Watching a covey of quail flush and hearing the whir of their wings makes a bird hunter's spirit soar. Unfortunately, not as many people are experiencing this thrill as there were 30 years ago. According to Tom Dailey, quail researcher at the Conservation Department, the number of bobwhite quail harvested in the state has dropped from 3.9 million in 1969 to under 700,000 in 1997.
A combination of loss of habitat and cool, rainy weather during nesting and brooding seasons has brought down the number of quail almost every year this decade. As a result, the number of quail hunters has decreased from nearly 180,000 in 1969 to less than 60,000 today.
"Every time we have a major quail decline, we lose hunters," Dailey says. "The hunters come back when the quail are more abundant, but they don't reach the previous number."
But for those who take the time to locate quality quail habitat, the hunting can still be good. "The harvest per hunter per day of hunting hasn't changed much," Dailey says. "The 60,000 hunters we have are good hunters who continue to invest in bird dogs." As a result, hunters in the 1990s average two quail a hunt, versus three quail 30 years ago.
The secret is finding where to hunt. "Most people can expect to drive at least an hour to find a place to hunt that has good quail habitat," Dailey says. If you are hunting in a new area, you might want to arrive before the crack of dawn. On clear, calm days most quail coveys whistle about half an hour before sunrise, but only for a few seconds, Dailey says. "It's a good way to see if quail are in the area."
Once you find a good spot, the quail habitat may not be near the best place to park, that's why Dailey has added a new piece of equipment to his hunting gear--a mountain bike. He loads it in the back of his truck along with his three bird dogs and uses it to get quickly to the fields where the birds are. If hunting on Conservation Department lands, he checks the area regulations first, because bikes may be restricted to service roads or designated trails.
"A mixture of open land and woody cover is where you will find the most quail," Dailey says. He looks for pastures that have diverse vegetation, such as annual weeds and native grasses, which provide quail a variety of seeds to eat throughout the year. On the other hand, a field of thick grass, such as fescue and switch grass, usually doesn't provide good hunting because it is too thick for quail to walk through and doesn't have the variety of food they need. If the field is overgrazed, it doesn't provide the quail with enough cover to make them feel safe.
Quail spend their mornings feeding on seeds in fields but move to woody cover by mid-morning to rest. Fields near woody draws, small wood lots and fence rows are good places to hunt because quail like cover near their feeding spots.
Once Dailey finds good quail habitat, his three dogs go to work. His pointers, Zeke and Tex, move across the field and cover lots of ground. His English setter, Pard, works close. This combination of dogs gives Dailey a better chance of finding birds. But even the best dogs won't find them all.
Studies in Missouri, Georgia and Florida using radio-collared quail showed that dogs usually find about half the birds. This doesn't mean the dogs aren't good. Many factors enter into a dog's ability to scent quail. In fact, it's not necessarily the quail they are smelling, but the bacteria on skin cells that the quail shed.
In moist, cool weather, the bacteria is abundant, and dogs can sniff out the birds more easily. Hot, dry weather shortens the life of bacteria and thus decreases the dogs' ability to find birds.
Because of this chemical interaction between a dog's nose and the skin cells, Dailey suspects that the best hunting times may be when the humidity is highest, such as in the morning and evening hours.
The chemicals in green vegetation also mask the scent of quail. That may be why many hunters prefer to hunt after a hard freeze has killed the summer vegetation.
Other times dogs seem to point quail when nothing is there. Unproductive points aren't necessarily a sign that your dog has made a mistake, Dailey says. It often means the birds were recently there and escaped by running or flushing wildly.
Strong wind can hinder a dog's ability to pinpoint quail and makes the birds flush wild. It also makes it harder for a hunter to give the dogs commands.
Normally quail sleep in weedy, grassy areas at night and remain in the field to feed until midday, when they move to woody cover. In late afternoon, they return to weedy areas to feed and roost. When hunting in a field, patience is often the key, especially when birds flush into thick grass.
"In this situation, old timers used to smoke a cigarette and wait them out," says Dailey, who recommends a healthier habit of chewing gum until the birds get nervous and move.
On public lands, however, where the hunting pressure is high, the birds may spend most of their time in the briars and woods. Quail like briars because of the open ground underneath, which allows them to move easily. Briars also offer protection from predators. The conventional wisdom, Dailey says, is to get a dog to run on the downwind side of a thick, brushy area. Birds in woody cover are often harder to hunt because they readily run to escape and it's difficult to get a clear shot.
Because birds like to hide in briars, hunters find themselves walking through a lot of them. Dailey wears chaps, which are cooler on hot days, to protect his legs. On cooler days he wears overall or brush pants.
