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Quail Forever takes flight in Colorado

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By Stephen Knapp

“The people asked, and He sent them quail ee”

— Psalm 105:40

It’s been a rough go for the quail lately. Once numbering more than 31 million from sea to shining sea, the U.S. quail population has plummeted to a discouraging 5.5 million during the last three decades.

Baby harp seals, black-footed ferrets, spotted owls, even the insipid Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, all have their champions. Who will stand up for the humble quail?

Larry Gysin will. On March 24, the longtime Evergreen resident was sworn in as president of the Colorado Covey of Quail Forever, a national organization dedicated to supporting the nation’s quail communities.

“Our main goal is to propagate their numbers by expanding and developing their habitat,” says Gysin, 68. “For every quail harvested by a hunter in Colorado, we want to replace it by two.”

Officially established in February, Quail Forever’s Colorado Covey currently boasts about 10 members from across the Front Range, including another Evergreen boy, treasurer Harlie Bacon. Since protecting and creating quail havens cost money, the group hopes to raise a few dollars at its first-ever banquet and silent auction this summer.

“One of the great things about Quail Forever is that every penny we raise stays with the local organization to use in our own area,” Gysin says. “And by improving Colorado’s quail habitat, we’ll be improving the health of our whole prairie ecosystem.”

Small, plump and bashful, quail have made themselves at home everywhere from Japan to Jordan to New Jersey. In Colorado, swift bobwhite quail range from the South Platte corridor to Walsenburg, pockets of blue quail can be found scattered about the Front Range and points east, and tough Gambel’s quail scratch out a living in the state’s arid western reaches.

The quail’s recent troubles can be attributed to the usual suspects — drought, unchecked predation and loss of habitat. While Quail Forever can’t make it rain, or keep federally protected raptors from stuffing themselves on incautious game birds, there are all sorts of things it can do to make Colorado prairies quail-friendlier.

By nature retiring, quail prefer wide-open spaces generously sprinkled with places to hide, like shrubs, cacti, moldering barns or, in a pinch, junked cars. Quail Forever’s first priority, then, is replacing the natural cover that’s been swept away by bulldozer and plow.

“We work mostly with landowners,” says Gysin, his desk surrounded by plaques commemorating past hunts, pictures of his hunting dog, Schotzi, and a stuffed flock of the quail’s flashier cousin, the pheasant. “We try to get farmers to leave a grassy verge around their fields, which makes a good refuge. We’ll also help them install ‘guzzlers,’ which basically provide a steady water source.”

And, come January, Gysin may take a cue from some of the 90-plus Quail Forever coveys currently working in 25 other states and begin collecting his neighbors’ superannuated Christmas trees.

“In some places they stack them up by the hundreds and anchor them with cement blocks. It’s perfect shelter for quail.”

So why does Gysin hold the mild-mannered quail in such warm regard? For the same reason the mighty Kodiak esteems the salmon.

“Fifty years ago, when I was at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, I used to take the frat dog, a standard poodle named Loof, out to the river bottoms and hunt quail,” he explains. “I’ve had the bug on and off ever since. It’s addicting. You start bird hunting, and pretty soon you’re all tied up with it.”

And filled up with it. Like all responsible hunters, Quail Forever’s members eat what they shoot, and scorching the plucked pigeon-size bird on a stick over an open fire just won’t cut it. Recipes like smoked Dijon quail, spiced honey and garlic quail, quail stroganoff and grilled paprika quail with beetroot sauce elevate both eater and eaten. Gysin’s wife, Merrily, on the other hand, has her own tried-and-true method for dealing with her husband’s catch.

“You need a minimum of two quail per person, and I usually breast them and put them in a crockpot with onions, wine, tarragon and mushroom soup,” says Merrily, reciting the formula casually from long practice. “They’re not very fatty, so you have to put in some moisture.”

And before you say it: No, they don’t taste like chicken.

“Quail doesn’t really have a distinctive flavor, which is why it’s better with a sauce,” Merrily instructs. “For instance, you could use quail in place of chicken in Coq au Vin. You’d need a lot of quail, but you could do it.”

Thanks to her husband and the Colorado Covey of Quail Forever, Merrily should have all the quail she needs.

To learn more about Quail Forever, visit www.quailforever.org.

“The song-birds leave us at summer’s close, only the empty nests are left behind, and the pipings of the quail among the sheaves.”

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow