Quail Quarry

Donnie Whitehead, 78, set a bird in cover alongside his brother Jim, 72, for a paid hunt on their property, Cane Creek Shooting Preserve, in Otwell on Feb. 2. The preserve, which sits on the farm where they raise primarily soybeans and grain, has been in their family since the 1870s. Donnie and Jim used to hunt for wild quail with their father on the land. With wild quail gone from the area, however, people use preserves like Cane Creek. The brothers started the preserve 15 years ago, breeding, raising and selling quail for sportsmen to purchase and then hunt for on the 80-acre preserve.


Story by Alexandra Sondeen
Photos by Matthew Busch

Donnie Whitehead stood peacefully inside a dusty barn last week, listening to the contented sounds of about 1,800 quail enjoying their dinner. Their never-ending low chatter was frequently punctuated by the classic bobwhite call, a short whistle followed by a louder whistle a full octave higher.

“I like to listen to them,” the 78-year-old said, a small smile on his face.

About 200 breeder quail ran around in their cage as Donnie poured feed into a trough for them inside their holding pen Jan. 17. The brothers raise about 7,000 quail each year on the farm that are kept for hunting or sold to other hunting preserves nearby.

Donnie and his 72-year-old brother, Jim, still live on the 400-acre farm in Otwell that’s been in the family since the 1870s. Jim and his wife, Loretta, live in the main farmhouse and Donnie and his wife, Joann, live in the next house up the road. The brothers have been raising quail since the 1970s.

“It keeps us young,” Jim said.

For the last 15 years or so, the brothers have shared their love for the little game birds by establishing the Cane Creek Shooting Preserve on the farm. Three 45-acre fields are dedicated to hunting.

When the pair was growing up, wild quail were plentiful. Jim wasn’t much of a hunter, but Donnie and their father, Clarence, hunted quail as frequently as possible.

“If we had our work done, my dad and I went hunting every day.” Donnie said. “We could find 12 to 15 coveys a day and we tried to get two birds apiece out of each covey. Hunters today, if they find three or four (coveys) they’re tickled to death.”

Wild quail are hard to come by in southern Indiana nowadays. The ground-dwelling birds depend on a specific habitat to provide cover from the area’s many predators. Various land uses, like those for agricultural activities and development, have compromised that habitat, according to Bob Montgomery, a wildlife biologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. As a result, quail hunters have been limited mostly to shooting preserves if they want to be sure to bag a few birds.

The brothers hatch about 65,000 quail a year from up to 2,200 breeder birds. They have hatched as many as 104,000 birds in the past. Day-old chicks hatched before July are sold to other preserves. The brothers will raise about 7,000 quail themselves, about half to sell as older birds with the second half to be used for the shooting preserve.

In June, the brothers purchase and hatch about 500 pheasant eggs and about 700 partridge eggs. Those birds also are used for the preserve.

Donnie feeds the birds twice a day while Jim takes care of other tasks on the farm, like planting and harvesting soybeans. They rarely miss their daily trips to Circle A Food Mart in Otwell for coffee, ice cream or some other treat and to visit with friends.

Ferdinand bird dog trainer Gary Altman, left, led Donnie’s bird dog Bill as he carried a dead quail for practice as Donnie inspected his progress Feb. 6. The Whiteheads usually keep five bird dogs at the preserve for hunters who come to the preserve without their own or to sell after they’ve been trained. Bird dogs are taught to point birds after they’ve sniffed them out and then to retrieve them after they’ve been shot.

After a killing frost, usually in mid-October, the hunting begins.

“That’s when the hunting gets good,” Jim said. “It cools off and the dogs can smell better.”

Alex Wigand of Jasper, 13, turned to fire at a quail that flew up from cover during the annual Wes Settle Patoka Hills Quail Youth Hunt at Cane Creek on Feb. 9. The hunting preserve has four fields to hunt on, consisting primarily of strips of crop fields that were harvested in the fall.

Hunters pay per bird, which are set in rows of thigh-high stalks from harvested crops. The brothers run morning and afternoon hunts every day but Sunday until they run out of birds, typically in March. Last week, Donnie estimated they had 50 to 75 birds remaining.

Jim typically sets the birds for each hunting group, though Donnie will help if needed. While quail and partridges are relatively unceremoniously tossed into cover from an all-terrain vehicle, pheasants require more extensive handling.

“You tuck their head under their wing and pull their legs out straight behind them and hold them for a little while,” Jim said. “That puts them to sleep. If you don’t do that, they’ll be gone before the hunters get there.”

Whereas quail and partridges typically hunker down in the area they are set in and stay in place until they are flushed out, pheasants will quickly wander off.

“That’s a problem with pheasants,” Donnie said. “You may put six out there and they only get five. That other one’s gone.”

The brothers must report to the state how many birds of each kind are released and how many are harvested. Donnie takes care of that paperwork.

Hunters check in and pay for their birds at a cabin the brothers built in 2002 with their older brother, Bill, who died in 2011. The brothers and hunters frequently chat over a cardboard tray of peanuts on a small table, shelling and munching the snack as the conversation continues.

“We get a lot of good people that come out here,” Jim said.

Hunters generally come from the region, but out-of-staters visiting family aren’t uncommon. The brothers once hosted a couple of men from Saudi Arabia who were visiting a family member in Terre Haute and decided to swing by Cane Creek for a hunt.

Most hunters bring their own bird dogs, but the brothers have four trained dogs that can be rented.
Two more are in training. For inexperienced hunters, guides will stay with them in the field.

Jim, right, handled a BB gun owned by Donnie’s grandson as they waited for hunters to arrive at the cabin on the hunting preserve Feb. 2 for a morning hunt. The brothers built the cabin in 2002 with the help of their brother Bill, who died in 2011. Hunters have the option of staying overnight in the cabin for an extended hunting experience.

On Feb. 9, Dubois County Quail Unlimited descended on Cane Creek for its 17th annual Wes Settle Patoka Hills Youth Hunt. The group brings a food trailer and all-terrain vehicles, sets up a bonfire and takes area youth out into the fields. This year, about 20 young hunters attended and Donnie and Jim took turns launching clay pigeons over the pond by the cabin for the youth waiting their chance to hunt.

Donnie, left, and brother Jim sat and talked with each other as they took their daily coffee break at the Circle A Food Mart in Otwell on Jan. 25. The brothers go to the store every weekday to socialize with each other and with other area farmers.

“This is our second year doing this here,” said Randy Stemle of Jasper, the secretary of Quail Unlimited and the man in charge of the hunt. “It’s a nice place.”

Donnie and Jim take advantage of the fire and a free hot lunch from the group. They bring out additional quail to be set as the day wears on and watch as the youngsters clean their catches.

“They’re just good guys,” Stemle said about the brothers. “They’re pretty relaxed about the whole thing and kind of let us take over.”

For now, the brothers have hit a slow period as the number of birds dwindles. They’ll have a short break before they begin collecting quail eggs April 6. The first round of eggs will be put into the incubators April 20 and the first batches of quail should hatch in May.

Donnie and Jim enjoy the birds, the work and the farm life too much to quit while they’re still able to get around.

“We’ll keep doing it until we can’t get out of the house,” Jim said.

Contact Alexandra Sondeen at asondeen@dcherald.com.

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