By Andy Edwards
Over the years I've had the pleasure of meeting and hunting with many a seasoned bird hunter. As a Regional Rep for Quail Forever from its inception in 2005 through the spring of 2021, and through many hunting camps and tailgate conversations, I've gleaned a few nuggets that might be useful for those of you entering the sport for the first time…. or maybe for your first time in many years.
In this day and age there is a good deal of gear available to hunters at a reasonable price. Boots are better, vests hold all your gear securely, dog collars tell you exactly where your four-legged friend is, and an app on your phone lets you know where you are on the landscape.
Understanding where to take all that to be successful may be another challenge. I’ll work to unpack a little bit of the science behind the sport here for you in the next few paragraphs. For the most part I'll be referencing hunting bobwhites, but some of this information could be generally applicable to the whole suite of upland birds.
Know Your Birds
With instant access to the internet today, ignorance just isn't an excuse for failure. My daddy always jokes that “he's not a brain surgeon, but give him a few days on YouTube and he would give it a try!” If you're truly interested in learning how to hunt a species, learn where it lives year-round. Get on the Internet and do some homework for the specific needs of the bird you are chasing. Make sure to get up-to-date (within the last 5 years) science and search for things like seasonal habitat requirements for quail, quail habitat management, etc..
As hunters, we often oversimplify this by thinking about where birds are during the winter months (more on that later), forgetting the critical habitats that birds need during the spring and summer. For an area to produce during the hunting season, it’s got to have a “production area” during the breeding season. Native wildflowers often found in “Weedy Fields” provide brood rearing cover for upland game birds and will determine bird presence and abundance oftentimes as much as winter escape cover, particularly the farther south you go.
Native Wildflowers in Bloom photo by Jason Jones, QF Grasslands & Grazing Coordinator, Ohio
Close to Home
To put this idea of searching for brood-rearing cover into practice, let’s look at several different hunting scenarios. If you're hunting close to home, possibly on public land in your region, take time to explore the area during the spring and summer months. Drive or walk (if allowed) around an area and look for open areas with plants that are not grass. Diversity is key, and more blooming plants bring in more insects, the key component of chick development. It takes protein to grow, and that’s what these insects are to growing chicks, bite-sized protein packets. These brooding areas should have open space near the ground for birds to move in relative safety , and be free from introduced grasses like fescue, Bermuda, orchard grass, and brome.
As a bonus, if you are visiting an area from June – August, you’ll hear male bobs calling in the most productive areas. Bobwhites establish these breeding territories around key nesting and brood-rearing areas, and biologists generally equate the presence of a calling male in the breeding season with a covey in the fall or winter in that area.
If you plan on traveling out of state to hunt birds, visit the state wildlife agency’s webpage to download or view their public hunting maps. You can also use applications like onX to identify available public lands that are open for hunting. Make sure to have updated versions for this information, as properties and access change by year and even hunting season. Selecting which state to go to is often based on relationships with other hunters, distances you are willing to travel, and possibly hunting forecasts for that current season.
Once you narrow down the area that you will hunt, search the satellite imagery on available hunting lands for diversity. This isn't quite as easy as seeing it in person, but you will absolutely be able to notice things like field size, tree cover, crop presence, and oftentimes even things like field borders and stream buffers. Again, diversity is key! Look for several different habitat types present within a fairly small area.
Depending on your sport of choice for a reference, look for brood rearing cover, woody escape cover (aka winter cover), and food in the form of crop residue or food plots, all available within the size of a football or baseball field. This isn't to say that you won't find quail in areas that don't provide all three key components for habitat within a few acres but finding those sweet spots that give you all these components in close proximity will increase your hunting success.
Ask the Experts
Wildlife area managers and biologists are often willing to discuss where they are actively managing habitat for certain species, and a phone call or email during the summer is much more likely to generate a conversation than it would be during the hunting season. Be patient if you don’t get someone immediately since planting and habitat management may be taking precedence over discussing habitat.
These managers are often just as passionate as you are about hunting and are more likely to share information if you show an interest in the habitat over the hunting season. Ask questions about brood rearing cover, are they seeing broods (July-September)? Their management techniques (fire, discing, mowing)? If you’re in the East, ask about their forest management for bobwhites. Savannahs and woodlands with very few trees per acre are great habitat, not just for quail, but for most of our popular wildlife species. Often, this type of open forest habitat as well as “old field habitat” is what is limiting quail populations in the East.
Savannah Habitat and Woody Cover photo by Jake McClain, QF Quail Focal Coordinator, South Carolina
Get in the Game
You’ve got the gear, done the research, and talked to the experts in the field. Hopefully you’ve had time to get the dog out for some work, and you’ve got a few days to venture out after a covey flush. You know what direction to point the truck, and what land to target, but before you open the dog box, lets touch on some of the specifics of where the birds will be during hunting season.
When hunting on public lands in the great plains, I often find that the large public wildlife management areas get pounded by hunters early, and the adjacent walk-in access areas seem to take a pretty good beating during this time too. If you are heading out later in the season, check walk-in areas that are small and farther removed from these big public hubs of activity. Also, be willing to expend some shoe leather to get to those areas ½ to ¾ of a mile back off the road. You’ll be more successful (and in better shape) in the end.
As a general rule, quail will seek out slightly different habitat types throughout the year, with warmer or colder weather, and with increases in hunting (from all types of hunters) pressure. As the fall “brown up” happens, those fields or edges of weeds turn to bare stalks, and many areas too thick to walk through in the summer are now easy to navigate. As a result, quail feel less comfortable in these areas, and they don’t typically spend much time here. Quail quickly learn to avoid areas of greatest exposure, and to have a “Covey Headquarters” within a short flight of them at all times. This headquarters is usually in the form of dense woody cover (think shrubs, not trees) and provides a place to hunker down when coveys get nervous. In Fall, raptors migrate south seeking food as they go, mammals with successful litters have introduced many new eager 4-legged hunters to the landscape, along with human hunters adding to the list of “Things for a quail to avoid”.
To be successful, you’ll need to key in on these types of cover on your forays afield. Your dog will quickly learn to key on these locations but making sure to get them in the “ballpark” is your job. If you have scouted (either digitally or physically) an area, you’ll want to be sure to go into the areas where it’s tough to access. Early season hunts and areas that aren’t pressured can certainly be productive in more accessible areas, but don’t give up on an area until you’ve checked all the out of the way places that no one would want to go to. This can and often will mean the far back corner, the patch of briars across the wet area, and the clear-cut with tons of limbs and logs. If it’s easy to hunt, you might be in the wrong spot.
Quail Habitat in Winter (woody escape cover near summer brooding cover) photo by Jason Jones, QF Grasslands & Grazing Coordinator, Ohio
Find a Mentor
While there is fun in figuring it out on your own, don’t get frustrated if you don’t find birds early on. Work with your local Quail Forever chapter and get involved with other hunters in your area to form a network of friends that will share their knowledge with you. Quail hunters aren’t nearly as “hush-mouthed” as they once were about birds and where to find them. Be willing to put in the time and pay your dues to be accepted, but the reward will be a staunch point and a whirr of wings in the end. Good luck out there!
Andy Edwards is Quail Forever Program Manager