Austin, Makenna, and Zealand had just reached the top of the hill when they heard a soft beep!
“Boo’s got something,” Grandpa said. Boo was Grandpa’s quail hunting dog. Most of the time, she dashed around in a frenzy, barreling through the brush, sniffing this way and that. Boo wore a high-tech collar. When she stopped moving, the collar transmitted a signal to a hand-held receiver that Grandpa carried, causing it to beep.
Makenna knew there were only two reasons Boo would quit running: either she had stopped to water the grass or her sensitive nose had detected the faint whiff of a hidden covey of quail. Makenna hoped it was the second reason.
Grandpa’s pickup had rolled into Austin and Makenna’s driveway long before sunrise. When the kids and their dad, Jeremy, climbed inside they found their cousin, Zealand, waiting for them.
It was a short drive to the conservation area. As the truck rolled into the parking lot, it was still dark. Everyone got out and walked up the hill away from the ticking of the truck’s engine, away from the dogs scratching in their pens, out into the dark where the only sound was the breeze swishing through the tall prairie grass. It only took a few minutes for a smile to break across Zealand’s face. He pointed west.
Austin and Makenna heard it too: a squeaky koi-lee! It was the call of a northern bobwhite, announcing its location to any other quail that were around. Soon, two more joined in with koi-lees of their own.
“We may not find them,” Grandpa said, “but at least we know they’re here.”
Northern bobwhite quail are small brown ground-nesting birds. Bobwhites thrive in weedy fields, shrubby pastures, and along the edges of woods.
They eat seeds, grains, and insects, and are preyed upon by nearly everything, including raccoons, coyotes, snakes, hawks, and humans.
In the fall and winter, bobwhites gather into groups called coveys. Each covey usually contains 10 to 20 birds. At night, the covey members gather in a tight bunch and sleep tail to tail.
This helps them stay warm and watch for sneaking coyotes and other predators. In the morning, bobwhites wake up early and walk or fly to weedy fields for breakfast. They are well-camouflaged, and many hunters walk right by a hidden quail without ever knowing the bird was there.
But a quail’s crafty camouflage is no match for a bird dog’s super sniffer.
The kids found Boo standing, still as a statue, the muscles in her lean legs quivering. Her nose was pointed at a clump of prairie grass. Her tail stuck straight up like a furry flagpole. In dog language this meant: “I found them, boss. They’re right there.”
“Get ready,” Grandpa whispered. He motioned for the kids to walk forward.
Austin had been on many quail hunts. He knew what was about to happen, yet it always took him by surprise. He felt his heart pounding in his chest. He took one step. Two steps.
Quail exploded out of the grass. The birds, at least a dozen of them, rocketed skyward, their wings buzzing like giant angry bees.
Austin shouldered his gun and picked out a bird to shoot. As he clicked off the safety and squeezed the trigger, he heard Makenna and Zealand fire their guns off to his right. BOOM! … BOOM! … BOOM!
They each got only one shot.
Like feathered fighter jets, the quail streaked out of sight into the woods down the hill. Boo sprung through the grass like a jackrabbit. “Dead bird, Boo! Dead bird!” Grandpa called.
The dog found the downed quail and carried it proudly back to Grandpa. As he took it from Boo’s gentle mouth, he congratulated Austin on making a good shot.
“Well,” Grandpa said, “should we call it a day or keep going to see if we can jump another covey or two?”
It didn’t take long for Austin, Makenna, and Zealand to decide. “Keep going!” they said in unison.
Boo had made up her mind, too. She had disappeared into the grass, already hard at work tracking down another covey.
Quail Hunting 101
It’s best to find an experienced hunter to show you the ropes. A local Quail Forever chapter (quailforever.org) may be able to hook you up with a mentor. Quail hunting has laws that you must follow. To learn them, visit short.mdc. mo.gov/Z5c.
Nothing is more important than safety. Always hunt with an adult, and learn to safely handle a gun. If you’re 11 or older, take a hunter education course (details at mdc.mo.gov/huntereducation).
A youth-model 20-gauge shotgun is perfect for hunting quail. Shotguns shoot a cloud of pellets (called shot). Shot comes in different sizes. Most quail hunters use size 8.
The weather can be chilly during quail season, so dress in layers. Wear an orange hat and vest so other hunters can see you in the tall grass. Thick pants will protect your legs from briers and brush. And you’ll walk a lot while quail hunting, so put on sturdy, comfortable boots.
The regular quail season runs from November 1 to January 15. A two-day youth season, for ages 6 to 15, runs on the last full weekend in October.
Bobwhites do best in small fields or open woodlands that contain tall grasses, lots of weeds, and patches of shrubs. If the fields are next to woody draws, crop fields, or fence rows, that’s even better.
Certain conservation areas are managed specifically for quail, and there’s probably one of these Quail Emphasis Areas just a short drive away. Find one at short.mdc.mo.gov/Z5q.
Try to hunt with someone who has a birddog. A well-trained dog will find hidden quail that most people would miss. When several quail burst upward at once, focus on a single bird to shoot.
Shoot only a few quail from each covey. Quail huddle together on chilly nights to stay warm. If a covey contains too few quail, nights can become dangerously cold for the remaining birds.