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Royalty and Tobacco Spitters

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

The Eastern bluebird may be the official state bird, but the bobwhite quail is whistling shrilly in the background, demanding attention from those who should know better.

The quail hunters I grew up with in Chariton County raised a little tobacco, chewed their home-grown, wore overalls, had pointers whose ribs were apparent at 100 yards, carried automatic shotguns that needed improvement to be called "scruffy," could put three quail on the ground before I got the gun to my shoulder and owed a lifetime debt to King Charles II of England.

Why? Charles II seems an unlikely patron saint of quail hunters. He was fond of hunting, wine, women and song-not necessarily in that order. But he was England's first great birdshooter and turned what had been simple meat-gathering for the pot into a sport.

The French took up wingshooting long before my English forebearers did. Louis XIV of France (you may have sat in one of his chairs) was a wingshooting ace. He once killed 32 flying pheasants in 34 shots. Try that sometime (given Missouri's legal limit, it'll take you 16 days).

During Louis' time, the English, who gave us our wingshooting tradition, still were shooting birds on the ground. Charles fled from England to France in 1651 to avoid losing his head. There's only so much wine, women and song-even in France-so Charles turned to wingshooting.

He learned, possibly from Louis XIV himself, the joys of taking birds on the wing, and when he came back to the English throne in 1660, he brought along a birdshooter's mentality that spread to the nobility and, ultimately, to those pesky North American colonists.

The idea of shooting birds began with those who wanted to eat them. Kings pretty much had their choice of menu, so they didn't have to worry about supper. But the lowly serfs did. And they devised ways to trap birds that were inventive then and are illegal today. One was to pierce kernels of grain with horsehair which, when swallowed, would lodge in a pheasant's throat and choke it to death.

Netting birds also was widespread. There was no sport to it; this was work to gather food.

Birds, being fleet of reflex and wing, are tough to gather, but several cultures have managed without benefit of powder and shot. The Aleuts of Alaska used darts that they threw with notched boards, sometimes at birds, mostly at other game.

Australian bushmen used something called a

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