Here is a collection of stories, mistakes, and trials of living with pen-raised quail to train dogs
Imagine you have an enormous field at your disposal to train your bird dog, and you keep a Johnny house filled with bobwhite quail in the shade of the oak trees at the edge of this field. It is a beautiful day and time to feed those quail. Later, when the air cools a bit in the afternoon, you plan to spend some time running your pup there.
Inside the house is a large feeder that can go days without refilling. But about once a week it requires stepping into the re-call house so you can grab the feeder before stepping back out with it. Of course this always creates pandemonium with frightened quail fluttering about and one or two sneaking out the door, but they recall readily.
You open the door and, as your foot swings over the threshold, you spot THE SKUNK!
In a fraction of a second you have the door closed with you on the outside and leaning against it, breathing heavily and your heart pounding. If your reflexes weren’t so quick you might have spent the rest of the day trying to become “scent-free.”
That scenario happened to me, twice. Both times several of the quail were sitting on the ledge by the screen windows that go all the way around the top, appearing to be safe and happy. But each time there were several dead quail on the floor, courtesy of the skunk.
How the heck did that big hunk of fur get in there through the tiny re-call entrance? Apparently, those skunks are all fluff and not much meat. Both times I wondered if the skunk was eating the dead quail or just munching their food. It always turned out that the black devil was only eating the seed after killing the competition.
Hawks can ruin the moment
One sunny day friends came over to visit, people who aren’t hunters and certainly don’t understand what we do. I took them out to that same field to answer their curiosity about my dogs. After planting a half dozen quail in the field the dogs were released and I followed with our guests.
The dogs pointed one right off and I flushed it, then assured our company that the bird would be fine and back in the re-call house before night. The same thing happened with the next couple of birds and each time I again reminded them how the bird was unhurt. Our friends were in awe of the pointing dogs and possibly starting to accept what we do as not so odd after all.
But then on the last quail, as it beat its wings trying to escape into the sky, a Cooper’s hawk shot from the heavens and intercepted its flight, turning the fleeing quail into a ball of floating feathers. The guests watched, speechless.
Will they come back to the pen?
After making the coffee one Sunday morning, I poured a cup and wandered over to the window that looked out toward the songbird feeder. On the lawn beneath was a quail feeding on dropped seed, obviously one of ours that had escaped. Next to her were four tiny baby quail. We watched and sipped coffee, but when we stepped away to top up our mugs, they disappeared.
Somewhere along the way I learned that if you only put out the boy quails, they come right home to find the girl quails. Boys are like that. If you put out the girls they still come home, but just take longer. I always joked they stopped somewhere to shop along the way.
One day I carefully took out four males and planted them in the woods and field behind the house. On the way back to find the dogs, I noticed that the door to the re-call house was wide open. I had forgotten to close it tight. Looking inside, the Johnny house was empty.
Heartbroken, I realized that there wouldn’t be any quail inside to call the others back. Trying to make the best of the situation, I got the dogs and had one long training session before saying goodbye to the quail.
The next day, I took the dogs out for a walk to see if they could find any of the quail. On the way by I noticed three sitting up on the ledge inside the quail house and looking out. Peeking in the door there were four more on the floor.
A few days later almost all had returned. The books don’t tell you this, so it must have been a miracle.
Keeping quail is a game of attrition, as everything works against their numbers. They are much fussier about cleanliness than pigeons and will die if the cage isn’t kept clean. Rats will try to steal their food, or, if the quail live on a raised mesh floor, the rats will eat the quail’s feet off. Build a double floor with an inch between two layers of wire mesh and the quail’s feet will be safe.
Hawks will pick the quail off the ground or out of the sky. Whenever you release a bunch, the odds are one or more may not return. If mixed sexes are released together, some may set up house and attempt to raise a family of their own, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
On the other hand, released quail add a significant amount of hunting realism to the training situation, which planted pigeons can’t match. The fact that quail may walk from where you planted them actually makes it hunting. But exercise them often to make sure they are good fliers or your dogs may catch a few, and that is always a step backwards.
I hate to think how much money I have spent on quail over the years. But it certainly has paid dividends in spades for the dog’s performance in the field.
Jerry Allen hides in the North Woods where he scratches out a living as a woodworker. When the weather is too lousy for bird hunting or trout fishing, he writes a bit. More of his ramblings can be found at http://gnallen.blogspot.com/