Since a lot of quail hunting is done in wet, muddy fields, he wears rubber boots that are tight enough to remain on his feet when walking through deep mud. Avoid boots with thick, waffled soles like hiking boots, Dailey says, because you may end up carrying an extra pound or two of caked mud.
In Missouri, good quail habitat will support one bird per two acres. The Conservation Department has been managing some of its areas to support abundant quail populations. At Whetstone Creek Conservation Area in Callaway County, manager Scott Vance is working hard to bring about the plant diversity quail need. He and his staff are converting fields of fescue to annual weeds, legumes and native grasses that provide quail cover, as well as seeds and insects to eat.
The grasses, when managed properly, aren't as thick as fescue and allow the young birds to walk through the area easily. Unlike a typical farm, where the fields are about 60 acres and square, Whetstone has long, slender crop fields about 2 acres in size. This maximizes the amount of edge habitat that quail need.
The permittee farmers leave 15 to 20 percent of the crops in the fields for quail, songbirds and rodents to use as emergency winter food. Instead of planting annual food plots, Vance usually disks the ground and lets native plants come up on their own. These annual weeds provide quail with seeds and bare ground they use to dust themselves. Vance also promotes the growth of woodland legumes through prescribed burns.
"As a result of our management practices, we've seen a slow increase in the number of quail," Vance says. Last year, the number increased 20 percent. "We hope to see that again. The habitat is here, but we have no control over the weather." Cool, rainy spells in June when the birds hatch could cause the young to die from hypothermia. Also, heavy rains often destroy nests before the birds hatch.
One thing the Whetstone staff can control is the hunting pressure. The shortened 30-day season closes at 1 p.m. each day to allow the birds plenty of time to feed in the afternoon and to roost together at night to conserve body heat. Although the time to hunt is short, the harvest is good--400 to 500 birds are taken annually.
With good management and hunting regulations, low populations of quail can be hunted without adversely affecting the overall health of the species. A study of the effects of hunting at Blind Pony Conservation Area showed that when over half the quail on an area were harvested, it had little effect on the overall population, Dailey says. "A lot of the quail you save by overly restricting hunting die anyway due to severe weather and predation," he says. "The hunting season takes place before most of the quail die naturally, so it doesn't have a long-term population effect."
Because most of the land in Missouri is privately owned, the task of increasing quail populations rests in the hands of private landowners. Jeff Churan, a former commissioner with the Conservation Department, is managing a 320-acre farm in Livingston County for quail. He bought the farm in 1991 with the following goal in mind: "To attain maximum bobwhite quail density on the farm through intensive habitat management in combination with viable agricultural practices resulting in enjoyable hunting opportunities providing an annual harvest of birds consistent with a sustained population."
So far he is meeting his goals. The number of coveys has increased from 14 in 1997 to 22 this year, and he is enjoying several good hunts a year. His farming practices provide income, as well as improve quail habitat. Some of his quail management practices include planting trees and shrubs for cover, relocating food plots and using prescribed burns.
In the same county, John Martin, president of the local Quail Unlimited chapter, is increasing quail habitat on 320 acres. His goal is to set up a hunting farm, which will bring him income and provide him a nice place to hunt. When he bought the land two years ago, it had mediocre quail habitat, Martin says. He has been improving it with prescribed burns, food plots and native-grass plantings. The first year, he had two coveys, the next he had four. Right now, he is offering hunting by releasing pen-raised birds, but eventually he would like to have only wild quail hunting on this area.
Further south in Ozark County, Danny Billings has 115 acres where he has a 40-head cow/calf operation. Billings, who is a regional private land program leader for the Conservation Department, practices what he preaches to area farmers. "Not everyone can afford or wants to get rid of fescue," Billings says, "but you can use cattle and an intensive grazing system to benefit quail and other wildlife."
In the Ozarks the most critical need for quail is brood-rearing habitat. To improve chances of quail raising a family on his farm, Billings places round bales and feeding troughs next to fenced nesting habitat. Then he moves the cattle away from these areas when grass begins growing in the spring, which is about a month before quail hatch.
As vegetation comes back in the bare soil created by the cows loitering and feeding, small insects come into feed on the tender young plants. "The bumblebee sized quail must have these small insects to survive the first few weeks of their life," Billings says.
In the spring, he also uses rotational grazing and electric fencing to force the cows to graze fescue paddocks. These paddocks are adjacent to old fence rows that have good edge cover and fenced off woodlands. This allows clover and lespedeza, which are good for quail, to grow, especially when the fescue goes dormant in the summer. These simple, passive techniques are just a few of the farming practices Billings uses to increase quail survival on his farm.
People like Churan, Martin and Billings understand the importance of using sound agricultural practices to improve quail numbers across the state for themselves and for other hunters. "There's something about quail," Billings says. "If a farm has quail and you can hear them calling and see them in the fields, it's an indication that it's a healthy farm.
Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer