When Thurman Tucker was 6 years old, he lived in Memphis. As much as he can remember, life was good. Then his mom died, and he was sent to Mississippi to live with his grandparents.
Which is where he learned to hunt and fish. And to live without electricity and running water.
“When it got dark in the evening,’’ he recalls, “it got dark. We had no lights. For a city kid from Memphis, it was like moving to a Third World country.’’
Odd then that this Southern transplant would take such a starring role in Minnesota natural resources stewardship — though not in the halls of the Legislature, testifying on behalf of clean water and healthy landscapes, or as an employee of the Department of Natural Resources or another public agency.
Instead Tucker is a volunteer who works in the conservation trenches. For decades, he has been nearly a lone voice in his advocacy for bobwhite quail, a species for which there hasn’t been a Minnesota hunting season since 1958.
The reason: no birds.
“Actually, there are a few bobwhites in the southeastern part of the state,’’ Tucker said the other day. “In fact, last year was our best year in the last 10 for sightings. Two broods were spotted, and a total of 98 quail.’’
Compared to 2006, when only eight bobwhites were positively identified in the southeast, 2016 was a relative heyday for the small birds.
A natural born optimist, Tucker, 73, has in recent years undertaken a challenge still more daunting than returning coveys of quail to Minnesota: Along with a cadre of other volunteers, he’s trying to get more city kids into the country, where they dirty their hands learning about wildlife and wildlife habitat, and learn also how to make that habitat.
Occasionally, as they did on a recent field trip to the South St. Paul Rod and Gun Club, they also learn about shotguns and clay targets, and how to hit the latter using the former.
Good luck, you say, with those twin challenges?
After all, given the loss of brushy cover, undisturbed grasslands and other upland habitat in southern Minnesota, who would bet that quail will ever return to this state in anything but remnant numbers?
And wagering that city kids will find more satisfaction planting trees than playing with computers is even more far-fetched, some believe.
Yet Tucker knows firsthand nature’s pull.
“In Mississippi, with my uncles as well as my grandparents, we hunted rabbits mostly,’’ he said. “Also squirrels and bobwhite quail. We used coon dogs and rabbit dogs, and sometimes pointers, when we had them. We weren’t hunting for sport. We were hunting for the table.’’
When he graduated from high school, Tucker headed to California. He found wild life there, but not much wildlife. And way too may cars. And people.
“I thought about Michigan and Minnesota as states to move to,’’ he said. “I settled on Minnesota, and moved here in 1965.’’
In the years since, a long-running management career with Supervalu and Cub Foods came and went. All the while, Tucker thought about quail.
He still does.
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In the 1970s, there weren’t a lot of black men driving around Fillmore and Houston counties, in southeast Minnesota, asking about possible sightings of small birds.
“I don’t know why quail stuck with me so much when I was a kid,’’ he said. “But they did. And I always thought that if we could restore habitat to southeast Minnesota, we could have the birds there again."
Tucker will never forget the day in 1989 when he pulled his car to the side of a road in Houston County to have lunch. A small bird soon appeared in the road about 75 yards ahead, followed by a dozen or so baby birds.
Encouraged, Tucker would form a group, the Bobwhite Quail Society, issuing a sort of covey call to like-minded enthusiasts. School bus drivers were recruited to keep an eye out for bobwhites. And habitat projects such as shrub plantings and grassland burnings were undertaken.
Progress? Bobwhite awareness since has increased in the southeast. Habitat continues to be made. And Tucker’s Bobwhite Quail Society has been folded into the national group Quail Forever (QF), an adjunct of Twin Cities-based Pheasants Forever.
“We’ve got two active Quail Forever chapters, one in the Twin Cities and one in the southeast,’’ Tucker said. “We get about 100 people at our Twin Cities fund-raising banquet and about 200 at our banquet in the southeast, in Caledonia.’’ (The chapters will have a booth at the upcoming Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic, Feb. 17-19 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.)
Chad Bloom worked with Tucker as a regional representative for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.
“Thurman’s commitment to wild birds in Minnesota is unwavering, and the energy he puts into that mission for quail and Quail Forever is infectious,’’ Bloom said. “He’s the champion that quail need.’’
In his youth initiative, aided by other QF members, his church and other churches, Tucker recruits kids from the suburbs and the inner city to learn about nature by immersing themselves in it.
“Our goal is to stir their appetite for the outdoors,’’ Tucker said. “But also, each time we get together, before we go out, we have a 10-minute counseling meeting with the kids. Many of them need a new direction. We talk, for instance, about the importance of learning to volunteer, and not just having the attitude, ‘What’s in it for me?’
“And when we go outside, whether we’re making habitat or going on a field trip to Cabela’s like we’re planning in a few weeks, we tell them to pay attention to what’s going on around them in nature, like birds."
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org