Quail with Attitude
of yesteryear • Adventure Sport • Africa: The Good News • Book Reviews •
I’ve shot a lot of American quail. Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, North Carolina, and Florida are just a few states where I’ve hunted quail.
My hunting has been for a mixture of wild birds that flushed in coveys, or sometimes just singles and pairs. I’ve hunted pen-raised birds that had been stocked in the fields the day before a hunt. They held so well before flushing I had to boot them from the bush they were hiding under.
With all that experience I thought of myself as a fair quail shot and I could hold my own at The GunShop among the Middle Arkansas River Rottweiler Retriever and Boilermaker Drinkers Social Club members. Then I met the African buttonquail.
It must be one of the world’s smallest game birds; although Fred Clancey, author of Gamebirds of Southern Africa, calls the buttonquail a semi-gamebird and today it is only hunted on special permits from the appropriate African wildlife conservation office. The rewards of the experience of hunting these birds is worth the extra effort of getting the permits effort because ounce for ounce, I believe the buttonquail it’s one of the most exciting birds I’ve ever hunted.
Chris Steyn introduced me to the buttonquail on our second bird hunt. We had spent the day mixing the hunting of both birds and big game. I’d killed a trophy warthog earlier and about mid afternoon Chris collected me from the lodge and we went off in search of francolins. I’d shot two birds and we were on the way back to the ranch when we drove past a field where Rocco Gioia’s father had planted mango trees.
"There’s buttonquail in there," Chris said.
"Let’s hunt them." I said.
He sighed that peculiar sigh of his which I’ve come to understand is his way of expressing something akin to, "Thank God, he took the hint". We drove to one edge of the field and got out of the truck. I was carrying Chris’ Spanish double and before we started walking the field, I loaded the shotgun with Federal field loads of 7 1/2 shot.
"Be quick," Chris said. "They’ll come up right at your feet, and then be gone. You’ve got to shoot quick."
Another magnificent understatement by Chris. Before I discovered how much of an understatement, we had marched the entire length of the field and were walking back toward the truck when a small bird kicked on its afterburners and climbed out of the shin-deep grass. The bird flushed straight up, climbed to an altitude of two feet above the grass, rotated its wings and flew straight away in a blur. I got the gun up and pointed toward the bird when it suddenly turned its wings, stopping its forward flight and dropped into the grass. I didn’t even shoot. I wasn’t sure I’d seen it.
"I told you to be quick," Chris said.
"’Quick’ isn’t fast enough," I muttered.
My first African buttonquail beat me. I shot at the next one, and another. I missed them both. I was then sufficiently humbled. Chris must have felt it prudent to return to the lodge.
After my first humiliating attempt at hunting African buttonquail, I decided I’d better know a bit more about the birds. I asked Rocco if I could rummage through his extensive library to learn something about the birds. Rocco is one of those professional hunters who is always pleased when his clients show a little more interest in the game other than just killing it. He led me through his spacious home to the library.
"You should be able to find what you need here," Rocco said. He left me alone to learn about African game birds. After spending hours in the library, I was able to combine my limited hunting experience and newly absorbed reading material with the information I’d gleaned from Rocco’s and Chris’ discussions around the lodge braai. I was learning about the birds and fortunately, I had two excellent teachers. The 19th Century outdoor writer Henry Herbert believed that a good hunter should understand both the quarry and the means needed to get the game, so, to me, the time spent reading about hunting African game birds was time well spent.
I was surprised to learn there are three true quail species in southern Africa, in addition to the buttonquail which are of a different family. All of these birds have similar profiles but quail are from the order Galliformes and of the Phasianidae family. This includes the francolins whereas the Numididae family includes guinea fowl. A common trait of these bird families is that they are similar to domesticated fowl in appearance and are strong runners.
Sizes range from only a few ounces to two or three pounds (for the guinea fowl). They are all full-bodied, with strong wings and all are considered game birds. My nemesis, the buttonquail, is from the order Gruiformes which includes cranes, coots, rails, moorhens, and bustards. I found this initially confusing because the buttonquail prefer the grassy fields rather than the shoreline habitat where its cousins live. My frustration was building as I tried to gain some understanding of the birds, but Rocco patiently reminded me that no one ever said learning about the birds would be easy. I secretly suspected he was well aware of the habits of the various species.
I already knew the buttonquail to be small birds. In the skillet, they amount to as much meat as a sparrow so they’re seldom hunted to make a meal. However, I did manage to find a single reference by one 18th Century turn-of-the-century writer who shot enough of them for the pot. I suspect though, that a person planning a meal of these birds would probably get mighty hungry before having shot enough for even a toy skillet.
Hunting Buttonquail is frustrating. They hold very, very tight, waiting until the hunter is nearly on top of them before flushing. Every time I’ve hunted these birds, they’ve blasted from the grass seconds before I would have crushed then with my boot. I’m sure a competent bird dog would make hunting them less difficult, but on the occasions when I’d hunted them at Casketts Ranch there wasn’t a bird dog available. There is also another rather important consideration--snakes.
