How to scout, hunt, and shoot public land bobwhite quail.
Pursuing the gentleman of game birds, the Bobwhite Quail on public land is not without a little bit of unsettling chaos brought on by the flush of a covey erupting into the air. The bobwhite quail is a small, plump, ground-dwelling bird with a short tail and rounded wings. It has made its niche in upland poetry and tradition as the prince of the game birds. There is nothing quite like walking up behind a dog on point and anticipating an explosive covey rise of feathers and wings.
As the upland season is underway, bird hunters need to understand some basics when hunting public land bobwhite quail, a bird steeped in pursuit and tradition.
Listen for the Bobwhite’s Whistle
A good method in locating public land bobwhites is to listen at daybreak for the “covey call.” These whistles ring across the uplands like an autumn soundtrack. From grassy fields to plum thickets, the bobwhite call is a bittersweet melody hunters cherish during the fall months.
Listen to bobwhite sounds here: Bobwhite Sounds
The covey call is a loud clear whistle, vocalized as “koi-lee” in the early morning hours — but can also be heard in the evenings before coveys return to the roost or after a covey has been flushed. Its primary purpose is to announce a covey’s location to neighboring coveys. Coveys use it as a reference point to space themselves across the landscape, which reduces competition for food and cover and helps establish a covey’s winter range.
Tracks and Signs of Public Land Bobwhite Quail
Bird tracks and signs are commonly encountered yet often overlooked as hunters are walking an area. Public land bobwhite quail travel in coveys and run across the ground from the shelter of one shrubby patch to another. Tracks in the dirt and snow can be a good indicator that coveys may be in the area.
Bobwhites roost in a circle. This is done to conserve body heat and to provide 360-degree surveillance of any approaching predators. According to biologists, at least seven quail are needed to form a circle so that their tails converge and trap the heat from the birds’ droppings. Feathers and small piles of green-and-white droppings are clues to roosting sites.
Food Sources of the Bobwhite
Public land bobwhites thrive where shrubs and trees meet grassland, cropland and weedy areas. The rural landscape should be diverse and have four of the described components. Quail are known to gravitate towards the edges. They prefer dense cover within walking distance of their food source. Quail feed in more open areas but usually are not far from the safety of cover. They would rather walk than fly and avoid an area that does not provide food, water, and overhead cover as well as protection from their worst predators — hawks and owls.
Find the food and bobwhite quail will not be far away. Bobwhites like grassy waterways, old abandoned farmsteads, hedgerows, shelter belts, wooded draws, creek banks and of course, thickets. Corn, soybean, wheat or sorghum (milo) fields are excellent places to locate them. Quail will often use weedy or brushy fence lines as travel lanes to and from feeding areas and midday loafing sites, as well as escape routes. Quail are known to run and will attempt to outrun hunters, using these natural barriers to flush opposite of hunters into other cover areas. Positioning hunters on each side of the bramble-filled fencerows is a good technique.
“Bobwhite quail are creatures of habit. This alone may be their Achilles’ heel.”
Bobwhite quail are creatures of habit. This alone may be their Achilles’ heel. Quail coveys normally return to the same places year after year as long as the habitat remains constant. During hunting season, coveys may move from one primary location to another within a few hundred yards. As long as the habitat is suitable and there is an ample or sustainable food source the birds will stay in that general area.
Once the dogs go on point, it is best to bring the hunters together. Prior to walking in to flush the birds, each hunter should look at their position and know their respective shooting lanes for safety purposes. Likely flight paths should also be taken into consideration as flushing birds may cross fellow hunters. One of the most common hunting accidents is caused by a hunter swinging on a crossing bird and shooting a hunting partner during the excitement of a covey rise or flush.
Once the covey has flushed in an explosion of frenetic wing beats, each bird will be looking to duck into the nearest cover. Hunters need to keep in mind two important rules when attempting to shoot at a covey if they want to fill their bird vest.
Avoid Covey Panic
When a covey is located, birds will typically flush from a very small area. With quail, it is very easy for hunters to resort to flock shoot. Instead, hunters should concentrate on a single bird, shoot, mark the downed bird, and THEN pick out a second bird, shoot, and mark.
Hunters should also pay attention and watch the flight path of the remaining birds so as to allow the dogs to work up singles.
No Low Flyers with Bird Dogs
Hunters should never shoot at low flying quail when hunting with dogs. Shooting at a low flying bird will cause hunters to lower their muzzle below a horizontal plane with the ground. Doing this could end up taking the life of one of your dogs or peppering a member of your hunting party. Hunters should adhere to the “Blue Sky Rule” which means NO shooting at a bird unless a hunter sees blue sky behind it. Make sure that the direction of your shot is safely above the heads of dogs and hunters. (Read about The Etiquette of Hunting Over Someone Else’s Bird Dog)
One last rule of thumb, or rather a choice I make as an ethical hunter, is to look past the end of the barrels on my over-and-under and never over-shoot a covey of public land bobwhite quail. This personal decision will insure that any future outings I have with the assurance that the covey will survive to replenish and flourish.
Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. He also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Edgar longs for the colors of autumn and frosty, winter days so he can explore the landscapes in search of wild birds in wild places. His passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.