Pinpointing Bobwhite quail while dove hunting can help hunters months down the road.
Hunters have been waiting all summer for September 1st to finally show up on the calendar. Opening day of dove season is one of the most anticipated days of the year for many bird hunters, for it’s the first hunting opportunity of the upcoming fall. Dove hunters have been scouting designated dove fields on public lands, shotgun shells of ALL gauges have been cleared from the shelves–12, 16, 20, 28, and yes even the .410–camo is the color of choice, and comfy chairs have all been set neatly by the door for an early morning start to get to “the spot”.
The truck is parked and shotguns are uncased. Gear is carried in the darkness, illuminated only by the beam of headlamps. You see other figures that resemble fireflies in the distance, each one heading to their destination. You finally arrive and set up the chairs along a treeline near a natural opening. Hopefully the doves will be skimming the tree-tops and funneling through the opening like an invisible exit ramp. Motion dove decoys are set up and, at the flip of the switch, the cardboard wings start humming. You see the flickering of white as the sun is barely inching its way to the heavens. Ground decoys are set up strategically and hunters retreat to wait for legal shooting light. The morning is starting to come alive. Birds are chirping. Anxious hunters await the signaling of the first shooter to spot a dove and raise their shotgun to sound off the opener.
Suddenly a familiar sound pierces the morning air: it’s a clear, distinctive, early-morning covey call from our beloved Gentleman Bob. The audible declaration comes from behind, near an overgrown field that is still hidden in the darkness. This musical three-note call triggers other bobwhite quail from across the field and surrounding area to join the chorus of similar tunes to the surprised audience of hunters.
The bob’s short, lyrical song is a welcome sound to the hunters. As the sun creeps its way over the horizon, bird hunters need to start taking mental notes before their thoughts are interrupted by incoming doves and a bombardment of shots. By taking a moment or two at the start of the hunt–and even more importantly, after the dove shoot–hunters can improve their chances for when they return a month or two later when quail season starts. Think of it as a sort of Sights & Sounds, but not necessarily in that order.
Learning About Quail Calls
It is the bobwhite’s call that grabs the attention of dove hunters and reminds them of their excitement for the upcoming quail season. To use this to their scouting advantage, the first step dove hunters should take is to just listen. Listen to where the coveys are calling and start to ask yourself some questions. Are the quail nearby? Where are the calls and responses coming from? Can I hear calling in the distance from quail in other areas?
Bobs are territorial in nature and seldom wander far from their home area. I have found the same coveys in the same general area, season after season.
Since bobwhite quail have about 13 different vocalizations, hunters should be familiar with some basic bobwhite quail calls.
When in search of a mate, Mr. Bob whistles his own name in the form of either the two-note bob-white or the three-note bob-bob-white whistle. This is an exciting call for bird hunters to hear when out scouting for birds.
During the fall, quail will form into social groups called coveys. Coveys usually contain 10-12 birds, offering the birds advantages over predators and cold weather. The assembly call is commonly heard after a covey of quail has been dispersed or flushed. It is sounded to call members back to the group. The call is typically done within an hour and can continue for up to four or five hours later in an attempt to re-gather the covey for safety.
The assembly call is usually four short notes. The discerning hunter will detect a little bit of anxiety as the quail are scared and anxious to find the others again.
The contact call sounds like a soft tu-tu-tu. The roosters (male quail) and hens (female quail) will use both sharp whistles and softer contact calls to keep in touch with one another as they move and forage throughout the day.
Early Morning Covey Call
Also referred to as the “koi-lee”, the covey call is the sound made by quail when the birds are waking up each morning. The call can generally be heard about 40 minutes before sunrise. Bird hunters will know this time when they look to the east and see a beautiful pink glow on the horizon. It is my experience that this early morning calling can go on into the early morning hours.
Identifying Quail Habitat
Dove hunters need to wander around and visually take in the sights to become familiar with their surroundings. It’s a good time to store the type of food plots and fields, cover, vegetation, and landscape in your memory bank. Understand that the cover and landscape can change as the months go by, but noting a general idea of the location can help locate bobs once the regular season opens.
Quail hunters know the three most important things bobwhite quail need in order to survive in sufficient numbers are food, water, and cover. In September, bobwhite quail are still feeding mainly on insects and green material. As fall approaches, the availability of those summer foods and even cover will start to diminish.
Hunters can think of it as pre-scouting and laying the groundwork to return to a general location instead of wandering aimlessly in search of the right components of an area that could hold quail.
Sunflowers Are Not Just for Doves
Dove hunting and sunflowers go together like peanut butter and jelly. Yes, there are a variety of food plots and fields where doves like to congregate and feed, but sunflowers are usually the main source of food that the state plants in the hopes of drawing in doves for the season. It is the crop that draws camouflaged dove hunters to lay in wait for approaching birds.
I frequently find coveys of bobwhite quail next to sunflower fields in the late summer and fall months. Weedy sunflower plots left unmowed are better for quail than they are for doves. These fields provide an excellent food source and allow quail to move through more easily while still providing a bit of cover.
Why Quail Patterns Shift from the Dove Opener
It is not unusual for hunters to see large numbers of bobwhite quail during the September dove season, only to find quail scarce in the same spots later in the fall.
During the fall, bobwhite quail tend to move from their summer haunts to the more protective wintering range. The covey seen during dove season may relocate several hundreds of yards to denser thickets or otherwise protective cover. This “disappearance” of a covey often leads to the false notion that the quail have perished or been shot. Their absence should be a cue for quail hunters to venture out and locate those spots that look “birdy” for quail.
The bottom line is that, when setting up for the incoming doves, hunters should pay attention to those early morning covey calls and make a mental note for when they return in search of Mr. Bob and….oh wait, incoming doves! I gotta focus because it’s dove season, and Mr. Bob can wait a few more months since I’ll know exactly where to look! Boom. Boom. Boom.
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.