Time is running short this year for people who like to kill one of our state symbols. The 2016-17 quail season ends soon—January 15, Sunday. The legislature declared the Bobwhite Quail our official state game bird in 2007. We watched the debates that resulted from a project to teach elementary school students how the legislature works by getting the legislature to establish a new state symbol. But none of the debaters mentioned the greatest tribute ever paid on the Senate floor to the quail.
The speech also has some historical threads that involve one of the unique gubernatorial elections in state history, a scandal, and creation of an important state agency. When you’ve finished reading the tribute to the quail we’ll tell you the additional history that goes with it.
State Senator Francis M. Wilson, an avid quail hunter from Platte County, stood in the Senate March 7, 1911 to support his bill preventing the killing of quail until December, 1914 because the bird numbers had dropped so much. He argued that the prairie chicken and the wild turkey had almost been exterminated in Missouri and quail were on the verge. He said the state game and fish warden was trying to stock the state with Hungarian Partridges, which look like quail. He said those birds plus the rapid multiplication of protected quail would be a service to farmers and would become numerous enough to allow quail hunting to resume. Observers said he convinced a previously hostile senate to pass the bill. His colleagues were so impressed that Wilson was asked to reduce his remarks to writing so they could be printed in the Senate Journal. He spoke off the cuff but wrote down his recollections of what he said. If you’re an avid quail hunter, you might find this century-old tribute to the official state game bird of some interest. If you’re not, we invite you to look at an example of what was then called “spread-eagle oratory.” Yes, we note the juxtaposition of eagle and quail.
The quail is among the most ancient of game birds. In some form, differing in habits and appearance, either gay with the plumage of sunny climes, or grave with the subdued colors of cheerless landscapes, it has been found throughout the world.
If we search for its origin it is obscured in the mists of antiquity. The Bible tells us of the Almighty furnishing this toothsome bird to nourish and strengthen the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness. In all ages it has given the historian his brightest glimpse of bird life, and the poet inspiration for his sweetest song. The name given this royal bird differs with the locality and folk-lore of the people, but throughout the eastern states, from the pineries of Maine to the flowery fields of Florida and westward to the foothills of the mountains, it is known as “Bob White”—the true name adopted by all ornithologists. And so it is for the protection and preservation of this messenger of civilization, proud aristocrat of farm and field and orchard that I press this measure upon the Senate. Senators from favored sections of the State, where these birds are fairly plentiful, argue that to enact such a law would be unjust to their constituents. In this I find no comfort for them, but on the contrary one of the strongest arguments favoring the passage of the bill. History repeats itself. Within the memory of many of my distinguished colleagues, the princely domain which I represent was indeed a “hunters’ paradise.” Deer broke covert from every brake; wild pigeons clouded the sun as vast flocks passed from feeding to roosting places; wild turkeys in almost countless numbers were everywhere; prairie chickens abode with us in contentment; wild geese—harbingers of coming fall and spring—covered the sandbars of our rivers, or on mighty wing rushed through the air, but,
“There is a Power whose care Teaches thy way along that pathless coast, The desert and illimitable air, Lone wandering, but not lost.”
But how sad the change. How sorrowful the retrospect. In secluded places, scattered far and wide over a limited section of our State, the deer are making their last gallant stand; wild pigeons live only in the glorious traditions of our great Commonwealth; the prairie chicken is now rara avis, and the wild goose calls in alarm his scattered few, as high above its would-be murderers, they cleave the blue of kindly skies as they hasten to the few asylums in the far away Southland, or in the frozen regions of the north. It has been given to me to witness the almost incredible destruction of this valuable game—not at the hands of true sportsmen, for they have long waged unequal battle to stay the wholesale and inexcusable slaughter—but to satisfy the inordinate greed of the “game hog,” and his foster brother, the “pot-hunter,” who slew and still slay merely that they may boast of their prowess with the gun, and to furnish a precarious living for the market hunter who stains himself with the butchery of these gentle creatures our Creator gave as a blessing. Senators, what is true of my section of the State will be in a few years the sad story you will have to tell of man’s inhumanity to game life. It will then be everlastingly too late to repine. “The moving finger writes; and having writ, moves on; nor all your piety, nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out a word of it.”
What a splendid fight Bob White is making against the combined hosts of his enemies, and what a fine battle the farmers of my district are waging to save him from extinction. None know better than the farmer and the orchardist the incalculable benefit he is to field, garden and orchard. From “early morn ’till dewy eve,” bright of eye and swift of leg, the Bob Whites are busy with the destruction of noxious insects and weed pests. He is not regarded as a trespasser, but is entertained as a royal guest, whose stay we would have indefinitely prolonged. True, it has taken science a long time to discover what our agriculturists have always known about the value of this bird as his chief assistant among the feathered tribe, but it is now proclaiming its manifold virtues.
