During his formative years, Don Dubuc would use a rough-hewn knife to sharpen a spear and go into the woods behind his house to hunt triceratops.
He would look for recently downed trees and kick the branches, hoping an armor-plated beast would jump up, exposing its soft underbelly. When he had success, Dubuc would feed his entire neighborhood for months.
Actually, none of that’s true. Dubuc isn’t quite that old.
But Dubuc did, in fact, cut his teeth hunting an animal that is nearly as extinct — wild quail.
Back in the days when every farm had “dirty” fencerows and every rural resident had a backyard garden, wild quail bordered on being nuisances. They were thicker than flies at a landfill, and could arguably have been classified as crop depredators.
But their sweet calls to one another and their regal crowns gave them an endearing quality that made most farmers overlook their thievery. And it probably didn’t hurt that quail would transform the beans, peas and corn they stole into meat more delicious than anything ever handled by Ruth Fertel.
So up until just a handful of decades ago, every rural resident had a pointer or two, and spent every spare 15 minutes working the fencerows and garden edges for that night’s dinner.
Dubuc was one of them. Having spent nearly all of his adult life in the piney woods of St. Tammany Parish, Dubuc would take a dog into the savannah behind his house and jump up multiple coveys of quail.
Those were the days.
Unfortunately, however, a lot can change in three decades, and certainly a lot has. Efficient farming practices have virtually eliminated the spillage of grains that quail depended on to survive the winter months. Also, land use has been maximized. Those “dirty” fencerows are now clean and many are, in fact, used as actual cropland, leaving the ground-oriented quail nowhere to hide from the many predators that think they taste as good as we do.
Those that do survive and attempt to nest often find their eggs or young chicks devoured by invasive fire ants.
For wild quail, it’s all been a perfect storm of calamity, and the impact has been acute here in the Bayou State. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, quail populations in Louisiana have declined 75 percent since 1966.
On the northshore, that’s mostly because the pine habitat has undergone a radical transformation in just a few decades, Dubuc said. During his early quail-hunting days, most of the landscape was pine savannah — tall, towering, scattered pine trees with thin underbrush that provided plenty of ground cover for predator-fleeing quail.