each year, challenging his assessments from fiscal years 2003 and 2004, when he paid the town more than a half-million dollars in property taxes. The fight matured into the longest tax-appeal case in the history of the Commonwealth.

Early last year the owner of Mohu evidently felt the need to express his feelings of profound loathing for for whom? Start, obviously, with the tax assessors. End, maybe, with the person who hung the curse of Mohu round his neck. Take in also the people who used to run over from their nearby homes to use Mohu’s tennis court. In fact the very first bit of real property on the estate Billy’s bulldozer scraped into oblivion was indeed that same tennis court. Then it was the house’s turn.

To me the oddest thing about this piece of demolition is that it happened in early May of 2005. Here we are at the end of February, 2006, and there’s barely been a whisper, beyond a tiny reference to Mohu having been demolished, in the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. Did all interest in the Graham publishing clan die with Katharine?

It’s certainly seems that way. I checked last year to see how many articles there’d been about the role in the Washington Post’s editorial policy being played by her oldest son, Donnie. He’s the one who got the paper. Month after month, as the Washington Post ran one pro-war story and editorial after another, I kept waiting for one of those insiderish stories to appear in Vanity Fair or some kindred publication about Donnie pushing the Post into a hard pro-war stance. Nothing.

Then the second son grinds Mohu, a place his mother loved, into the dirt. Nothing. Wouldn’t you have thought it was a natural for some Vanity Fair feature writer? Is the shadow of the Graham family that long? Somehow the whole bizarre episode makes me think of James Cagney at the end of White Heat, on the blazing gasometer, screaming “Top of the world, Ma.”
Manners Maketh Muslim?

From: “Mark Frederic” <mark_frederic@lycos.com>
Date: February 15, 2006 4:12:29 AM PST
To: ” ALEXANDER COCKBURN” <accockburn@asis.com>
Subject: Muslim manners

“Hello, the stuff you wrote about the Danes was interesting. I have to wonder, though, how useful is it? Back when I went to university in the 1980s, those people who in a class discussion came dangerously close to being “ethnocentric,” or worse, “Eurocentric,” were quickly reminded that other countries had achieved something as well. For instance, “What about the Arabs? They invented the zero. Where would we be without the zero?” True, though delving back to the early part of the last millennium, or further, probably isn’t the best way to bolster or condemn nations.

“As this whole cartoon uproar suggests, Muslims do have something to teach Europe and America about manners. A friend of mine just married a Turkish woman and now lives in Turkey. When I asked him if he wanted to go back to the UK, he said he didn’t miss the place a bit because of the rudeness, such as people on the street asking “what are you looking at?” The states are the same. Last summer, back in the US from Istanbul, when I heard someone shouting on the street, I turned to look and was told, “don’t look at me white man, or I will hit you.”

“In Turkey, it’s different. People leave you alone. Sure there’s crime and noisy people, but I haven’t met anyone in Istanbul who has had to move because their neighbors wouldn’t turn down their music. Once a roommate of mine here started vacuuming at 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday and a moment later a neighbor came by to tell the foreigner politely not wake up the building.

“Throughout Turkey, people manage to live together in close quarters; there is a set of unwritten rules about what to say or do that makes that possible. There lots of people are able to live together without creating gated communities.

“As Theodore Dalrymple writes in last week’s Spectator,” I have read some of the criticisms by Muslims of Western society, and many of them seem to me to be justified. The lack of public dignity, the licence, the open and triumphant vulgarity are indeed deeply unattractive, as any real conservative would surely understand, but our Conservative party is too cowardly ever to admit as much. It is scarcely any wonder that Muslim commentators see Western freedom as little more than a desire to incontinently enjoy ourselves in ever more gross and sensational ways: a desire that is self-defeating and leads to a great deal of misery, as well as social breakdown.”

“Such criticism from a Red state Christian would be the stuff of a Tonight Show monologue but maybe there’s enough political correctness in us to accept the same criticism from Muslims. Listening to them would be healthy. After all, as Nietzsche wrote, one way to a Christian virtue is by learning from your enemy and thus being grateful to him.”

Thank you, Mark Frederick. In that same item about the Danes, I said that Alexander Hamilton was born in St Croix, once a Danish colony. Not so. He was born on Nevis, although he first made a name for himself with a description of a hurricane savaging St Croix. Another reader pointed out that among the troops defending Berlin in Hitler’s last days, there was a substantial force of Danes. And since I’m cleaning house, I got it the wrong way round with Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. It was Morales who gave Chavez the portrait of Bolivar done in coca leaves.

Footnote: A slightly shorter version of the first item ran in the print edition of The Nation that went to press last week.


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Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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