North Idaho's Bird Man

Sandpoint man cares for flock of wild game birds in a heated quail barn.

Mail quail

Perched on a post, this male quail observes his surroundings in search of predators. Neish

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Building contractors and home-owners in the Panhandle country of North Idaho know 72-year-old Ron Book as a busy, full-time house painter who has no interest in slowing down. What they may not know about him is that his friends refer to him as North Idaho’s "Bird Man" because of his hobby: raising wild game birds – especially quail.

Ron lives with his wife of 51 years, Phyllis, just outside Sandpoint (pop. 5,500). Their rural home stands in the shadows of the 5,000-feet-tall Selkirk Mountain Range.

His love for wild birds began on the family farm near Estherville, in northwestern Iowa, a few miles from the Minnesota border. That part of the upper Midwest is noted for its flatness, and during the winter, cold winds howl out of the northwest. Area farmers plant trees in groves and shelterbelts on the north and west sides of their farmhouses and buildings to stop (or rather slow down) winds and blowing snow during blizzards.

Ron remembers as a youngster feeding upwards of a hundred pheasant in a tree grove on their property during the winter. Once during an extreme ice storm, he and his dad brought dozens of the nearly frozen wild birds into the basement and placed them around a stove to prevent them from freezing.

Of course, when the flock thawed in the stove’s radiating heat, the birds began flying franticly around the basement, trying to escape outside.

He laughs about the incident now, but back then, "My mom wasn’t very happy." Both he and his dad got into a little trouble when the wild birds knocked over and broke a number of Mason jars containing garden-raised vegetables. They opened the door and herded the winged critters outside.

For nearly 30 years, Ron has raised a variety of game birds, for his own pleasure and to protect his friends. He presently maintains a flock of some 250 birds housed in a 24-by-30-feet quail barn with a heat system, water and lights. Ron also designed the barn with plenty of shuttered windows that can be opened to admit light. The entrance has double doors that prevent the birds from escaping when anyone enters.

While some of his birds are kept in screened pens, many have free range of the building and roost in the rafters. The floor of the barn is covered with cedar wood chips. He has three screened exercise runs – 16 feet long, 4 feet high and 3 feet wide – built off the side of the birdhouse. The runs are enclosed with wire and plywood flooring to protect his flock from wild critters attempting to dig under the sides and enter the pen.

The runs allow the birds to get out in the sunshine, and at night, during warmer months, many of them roost outside on 2-by-4s. During the winter, he covers the top of the runs with plywood as protection from snow.

Game birds Ron is currently raising include yellow golden pheasant, dove (ring and diamond), partridge (philbies and barbaries), and quail (mountain blue scaled, Mexican speckled, bobwhite, dust bobs, gray bobs, partridge and huns).

Ron’s work as a painter keeps him busy, but spending time with his winged friends each day helps keep him on track. Stop by Ron’s north Idaho quail barn at the right time, and you might hear him practicing a shrill, "bob white" call as he tends his flock.