It is officially recorded that examination of many hundreds of the stomachs and crops of these birds disclose them crowded with the seeds of noxious and troublesome weeds, his diet for almost half the year. Upon this a Government report, says: “It is reasonable to suppose that in the states of Virginia and North Carolina from September 1 to April 30, there are four Bob Whites to each square mile of land, or 354,820 in the two states. The crop of each bird is filled twice a day and holds half an ounce of seed. Since at each of the two daily meals, weed seeds constitute at least half the contents of the crop, or one-fourth of an ounce, a half ounce daily is consumed by each bird. On this basis, the total amount of weed seeds consumed by Bob Whites from September 1 to April 30, in Virginia and North Carolina alone amounts to 1,341 tons.” May I inquire what the harvest of weeds would have been had each of these seeds produced? Does not this plead trumpet-tongued in his defense? But this is not all science teaches of the aid this bird is giving- those who toil that we may live. Where insects abound, Bob White plays no favorites in his labors of extermination. Alike he wars upon the chinch bug, the grasshopper, the potato bug, the cotton-boll-weevil, the codling moth and other devastating bugs of forest, field and orchard. In a letter to the Department of Agriculture, touching the voracious appetite of this bird for such pests, a gentleman from Kansas writes: “On opening the crop, we found about two tablespoonfuls of chinch bugs,” and when a further consultation of authorities disclose that this bug has cost the farmers at least 100 millions of dollars per year, you may well stand aghast at the formidable array of facts and figures—which admit of no dispute—that Bob White, above all his feather brothers, is entitled to the proud name of the Farmer’s Friend.
It is not alone as an assistant that this bird is so firmly fixed in the affections of the farmer. Incense to its many other virtues rise from countless happy homes all over the land. Rich in sentiment, with ear atune to nature’s symphonies, the farmer revels in the music Bob White contributes to the melody of the Almighty’s musicians. No bright tinted troubadour of the air, flashing here and there like a thing of light, his gorgeous breast almost bursting with rich excess of song, charms him from the seductive call of his best-loved bird friend. Spring has Come. Here and there the brown patches of earth again become the nursery of tender grasses and modest flowers, and all nature is yielding to the annual miracle which heals the scars on winter’s grave with the sweet assurance that we too shall live again. From afar, soft as the mellow tones of a flute, its sharp, staccato whistle, changed by the witchery of the season into the coy notes of love’s first story, comes Bob White! Ah! Bob White. Again the music of his soul changes. The shy wooer of the demure little lady nearby, becomes bold as a knight errant, and as his ardor and jealousy keep pace, from stump, or rail or broken thicket branch or wherever her eyes, kindling with the fires of coming allegiance will fall upon his knightly bearing, or ears hear his ardent protestations, again the call, but now the ringing challenge of the mail-clad warrior ready to do battle in the lists for his lady love. The theater of his song changes again with the coming of June, life’s time of thrift. The earth riots in the blazonry of bloom. The covenants of spring have been redeemed and summer sings of the fatness of field and vine in the coming autumn. While the dew is yet wet on the green of the leaves and gold of the flowers, Bob White banishes sleep with his insistent call, Wheat’s ripe! Wheat’s ripe! His faithful mate is not far. In some neglected spot, where security is found, she is busy with the duties of maternity and again his chuckling notes, All’s well! All’s well! as from “The orchard, the meadow, the deep tangled wild-wood” he gives full throated utterance of his ecstatic joy. What is more charming to the ear than the music of the quail, wafted from wheat shocks as the rays of the rising sun turn from orange to gold the “beauty of the valleys and the glory of the hills?” It surpasses the ripple of the brook, which poets say is nature’s grandest melody. The tenderest memories of my boyhood days are linked with hazy summer, when the air was freighted with the perfume of flowers, fruits and berries and the cheery whistle of Bob White rang through the old orchard. Through the years come hymns of happy reapers, singing in seas of shimmering grain, the sound of bells, tinkling the way of homeward plodding herds, the voices of harvest toilers chanting the dirge of dying day and mingling with it all Bob White’s musical farewell as failing light slips down the cloud-isles of the sunset.
“Dies the day, and from afar away, Under the evening stars, Dies the echo as dies the day, Droops with the dew in the new-mown hay, Sinks and sleeps in the scent of the May, Dreamily, faint and far.”
