We can’t control the rain, the birds, or the endless growth of cities, but we can be ready when the dogs slam to a stop and time stands still.
article and photography by Ron Dungan
from the August 2008 issue

The birds are in the hills. By mid-December, hunters have pounded the bottoms of these oak-covered slopes, looking for Mearn’s quail until the coveys get thin, spooked, and hard to find. So we walk the dry creeks, slipping into creases, following the land.

Rock shifts underfoot, brush tears at our legs, the dogs push ahead. A snow-covered mountain slides in and out of view, clouds swirling. Two birds flash from a hillside, sailing away untouched when Dave shoots, misses, curses.

We go higher, deeper, until doubt and fatigue creep in. Then the dogs go on point. Birds come to hand, beautiful birds that make their homes in broad canyons with many fingers.

It begins in the off-season. You scan the horizon for rain clouds, but the sky is empty, the land thirsty. The ground waits and grasses wither on the desert floor. But even the desert has its wet seasons, each with its mood, each bringing something to the land. Winter rains bring out wildflowers, waterfalls in the backcountry, thick grasses. And quail. Gambel’s quail in the canyons, the hills, the flats; quail everywhere.

We don’t see so many Gambel’s quail as we once did. Some say we haven’t had enough rain, that 12 years of drought have taken their toll. Some blame overgrazing. It could be both. It could be global warming. Or maybe that’s just the way it is in Arizona. We live in a desert, after all, a place where the land grows thirsty and then drinks deeply as floodwaters scour the canyons.

It has been this way for centuries. Summer rains bring a different set of plants and flowers. Down south, near the border with Mexico, where illegal immigrants march north and men in uniform try to stop them, summer rains bring out the Mearn’s quail.

Mearn's country.

Mearn’s country doesn’t look like the low Sonoran Desert. It’s higher ground, with oak and juniper hills, grasslands and vineyards. A few prickly pear cactus and mesquite trees grow in the bottoms, and agave leans on the hillsides. Mountains push up from the grassy floor.


Winter and summer rains. You watch the sky and make a mental note each time it turns gray and the land drinks. Last summer, after the winter rains didn’t fall, my thoughts turned south, where the Mearn’s live.

June burns hot, 110 degrees or more in stretches, weeks without clouds or respite. The rains came in July and kept coming. I remember a couple of nights when I opened a beer and sat on the porch to watch the storms. Water splashed on my skin. Once I picked up the phone to talk to a woman I know who lives a few miles away. Lightning flashed. Thunder rolled across the mountain. I heard it over the phone, then seconds later in the air around me. Water came down the wash behind my house. Low clouds covered the mountain, and palm trees leaned in the wind. I petted the dogs. I knew we would walk the southern canyons, knew that before the birds we would hunt were even born.

When bird season rolled around I practically ignored Gambel’s quail, taking the dogs out for a spin just once and then waiting until November, watching the calendar for the Mearn’s opener.

I drove south and found birds along the canyon floor, healthy coveys, about 15 birds flushing each time I stepped in on a point.

I’ve been told the Forest Service has done a good job of controlling grazing here, and the grass was knee high in many places. But cattle had started to chew the grass down to stubble.

Hawks circled above. I imagined an office drawer, somewhere in Tucson, with papers that allowed this grazing to go forward because a rancher waited patiently for this rain, to try to carve a living from this land.

I didn’t always hunt the same place but worked one large canyon fairly consistently, walking deeper as the season progressed. Illegal immigrants come up through this area, and sometimes I see signs of their passing. A gallon jug of water, flattened and covered in dirt. Old clothes. A wallet with a phone card and a photo of a child. A couple of cans of Sterno, the label printed in English and Spanish, a dragon printed on the side. I pictured a few people huddled over a small blue flame, a little water pooled up in the creek.

Not far from here the dogs slammed on point. I walked in, needing a couple of birds to limit out. The sky exploded, birds flying everywhere, the biggest covey of Mearn’s I’ve ever seen. About 40 birds spread out and landed on a hillside. I had my limit in 10 minutes.