In Africa I’ve always made it a point to walk creating a lot of noise in the thick grass giving any resident snakes ample opportunity to find new quarters. A working dog wouldn’t be so considerate. Given conversations I’ve had with South African hunters who own working bird dogs the presence of venomous snakes is given considerable thought before sending any dogs into the field.
Being limited to hunting buttonquail without a dog may have kept Chris and me from kicking up more birds than we did. As I’ve pointed out, buttonquail hold tight, but they will flush when the hunter is right up on them.
Of all the birds I’ve ever hunted, however, the flush of these diminutive speedsters is the most distinctive and consistent of any game bird. The buttonquail launch themselves straight up out of the grass under the feet of the hunter—which is also a favored haunt of any one of southern Africa’s venomous snakes. The sudden and always surprising flush will take a few minutes off of your life. With each flush the time I recovered my wits and realized I’m not about to be nailed by a mamba the bird is dropping back into the grass.
The direction they take away from the hunter, however, is pot luck. Some birds will fly in the same direction the hunter is walking, or very nearly so, thus giving him some sort of a reasonable shot. Also, most game birds I’ve hunted try to gain a little altitude to feel secure and the hunter can see the bird above the horizon. Not the buttonquail. Every bird I kicked up exhibited the same flush. They rise from the grass until they’ve got at least two—but never more than five feet—clearance over the cover. They then accelerate straight away on any point on the compass, regardless of what direction the hunter was moving. I’ve shot at them in front of me, behind me, and to each side.
After the buttonquail have flushed, the game is generally up, or at least becomes more challenging! The birds will fly thirty to sixty yards and plummet to the ground. With a good tail wind they may fly as far as eighty yards before rotating their wings and stopping their forward flight. My luck has been the thirty yard flights. I tend to shoot holes in the air where the bird should have been. By the time I squeeze the trigger, the bird has dropped from the air and straight into the grass.
Of course the buttonquail hasn’t finished taunting the hunter. The minuscule tormentor has now set the stage for part two of the hunt. After their erratic descent into the veldt, the buttonquail run for several yards and hide! Without a dog to dig them out of the grass the birds are gone. Only once have I ever seen a buttonquail fly into a particular stand of grass that I could identify as the exact spot where the bird landed. I was actually able to walk to that spot and flush the bird a second time. Of course, I missed it then, too, but that isn’t the point—I have shot at the same bird—twice!
On our African bird hunt Doc Greenlee was anxious to have his own go at buttonquail and before leaving the states we spent several days in the mountains practicing shooting at our improvised version of buttonquail. We set up our Trius traps with the throwing arm parallel to the ground. Our thrower, usually another member of our Rottweiler Retriever Club, would throw the clay birds for us, as low to the ground as possible. Both of us got fairly good at hitting clay birds. The first day out for buttonquail Doc managed to drop two of the speedsters.
The small size of buttonquail is intriguing. The length of the bird is not much more than a shotgun shell although they are listed as having a length of 5 1/2 inches to 6 1/2 inches in official bird books. The official measurement is taken with the bird stretched out and is from bill tip to tail tip.
Their weight is even more surprising. The average adult is less than two ounces but what they lack in size they make up for in challenge. I have noticed that when the birds first flush, they often have their legs dangling so they resemble a stunted Wilson’s snipe, but their flight is much more direct—nothing like the darting motion of the snipe.
Buttonquail, the experts maintain, seem to breed throughout the year, but October to March is the peak breeding season so there is little risk of shooting a brooding pair during the safari season. Each pair produces a clutch of two to four eggs and the next generation can fly within ten days.
There are actually two species of buttonquail, the kurrichane, and the blackrumped buttonquail. The kurrichane is found throughout most of Southern Africa except the southwestern region. The blackrumped buttonquail is similar in size and has many of the same markings. Its distinguishing feature is its black rump clearly visible as it disappears in flight. The blackrumped buttonquail is found only in the more easterly region of southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and along the eastern rim of South Africa south to the Cape.
On my first buttonquail hunt I used Chris’ Spanish double. I was shooting Federal Field loads in 7 1/2 shot. Of course, I was thinking "typical quail." On my second hunt I carried my own Remington Wingmaster 28 gauge, also loaded it with 7 1/2 shot. When Doc and I hunted I carried my Remington Premier over/under 12 gauge.
Doc Greenlee was carrying a Browning Citori 12 gauge and he was shooting 8 shot. After he’d killed two quail he told me his theory for successfully hunting the tiny quail—"Be quick."—exactly what Chris had told me.
To heed their advice the next time I hunt Africa’s speedster quail I’ll carry my shotgun in a ready position more suited to the trap range than a field of grass. Maybe the split second I save will be enough to let me put a couple of buttonquail mounts on my bookshelf.
All content copyright The African Expedition Magazine.
No portion of this site or publication may be transmitted, stored or used without written permission.
All rights reserved.