By Vic Venters
he collapse of wild-bobwhite populations across the working landscape of the Southeast more than 30 years ago gutted the region’s authentic upland hunting heritage—and along with it the sporting literature that chronicled and celebrated it. It’s hard to foster a budding young Babcock or Ruark on an ersatz diet of pen-raised quail. While There Were Still Wild Birds: A Personal History of Southern Quail Hunting
, by Richard E. Rankin Jr., is one modern exception. The author’s initial goal was to write the history of his family’s quail club, in east-central South Carolina, during the final decades of wild-bird hunting, but he expanded the book’s scope to include histories of neighboring clubs and accounts of notable local hunters, memorable hunts, bird dogs and field trials, as well as a reasoned discussion on the causes of quail hunting’s near demise. Part anecdotal memoir, it is more than a compilation of well-told stories; Rankin conducted voluminous interviews and researched important primary and secondary written sources. The subject of one of the most fascinating chapters is Henry Hilton, an African-American guide and dog trainer whose story of growing up in the segregated South and working for white hunters during the era shines light on a rarely documented aspect of Southern bird hunting. Like the author, I’m a Carolinian who caught the tail end of wild-quail hunting, and on more than one occasion I choked back a tear reading of that we’ve lost.
While There Were Still Wild Birds is available for $28 from Mercer University Press.