When Dave and I came here the day after a storm, I hoped that big covey was still around. I wanted to see it again, to share the moment: 40 Mearn’s quail, rising. More than likely this was a snapshot in time, not a single covey but three or four that briefly came together in one spot.


We pushed back, wandering around where I saw the big covey, finding some birds high and then walking downhill on the shoulders of that snowy mountain. Dave went to my left and I heard shots. I tried to work closer to him but the brown dog went on point.

Mearn’s hold tight and make your dogs look good. They seldom flush wild or break before the gun arrives. They look different from Gambel’s, the males with white spots on a black breast and no topknot. We walked some more, birds in our vests, then started working back to the trucks for lunch.

After lunch and coffee we went back into the hills, even though it meant covering some of the same ground to get there. A wind came out of the mountain. Clouds swirled. The day unfolded, cloudy and cool, the birds deep, thorns tearing at our legs, but we found more coveys and the weather remained calm.

The dogs went on point, and we had to kick around a little in the grass to find the birds. The creeks held pools of water that will vanish by late spring. Dogs splashed through them and drank.

I have bells on the shorthaired pointers to make some noise out there, because of javelina, bad-tempered animals with tusks and quick feet. You don’t want your dogs to surprise them. As far as I know, they don’t spend much time in these hills, but I’ve seen them in the desert below.

I watched the ridges and dry creeks, listening for the bells, looking for brown and white flashes in this land that struggles through a drought, the cattle pounding the grass, the immigrants marching.

Drought. The papers look at drought as something that affects only man. They call the Bureau of Reclamation, which tries to store water for sprawling cities of transplanted Midwesterners.

The bureau says our reservoirs have dropped and declare we’re in a drought. Bureaucrats and politicians wonder how to bring water to millions of people whose main line of work is building, buying, and selling more homes. In Phoenix and Tucson, you hear the construction noise like the beating of a drum. We build more houses, chew up an acre an hour, every acre a piece of quail habitat.

Most of my friends don’t hunt. They ask me in July if I’ve been hunting lately. July. When the heat would kill a dog. July, when almost nothing is in season.

They ask if I eat what I shoot. I tell them I mostly hunt birds, and they ask what kind. Quail. They know about quail. They see them at the golf course. I remain patient. They’re good people and just making conversation. But they’ve lost touch with the land. Yes, you do see a lot of quail at the golf courses. There is no hunting in July. Then I change the subject.


The pounding of heavy equipment begins at such gatherings. People make small talk and strike a deal. Calls go out, papers are signed, and a few years later ground is broken. Migrants who come up through cracks between the mountains find themselves working these construction sites until the building stops; then they move on to the next job.

I picture these routes, lines of travel from out of the south, routes followed by streams of workers who have nothing. The lines lead to cities where polite men and women make small talk. Their clothes pressed, their cell phones ready, they trade on this groundand shake hands where birds live. They don’t worry about the quail. There are plenty by the golf course.

These matters have grown beyond all of us, and Dave and I don’t give them a thought. The hills give us escape. When we walk the grassy slopes, get a little fresh air and exercise, the tension melts.

We cannot control the rain, the birds, the endless growth of the cities, but we can be ready when the dogs slam to a stop and time stands still. We can listen to the bells, move through the trees.

All day long, we picked a direction and watched the dogs work. The large covey had broken up, but we came away with birds in our vest.

A pair of Mearn's quail—female and male.

The light changed and we loaded the trucks, driving out as darkness fell, passing through a Border Patrol checkpoint where a man waved us through when he saw the dog boxes and gun cases in back.

We drove north to take our places in a city that constantly pushes into the desert. During the week I will dream of land where you don’t hear heavy equipment, traffic, and cell phones. I can close my eyes and hear wind, wings, leaves beneath my feet. Water.

I will watch the sky, always the sky, wait patiently for the rain in the desert and know that life follows.


When he isn’t working, Ron Dungan hunts, fishes, and backpacks throughout the Southwest. He lives in Phoenix.

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