When to Hang Up the Gun?

1a928f30-a3a7-4439-bada-b9cac2288a1a Story and photo by Leslie Elmore

"What has happened to the quail that used to be around here?"

This is a question I get a lot as a Quail Forever biologist. While weather and habitat (namely quality, size, continuity, and connectedness) are primary factors affecting quail numbers, there are other factors at play. One of the easiest of these to control is hunting harvest.

But how much does hunting matter?
 

Types of Quail Mortality

There is a long-held belief that hunting does not affect quail populations. This premise states that a certain percentage of the population will not survive to breed in the spring and these “surplus” birds can be harvested with no ill effect to the population.

This idea of “compensatory mortality” arose from some early research from the northern portion of the bobwhite range where lack of winter cover and severe weather limited overwinter survival. Additionally, early quail research relied on rudimentary techniques prone to provide misleading information about quail mortality and population sizes.

With modern technology and a better understanding of the degree of movement among coveys, researchers have discovered that a simplistic view of compensatory hunting mortality is not entirely correct.

Equally incorrect would be the other extreme: additive mortality, which assumes that every harvested bird would have survived to breed, and any level of harvest reduces the population.
 

Timing

The reality is somewhere in between and depends on several factors, one of which is the timing of harvest.

Early in the season harvest is much more likely to be compensatory, while harvest occurring later in the season is more likely to be additive.
 
Timing affects the degree that harvest impacts quail populations. The later in the season harvest occurs, the greater likelihood of diminishing the breeding stock.
 
In fact, researchers in western Oklahoma found that quail alive on February 1st had twice the chance of surviving until April compared to birds alive on November 1st. More specifically, the researchers found a strong survival inflection point in mid-January, indicating that harvesting quail after mid-January is more likely to be additive, decreasing the breeding stock.
 

Hunting's Effect

Hunting also has indirect effects. Quail use a lot of energy evading hunters, increasing the risks of exposure, starvation, and predation.
 
Understanding the potential effects of late-season hunting on quail populations empowers us to make good decisions. We can also support state wildlife managers in setting regulations based on the best available science.

Additionally, managing large areas of quality quail habitat helps buffer populations against the impacts of weather and predators. If you would like more information on how you can manage for quail, contact your local Quail Forever biologist.
 
In the meantime, recognizing when to hang up the gun may improve next fall’s hunt. We can all do that!

Leslie Elmore is Quail Forever's Oklahoma Coordinating Wildlife Biologist.