Over the past 45 years, wild bobwhite quail populations in the Southeast have steadily declined. The loss of habitat, an increased predator population, as well as an increase of exotics — such as fire ants and armadillos — have contributed to this sad state of affairs. Before this time, quail flourished in rural areas, and hunters took for granted their abundance. It was not uncommon in those days to leave work in Columbia, hunt for an hour or so on the outskirts of town, and return home with a few birds. Costs were minimal too. Except for the feeding and care of a bird dog or two and the cost of shells, the only other expense was gas. Farmers welcomed hunters onto their land, and so the pre-1970s bird hunter had a very good deal indeed. Times have changed, but the modern bird hunter can still enjoy watching his dogs work a field edge as they locate birds and experience the rush of an exploding covey. More effort and cost are required to hunt Gentleman Bob, but the sport is still ardently pursued, even if the glory days have passed.
Most bird hunters rely on pen raised released birds in today’s quest for Mr. Bob. Fortunately, commercial operations throughout South Carolina and the Southeast cater to this demand and do an admirable job in providing authentic hunts that replicate wild bird hunting. The most important factor that determines a good hunt over pen raised birds is how well they fly. Although pen raised birds do not fly as fast and erratically as wild birds, good ones come pretty close. A successful method for improving the probability of fast flying birds starts with buying young birds, about 12 weeks of age. These youngsters are fully grown but still impressionable for learning the tricks of survival. The habitat in which they are released needs to be comparable to wild bird habitat but not as intensively managed.
The first release takes place in the fall long before the season opens. Placing the birds in rough cover such as briar thickets is essential for their survival the first few weeks. The cover protects them from avian predators, such as Cooper’s hawks. Scratch or sorghum spread in the same area as the birds also reduces the chances of predation during this initial period when they have been let out into the wild. The loss rate on these birds is high, but the ones that survive learn quickly how to hide and fly fast. When the season begins a month to six weeks later, the surviving quail have been conditioned to act more like wild birds.
These birds have not become totally wild, however. They hold longer than wild birds, do not fly as evasively, and do not fly as far. They are also larger. These birds fly well enough, however, that even experienced quail hunters are known to miss a shot. Later in the season, another batch is usually released to supplement the dwindling numbers of the first group. This second batch has a higher survival rate primarily because they join the established birds and learn from them how to live to see another day.
In order to minimize predation, released pen raised birds have to be fed at least once every two weeks by broadcasting sorghum, corn, or wheat. The cost of all this can be high if done on your own land. Each bird goes for around $3.5 to $4, in addition to the feed. The number of birds actually taken throughout the season is usually less than 10 percent of the total released. Computing the cost of each bird in the bag is best left unknown and at the end of the day is irrelevant. The only important matter is how much fun you and your hunting buddies had that day, regardless of how many birds were collected.
Although wild bird populations have plummeted, they have not become extinct or even threatened. Under careful management, huntable populations of wild quail are produced throughout their natural range in the South. The starting point revolves around the land. Creating habitat for quail is not hard, but it does require constant attention, and the opportunity costs — as well as direct costs — can be high. Wild quail have four basic needs: nesting habitat, escape cover, food, and predator management. This all needs to be provided on suitable high land and on at least several hundred acres.
Open piney woods interspersed with two to three acre openings is the general landscape mosaic for these birds to thrive. Hardwoods harbor snakes and mammalian predators so should be eliminated or kept to a minimum. Discing the openings every winter to stimulate ragweed and other annual weeds creates brood habitat for young quail. These weedy openings attract insects, which make up the vast majority of a young quail’s high protein diet, vital in sustaining their rapid growth. One-half of the piney woods acreage is burned every spring to keep control of vegetative growth and to promote annual natural foods such as beggarweed — a favorite of quail. The other half that is not burned provides nesting and escape cover. This area will be burned the following year so that no more than two years of vegetative growth is present on quail land.
Land management for quail requires the production of ample food so the birds do not have to feed long and expose themselves to hawks and other predators. In addition to encouraging natural foods, such as grass, forbs (weeds), and pine seeds, supplemental feed in the form of sorghum broadcast every two weeks throughout the year gives quail the nutrition they need. Quail that have a constant source of supplemental feed go into the spring nesting season in good shape with ample fat reserves, giving them a greater probability of nesting success. This also provides food for cotton rats, which act as a buffer for quail against predators; the supplemental feed increases the population of cotton rats, giving the hawks something else to prey upon instead of quail.
Predator management involves trapping and creating good escape cover. Hawks and other avian predators are federally protected from any form of hunting, trapping, poisoning, or harassment, and rightfully so, but allowing briar patches, plum thickets and other shrubby growth to flourish provides quail protection from these birds of prey. Reducing the numbers of mammalian predators — such as skunks, raccoons, and bobcats — is permitted during the appropriate seasons. Trapping requires persistent hard work to lower significantly the number of these animals. Half-hearted efforts do not produce results, so trapping should not be considered unless the landowner is willing to go after it in a diligent manner. The majority of studies show a positive increase in quail numbers following intense trapping efforts, but a few also show a corresponding increase in snake numbers. Snakes are excellent nest predators and will swallow a whole nest of eggs in one visit. The only way to reduce snake numbers is to remove hardwood trees and brush piles from quail areas.
So how do these two different types of bobwhite quail compare in terms of the hunting experience? In general, the pen raised quail hold and do not run as much as wild birds. This allows hunters time to get to the pointed dogs for a covey rise. The downside to this is that many of these pen raised birds hold too hard and require flushing by another dog. Wild birds, on the other hand, learn quickly what dogs and humans mean. After being hunted a few times, these birds will run or flush before the dogs have even gotten to them. On most hunts over pen raised birds, hunters will find more coveys than hunting for wild birds, but there is nothing quite as exhilarating as a wild bird covey rise. Picking out one bird to shoot within the multitude of flying bodies combined with the heart stopping thunder of their beating wings challenges even the most experienced shot.
What used to be an easy grab the dog and gun for an afternoon quail hunt has turned into an intensive and costly enterprise. Avid bird hunters have a love for the sport that borders on crazy and, to the non-bird hunter, seems ridiculous. Any man or woman, however, that has been captured by the bond between hunter and dog, a beautiful day in the field, and the thrilling eruption of a covey of quail does not mind. Some people spend thousands of dollars for tickets to rock concerts — what can be crazier than that?