There was a time when February was one of my favorite months. Not anymore. That was back in the days when we had lots of quail in both the hill country of Mississippi and in the Delta.

Quail season back then opened on Dec. 10 and ran through Feb. 20. By Feb. 1, most of the heavy ground cover was about gone due to weather and the birds had less thick stuff to hide in. Also, dogs worked much better by not having to cope with so much vegetation, including thickets of blackberry vines and other impediments that slowed them down and tired them out too early in the hunt.

Another attractive feature of that late-season hunting was that birds were fully developed and flew faster, making the game of bagging a few harder (as if it weren't already hard enough).

Back then you could look forward to the national bird dog championship at Grand Junction, Tenn. In those days the winners often would find and perfectly handle a dozen or more coveys. Nowadays, if a dog finds two coveys of birds he stands a good chance of being declared the champion. But this column is not about field trials. It is about bird hunting as it used to be.

In late February, small groups of birds that had survived often got together and made one huge covey. I recall once getting down from my horse when my dog came to a point in a large Delta weed field. When I walked in to flush the birds, at least 20 got up. While I was shooting, several other groups took to the air, all headed for a thick canebrake where a man could not navigate. I daresay that at least 100 birds got up out of that field. As I remember it, I only got two birds on the first flush!

I saw a similar occurrence once in late February on the newly formed (at that time) Burke Hunting Club. Just at sundown as I was signing out at the old mailbox, I looked up and a huge covey of birds had taken off from a weed field right on the edge of the riverbank and was heading for the woods to roost. As I watched, more and more birds erupted from that patch of weeds. I am quite certain that at the very least, 80 quail followed suit, all disappearing into deep woods.

One of life's little biological mysteries is that today, almost 50 years later, not a dozen quail still exist on the same property, even though the terrain has not changed to any great degree and the place still offers food and cover galore. For unknown reasons, the birds have just about vanished. A few small coveys show up along a woods road every now and then.

At the time the birds were becoming scarce, you very often could find them far out in open woods rather than in fields and weed patches where they normally stayed. They also were picking up some traits from our wild turkeys - becoming very wild and usually flushing well before you got to within gunshot.

All of this is very hard for me to understand. Much of the habitat, in both the hills and the Delta, is very much like it was back in the old days when birds were plentiful.

Even stranger is that my friends who live in the Missouri Bootheel and hunt over in the nearby Kentucky hills are finding lots of birds in territory that looks exactly like that in north Mississippi. The flatland in the Bootheel has lots of birds, too. If not for them, I would have forgotten what a wild quail tastes like. Their generosity has kept me pretty well supplied with birds while their seasons are open.