By Tom CarpenterPhotos by Anna Swerczek
It takes both science and art to figure out what you’re going to call a covey of quail
To know the general whereabouts of a covey of bobwhite quail is like having a coin of pure gold in your pocket.
Actually, I take that back: For me, anyway, having the quail covey in my proverbial back pocket is better.
I wouldn’t give you a gold coin for the location of one of your coveys; the dog and I can (and prefer to) find our own, thank you. But as I wouldn’t offer a gold coin for one of your coveys, I wouldn’t take an ounce of pure bullion to give away one of “mine.”
You see, public land birds — especially when you live a good workday’s drive from good quail country — come only through the investment of meaningful miles and time in terms of driving to get there, walking for hunter and running for dog.
And besides: All my coveys are out there for you find too. I’m just not going to let it slip where they live.
I wasn’t always so smart, so tight-lipped, so evasive.
Growing up on the northern fringe of quail range in the hill and dairy farm country of southwestern Wisconsin, we had a few birds when there were still Holsteins and pastures and fencelines and oat fields and wild hay and fallow-weedy meadows and small family farms in the hollows.
Having read the works of Ruark and Babcock and Buckingham, I started to give my hard-won coveys names. Here are the names of three coveys I had in my teens: Dairy Lane, Windmill and Ullom School.
Names like those, and others, still roll off my tongue and put a pensive hollow in my guts when I think back to those days. But I still regret naming the last one what I did.
You see, when you grow up in a time and a town where shotguns rode to school in backseats and pickup racks, and boys, me among them, hunted before school, or for that precious hour between school’s-out and football practice, or both, I should have known better.
I must have let that Ullom School name slip because a covey that had once been 20 birds inhabiting the section surrounding a long-abandoned one-room schoolhouse seven miles west of town quickly diminished to unhuntable numbers.
Although the culprit never admitted it, I still think I know who it was. And I still don’t like him.
There started the science part of naming a covey: Never name a covey after a location or landmark or landowner or any geographically identifiable place or object. That way, that if the name slips in conversation, you aren’t going to give it away.
For example, last winter I initially named two coveys in Kansas after the town near which I found them — we’ll call them Kansastown l and Kansastown II — on onX. Old dogs may not be good at learning new tricks, but they never forget old ones: I changed the names forthwith, as my junior high English teacher used to say.
And that brings us to the art part of naming a covey.
Art is never as black-and-white as science. But as with most things in my life, or maybe it’s just all my brain can handle, I just try to keep things simple: The best you can do is give a covey a name that means something to you but wouldn’t for anybody else.
For example, I can tell you a about a few of my coveys right now and still sleep tonight.
The almost-misnamed Kansastown coveys are now the Hypothermia Covey (the dog and I got soaked and chilled to the marrow the day we found them while trudging out from a January sleet storm) and the Highway Covey (aptly named because they were first found in a plum thicket just the other side of the borrow ditch of a U.S. or state or county highway — or maybe it was a township road — which shall never have a number or name ascribed to it and may have been tar or could have even been gravel).
Some other Kansas coveys are epitomes of both the science and art of naming a covey. There’s the Coralberry Covey (named for the preponderance of this delightful and handsome little prairie shrub in the covert where Lark found them), the Sumac Covey (another shrub beloved by quail) and the Berm Covey (notably vague but descriptive enough for me to smell the bluestem).
To keep going down the Great Plains, there’s Nebraska too: Cedar Patch, Lost Pivot and East Basin, for example, all mean something to me but not much for anybody else.
The Cedar Patch birds were holed up there in a blizzard (do you get the sense I do most of my quail hunting at the end of the season?), the Lost Pivot group first flushed from below the last section of a long-abandoned irrigation pivot in CRP field, and East Basin is cryptic enough.
A little closer to home in Iowa’s bottom tier of counties, where the dog and I can hunt quail the same day we drive, there’s the Home Covey (decrepit farmstead), Sprig’s Covey (the hunting partner’s dog that found them), and the Bad Name Creek Covey (I used some very bad language while careening down and climbing up its frozen, rock-hard banks several times while we worked a covey).
I still miss those halcyon days when I had coveys of quail a short drive down the road, though. Birds ebbed and flowed with the habitat and the winters, but mostly ebbed once the small dairies died, big-clean grainfields took over and timber encroached while the occasional killer winter made its inevitable roar.
Farther south, quail still fly and I still name coveys, using both science and art to keep our treasures secret: Only the dog and I know, and she isn’t talking.
Tom Carpenter is editor at Pheasants Forever when he isn’t dreaming about quail or hunting them with his little dog Lark.
This story originally appeared in the 2022 Winter Issue of the Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Quail Forever member today!