CARROLLTON — Rooster Cogburn, a Vizsla bird dog, smelled something he liked as he coursed through a grassy buffer strip at the edge of a crop field in Carroll County.
With a trail of orange-clad hunters in his wake, he ran ahead until the scent trail got stronger. Then he slammed onto a solid point.
"Rooster's got something," shouted Elsa Gallagher, Rooster's owner.
Rehan Nana and Joe Goetting rushed up and kicked at the thick grass in front of the dog, then watched as a covey of brown and white birds exploded out of the cover.
Shots rang out and two of the quail fell. Then Rooster raced out to finish his job and retrieved the birds.
"There must have been 25 birds in that covey," said Lee Metcalf, a private lands conservationist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, who was trailing with the group but not hunting. "That's what we like to see."
Once, such sights were common in Missouri. With a quiltwork of small farms bordered by brush, hedgerows and grassy ditches, the habitat was ideal for quail.
There were birds and hunters everywhere, dogs were busy, and Missouri was nationally known for its quail hunting.
But as farming practices changed, cover disappeared at an alarming rate. And so did the quail.
It has declined to the point where bird populations have hit rock bottom and hunters are abandoning the sport.
But on farms such as this one in Carroll County, there are signs of hope.
Thanks to the 2C Quail Cooperative, there is new meaning to the adage "build it and they will come."
In Carroll and Caldwell counties, the private lands section of the Department of Conservation, landowners and an active chapter of Quail Forever, a national conservation group, have teamed to bring quail habitat — and the birds — back.
"People around here miss the quail," said Kevin Casner, president of the 2C Quail Forever Chapter. "They want to bring them back.
"And they're very active in pursuing that. We have just over 200 members in our chapter, and that ranks in the top 10 in the nation."
Here's how it works. Metcalf, an active Quail Forever member, works with willing landowners to come up with a plan that can restore good habitat without sacrificing farming profit.
Most of the work is done through federal Farm Bill programs that compensate farmers for doing conservation work.
The 2C Chapter of Quail Forever distributes free seed for planting of vegetation that makes for good quail habitat, purchases equipment to plant and manage that habitat, partners with the Department of Conservation to implement habitat projects and holds demonstrations to show landowners how the process can work.
How the funds raised by local chapters of Quail Forever are used is up to each group's discretion. It can be used locally, nationally or a combination of both.
In Carroll and Caldwell counties, it seems to be working. While no one is under the illusion that there are even a fraction of the quail there once were, bird numbers are climbing.
On a recent half-day hunt, Carroll County landowners, and representatives of the Department of Conservation and Quail Forever got a reminder.
Walking along buffer strips that separate crop-field edges from the brush and timber, they flushed three large coveys of quail.
"We used to hunt quail all the time," said Joe Goetting, a Carroll County landowner. "I had two Brittanies, Bert and Ernie, and we'd be out a lot.
"But it got to the point where we didn't even go anymore because the birds just weren't there. But we're hoping to change that.
"By providing more habitat for the birds, we're already seeing differences. We'll probably never have what we once did, but we're seeing improvement. And that's what counts."