Colinus virginianus, better known to Mississippians as the bobwhite quail, has long been regarded among the most popular game birds of the eastern United States. Hailing from the family Odontophoridae, the eastern bobwhite quail occupies an important role in Mississippi’s social, cultural, and environmental history.
The bobwhite quail is a farm bird that flourishes in early successional habitat—the mix of vegetation that grows just after soil disturbances in heavily worked landscapes. Field edges, hedgerows, old fields, and open woodlands—all central ecological components of Mississippi’s agricultural landscape before World War II—offered the birds plentiful food and effective cover from predators, thus making ideal quail ground. Quail were undoubtedly widespread across Mississippi during the antebellum era, but the negotiation of tenantry and sharecropping after the Civil War led to an exponential increase in quail populations throughout the South. As sharecroppers spread across the countryside in the late nineteenth century, a new spatial mosaic created a fragmentary landscape that greatly increased quail habitat. In addition, the annual southern custom of using fire to clear forests of dense undergrowth maintained ground cover that was perfect for both quail and quail hunting. Around the same time, breech-loading shotguns and new hunting dog breeds made shooting quail a more practical endeavor. As a result, Mississippi and the South became a national center for game bird hunting. Northern hunters filled the southern countryside during the winter and by the turn of the twentieth century created a highly stylized hunt with accoutrements such as hunting wagons, specially groomed horses, and a bevy of dog handlers and servants attending to every need.
Southerners themselves, however, were more likely to hit the fields and woods on foot with at most one or two dogs. Mississippians tended to engage the bobwhite quail in two distinct ways during the first half of the twentieth century. For rural dwellers struggling to make a living from the land, quail supplemented incomes and diets. Tenants and small landowners shot or trapped quail, eating some themselves and selling others in urban markets. Some even found a good meal during the late spring by raiding quail nests for eggs. Beyond household or market use, Mississippians also found good sport in quail hunting. Many in the landowning classes took to boasting about their land’s quail production, and a large bag at the end of the day was a source of significant pride. Statewide bag limits in the early 1930s reined in some of the revelry, but enforcement was weak early on, and locals continued to hunt for many years despite state conservation laws.
The heavy hunting pressure in the first half of the twentieth century did not do in the bobwhite quail, however. Rather, New Deal farm programs and the increasing mechanization of southern agriculture after World War II brought about substantial agricultural change. Tenants and sharecroppers left the land, fields grew in size, modern methods of cultivation encouraged farmers to till fields clean and plow up hedgerows, and bobwhite quail populations declined accordingly. Quail, then, are no longer a byproduct of agricultural production; the few places in Mississippi with shootable numbers of wild quail today are those managed specifically for the bird. Nonetheless, the bobwhite quail remains an important symbol of Mississippi’s agrarian past.
- Jack Temple Kirby, Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920–1960 (1987)
- Stuart Marks, Southern Hunting in Black and White: Nature, History, and Rituals in a Carolina Community (1991)
- Wiley Prewitt, “The Best of All Breathing: Hunting and Environmental Change in Mississippi, 1890–1980” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1991)