Mr. President! I am a devotee of the rod and gun, and from the standpoint of a true sportsman—which I claim to be—my pulse always beats quick when I behold that seed time has passed, and the fruitage of the earth has come to its own. “Magnificent Autumn! He comes not like a pilgrim clad in russet weed; he comes not like a hermit clad in gray; but he come like a warrior with the stain of blood upon his brazen mail. His crimson scarf is rent His scarlet banner drips with gore.” The call “Bob White” is silent, but from stubble, pasture, tangled copse and corn fields, standing rank on rank like Huzzars in their uniforms of gold and silver, we hear his peculiar covey call. It falls upon the impatient ear of the sportsman with unmeasured delight. Tired of the grind of the busy mill of business, the weary sentinels of his brain give warning that it is only the wine of nature which quickens the sluggish blood, brings new light to careworn eyes, and paints the pallid cheek with the ruddy glow of health. As he fills his pockets with shells, his faithful dog leaps about him, eager to match his gift of nose with the cunning of this winsome bird. The east is crimsoning with the coming of a perfect day. The Frost King has scattered his jewels with lavish hand, and from bough and twig and stiffened blade of grass, like diamonds in the corona of Queens, they glow and flash with many colored fires as they herald the growing glory of the sun. Bob White is ready for gun and dog in the perfection of limb and wing, feeling assured that if these fail his mimicry of plumage with his surroundings may defeat the “tainted gale” as pointer or setter ranges far and wide o’er the scented heather in its search. But not so. There is a stiffening of the muscles; like an exquisitely carved statue, the dog “stands.” There is a whirr of wings and the air is full of smoke. Again the quest is taken up, and so through the hours of the too short day, over hill and plain—with few birds perhaps—but with renewed health and strength, the weary hunter turns homeward. The day is done. Lights appear as he draws near home. Loved ones run to meet him at the gate, their faces shining with expectant hope as they inquire, How are you! What luck! As he turns to enter man’s only asylum of perfect rest, there comes faintly the covey call again, as
“Shrill and shy from the dusk they cry, Faintly from over the hill; Out of the gray where shadows lie, Out of the gold where sheaves are high, Covey to covey, call and reply, Plaintively, shy and shrill.”
After this speech, which some felt equal to George Graham Vest’s “Eulogy on a Dog,” the Senate passed the bill but the House defeated it, assuring an uncertain future for the quail.
Now, here’s more of the story.
Francis M. Wilson, the son of a congressman, and known in his time as the Red-Headed Peckerwood from Platte County, was elected to the state senate in 1899 to fill a vacancy. He lost a race for Congress in 1904 but was elected back to the state senate in 1908 and was re-elected twice. He resigned from the senate to become the federal prosecuting attorney for the western district of Missouri, a position he held until 1920. He lost the Democratic nomination for governor in 1928 but with the strong support of Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast, won his primary in 1932 and seemed to be a lock to become governor. Truman biographer David McCullough calls him “a freckled, old-fashioned Missouri stump speaker who excelled at charming country crowds with his poetic tributes to the natural splendors of their beloved state.” He had suffered from bleeding ulcers for some time and one morning about three weeks before the election, he complained of feeling poorly and died a short time later. McCullough says that when someone suggested an undertaker be called, Mrs. Wilson refused to allow it until Pendergast was notified. When Pendergast arrived, he immediately asked the family if they favored someone to replace Wilson on the ticket. Guy B. Park, they said. “Who the hell is Guy Park?” asked Pendergast—in McCullough’s telling of the story. Four hours later, Pendergast called back and said it was okay to call a mortician. Guy B. Park had agreed to run. He was elected by a large margin and remained such a Pendergast ally that the Executive Mansion sometimes was called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Park appointed a new state Game and Fish Commissioner, Wilbur Buford, who noted at the end of his first year that there had been a complete turnover of employees, all patronage hires, a situation that was of increasing concern for Missouri outdoorsmen. Their concerns led to the formation of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, which promptly began circulating petitions to establish a state conservation department isolated from political patronage. Voters approved the plan in Park’s last year in office, a quarter-century after Wilson’s tribute, the same year they elected Lloyd C. Stark as the new governor.
Stark also had Pendergast support but turned on the Boss and started helping the federal prosecutors build a case against him and the state insurance superintendent who had conspired in a massive fraud case. Stark had another motive—to weaken Pendergast support for Senator Harry Truman because Stark wanted to run against Truman in 1940. In the summer of 1937, Stark appointed the first four conservation commissioners: Buford, Columbia businessman E. Sidney Stephens, State Planning Commission member Albert Greensfelder of St. Louis, and Missouri Ruralist editor John F. Case. Stephens, who father had headed the commission that supervised construction of the Capitol, became the first chairman of the new commission.
And with that, the quail that Francis M. Wilson so loved gained the guardian they needed and an agency that makes sure there can be quail seasons in Missouri.