Greta and Babe crept to a halt and stood motionless in a patch of golden brown native grass. Just ahead, our third German short-hair pointer, Gretchen, had sensed game and, nose hovering just above the ground, stood frozen on point in front of a wild plum thicket.
Dad and I slowly walked in, expecting a covey of quail to explode from the grass. At the exact moment I was asking Dad where they could be, the grassy cover at our feet started shivering and a rumble of wings filled the air. I swung my 20-gauge on a pair of brown blurs and fired twice, dropping one of the bobs. Dad, who is usually more patient and steady when shooting, knocked down two.
The three pointers meticulously scanned through the grass and ragweed until they retrieved our birds. Mine was a young rooster. Its black and white head matched perfectly with its buff brown and gray body feathers.
With our first point and covey rise, as well as the three birds in pockets, so to speak, our quail season was now officially open. For the next several hours we chased singles and bumped into three more coveys as we worked our way through the mosaic of grassy fields, food plots, woodlots and shrub thickets at the conservation area. We harvested more birds, and despite being exhausted and covered with sticktights, we had some fun. Apparently, the Quail Emphasis Area we were hunting was doing exactly what it was designed to do.
In 2004 the Conservation Department established 19 conservation areas as Quail Emphasis Areas (see table). These areas demonstrate how good quail habitat management practices can increase quail numbers and provide quality quail hunting experiences. The long-term goal for Quail Emphasis Areas is a density of one quail per 2 acres in the fall before the hunting season. Quail numbers are estimated each October based on a predawn whistling survey. Managers survey quail and grassland birds again in May and June during the breeding season. In recent years, quail numbers have been down on Quail Emphasis Areas likely due to cold, wet springs and severe ice and snow storms.
Quail Emphasis Areas were selected based on existing habitat qualities, public demand and size of the area. Intensive habitat-improvement efforts on the areas include using prescribed fire and strip disking to open up bare ground and promote annual plants, creating brood habitat for young quail.
Area managers also remove cool-season grasses such as tall fescue and smooth brome to make it easier for quail to walk on the ground, and they plant low-growing shrubs to provide escape cover for quail coveys. They also strip-disk old fields and plant warm-season grass stands to encourage annual plants and insects, which are a vital food source for young quail.
Other quail management techniques include edge feathering and brush-pile construction to create winter and escape cover between open land and forest. Additionally, area managers restore natural communities that provide good habitat such as such as glades, woodlands, savannas and prairies.
These aren’t the only conservation areas where hunters can find quail. As a part of the Strategic Guidance for Northern Bobwhite Recovery (Missouri’s quail recovery plan), the Department is working to improve quail and grassland bird habitat on many conservation areas. In fact, the Missouri Department of Conservation completes approximately 80,000 acres of quail-friendly habitat work each year on conservation areas throughout the state. Of that, about 12,000 acres of habitat work is completed on the Department’s 19 Quail Emphasis Areas.
Two weeks later, I returned to the same conservation area to try my luck again. This time, I was alone with the dogs. I was excited because I thought I knew the locations of at least four coveys. That late in the season, I figured hunting pressure would have moved the birds to heavier cover.
My strategy was to hunt the thick woody draws where most hunters don’t venture. Many of these draws were impenetrable, as trees had been purposely cut down and left as habitat for quail and rabbits—a habitat practice sometimes called edge feathering. The strategically cut woody cover provides ideal escape and winter cover for quail and other wildlife.
Showing a little common sense, I walked along the edge of the nearly impassable woody draw and let the dogs search the thick stuff. Greta, the “edge specialist,” also decided to run the edge just in front of me and leave the hard work for Babe and Gretchen.
Ahead of us fluttered cardinals, juncos, finches and a variety of winter sparrows. Occasionally, a cottontail rabbit darted out of the thick cover. One jumped out from underneath Babe’s feet and briefly distracted her from the hunt. Good quail cover provides great habitat for lots of wildlife.
I spotted Babe creeping on her belly, and then she disappeared into a cluster of downed tree branches and shrubs. I walked up and—thanks to her orange collar—found her on point in the middle of a blackberry patch. I winced as I walked in, my hunting chaps being no match for the sharp thorns. I shuffled my feet but nothing happened. There we no birds and I endured even more pain as I exited the blackberries.
After I released Babe, she continued to work up the woody draw another 40 yards. Her wagging tail was a good sign that she was still on to something. The other two dogs joined in, also excited.
When they reached the end of the draw, all three dogs froze on a patch of ragweed and annual lespedeza. As soon as I moved in, a whirlwind of fluttering wings enveloped me as about 15 bobwhites flushed.
I regained my composure quickly enough to point my 20-gauge on a single bird as it flew along the woody draw. I saw a puff of feathers after I squeezed the trigger. Gretchen fetched the bird, a beautiful bobwhite rooster. I was happy for her. She was more than 13 years old and would soon be limited to house duty. The successful retrieve was like a retirement gift for her.
I hunted the rest of the day in places where we had found coveys on opening day and ventured into unexplored parts of the conservation area. Even though I didn’t find the other coveys, I did find small white piles of droppings where the birds had roosted. In other words, the quail just didn’t happen to be in the places we looked for them. The dogs worked well, though, and we had a pleasant hunt.
Quail Emphasis Areas and many other conservation areas support good quail populations, but finding birds can still be a challenge. The abundance of good habitat actually provides quail plenty of places to hide from hunters and dogs. As the season progresses the birds only become more elusive and harder to find.
A research project in Missouri and the southeast U.S. placed radio collars on hundreds of quail to find out what bobwhites do when approached by hunters and bird dogs. They found that hunters and bird dogs missed about half the coveys on an area.
Where did the quail go? In some cases the birds flushed or ran away from the hunters and dogs before they could be spotted. Other times the dogs and hunters simply walked past the hiding covey. In a few instances the dogs pointed the coveys, but the quail never flushed and eventually the hunters and dogs moved past them.
The study also found that coveys learned during the hunting season to run or flush way ahead of approaching hunters or dogs.
A good tip to remember when quail hunting is that these birds rarely venture more than 70 feet from woody cover during the winter. Try to hunt in areas with good shrubby or low-growing woody cover such as blackberry and plum thickets or edge feathering. Don’t be surprised if a covey you found early in the season isn’t in the same place later in the year. Coveys that are frequently disturbed will often move to a different location to avoid being detected.
Another tip is to limit the amount of noise you make when hunting, especially late in the season. Also consider hunting a different part of a conservation area or try to think of places where most hunters may not venture. Because upland game hunters spend a majority of the time in dense shrubby cover and tall grasses, make sure you wear a hat and coat with hunter orange.
Most Quail Emphasis Areas are subject to statewide regulations for quail hunting. A few areas have some hunting restrictions in order to protect the quail population from heavy hunting pressure, but first check the Wildlife Code for any restrictions. For additional information on Quail Emphasis Areas, call the phone numbers for the areas shown below, or visit the links listed below.
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