Bird-catchers could be surprisingly inventive when it came to designing whistles to lure birds. There was a whistle for almost every bird, including the quail.

Quails are lured using a whistle, which is blown with a bellows-like contrivance, usually a small leather pouch filled with horsehair. The whistle consists of a piece of hollow bone - for example, the leg of a goose, heron or sheep -, though for the last century a piece of plastic or metal pipe has also served the purpose. A small hole is cut out of the pipe, as with a recorder.   

The bird-catcher holds the pouch loosely against his belly between his left thumb and left forefinger. With his right thumb and right forefinger he quickly taps his left forefinger twice: whit-whit whit-whit whit-whit. That's the hen's song, and so the bird-catcher lures the excited male within range, and thus into his net.  

Quails are mostly caught in May, usually around sunrise. In Belgium they are only caught in the Flemish part of the country, and now mainly in the south of West Flanders, around the towns of Roeselare, Tielt and Kortrijk. The birds are kept in cages, often hung from an outside wall. What makes them attractive to their captors is their song, or rather call (wet-my-lips wet-my-lips).

The first reference to a quail-pipe in Dutch - quackel-beenken - appears in 1599, in the very first Dutch explanatory dictionary, Cornelis Kiliaan's Etymologicum Teutonicae Linguae. In the seventeenth century quail-pipes were sometimes depicted in hunting still lifes, especially by Jan Fyt (1611-1661), or in allegories of hearing. In some erotic songs from that period and also later the quail-pipe acquired an obvious phallic association. The Dutch poet Jacob Cats ("Father Cats", 1577-1660) uses the image of the "sweet sound" of the quail to warn against flattery: "In schoone woorden leyt bedrogh" - "in fine words lies deception".

It has actually been illegal to catch quails in Belgium since 1846, and since 1882 even possession of a quail-pipe has in principle been against the law. But certainly in the south of West Flanders catching and keeping quails has remained a tenacious tradition to this day.  

This quail-pipe was made in 1990 and given to the mim by André Populier (°1921) from Ardooie. The whistle was made from the back leg of a sheep. The pouch is brown imitation leather filled with little pieces of polyether foam.

quail-pipe 1991.031
Jan Fyt (
detail Jan Fyt (
André Popelier shows his quail-pipe, Ardooie, 1990. photo Wim Bosmans
cage at Fons Verschuere's, Zwevegem, 1990. photo Wim Bosmans