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How Public Land Bobwhite Quail Shift Patterns

How Public Land Bobwhite Quail Shift Patterns

A quail hunter walks up on a pointing dog and a covey of bobwhite quail on public lands.

Wondering why some of your quail spots are hit or miss? These tips from two biologists will help determine what might be wrong

Have you ever returned to a quail hunting spot later in the season and failed to find the birds that provided such a great hunt just weeks before? Whether it’s a public wildlife area, a Walk-In Hunting Area (WIHA) in Kansas, or any other type of publicly accessible property in whatever state, there are definitely strategies that hunters should consider, especially when pursuing bobwhite quail

Fellow wildlife biologist Frank Loncarich and I spend many days afield together each year chasing quail, and most of our trips involve some type of public land. Over the course of our lives, we have hunted thousands of hours, conducted years of research, and observed enough birds to create a pattern that guides our hunts. We often get questions regarding hunting strategy from folks that see or hear about good bird numbers, but then spend several days afield that end with empty or light game bags. Or, hunters that saw birds early in the season but struggle as winter takes hold. 

Our hunting strategy hasn’t been a conscious effort on our part, just something that has evolved from our aforementioned time spent with quail over the years. By no means am I suggesting we have it all figured out and shoot our limits every day we release our dogs into the beautiful landscapes that quail call home. But I believe our experiences can reduce the number of poor days afield for hunters of all ages.

Basic quail habitat requirements

Bobwhite quail need three basic habitat components: herbaceous vegetation, shrubby cover, and bare ground. 

Herbaceous vegetation in the form of grasses and forbs (weeds) is where quail nest and forage on insects and seeds. 

Shrubby cover is typically in the form of woody species like wild plum, dogwood, sumac, or others. However, this cover can be in the form of young trees, shelterbelts, downed treetops, edge feathered sites, or even strong stemmed weeds, like wild sunflowers or Kochia. This habitat type is used for thermal cover as well as escape cover. Quail need thermal cover throughout the year, for shade in summer and to escape cold and wind in winter. These areas also provide birds overhead shelter from their aerial nemeses, like Cooper’s hawks. 

Bare ground is typically the most commonly overlooked necessary habitat component. Bare ground doesn’t mean a harvested crop field. Rather, it’s the interstitial space between plants at ground level. Quail have short legs and cannot effectively navigate through thick, rank vegetation. In particular, chicks need open spaces between plants to move around to forage without getting wet from morning dew. Adult birds also need to be able to navigate through vegetation to find food as well, including seeds in winter. If forb seeds fall into a thick duff layer, they are unavailable to quail for food.

Seasonal shifts in quail habitat and food sources

Hunters often mistake good quail production habitat for good hunting habitat. In a perfect scenario, these areas should be one and the same. However, in today’s fragmented landscape, birds often relocate significant distances from summer brooding areas to fall and winter hideouts. 

Missouri research showed that some coveys relocated anywhere from a quarter of a mile to three miles from summer areas to fall/winter locations. Not all coveys make these moves.  Some spend the entire year within 50 acres or less. The real question is, why do they make these shifts? 

Typically, it comes down to one of two reasons: woody cover or food. 

Quail don’t need large thickets or heavy, woody draws in summer. They just need enough shrubby cover to find some shade and airflow on hot days. But in the fall and winter, they need much more robust woody cover sites. One couch-sized thicket across a couple of acres of grassland will work fine in summer, but those same quail won’t be found there by hunting season. They will relocate to areas with significantly higher densities of thickets or brushy/woody cover. 

Food is the other common denominator that moves birds from their insect-rich summer fields to neighboring seed sources, be that crop fields or weed seeds. Although grain crops are not necessary for bobwhite quail, they will readily utilize waste grain where available in fall and winter, sometimes moving significant distances to be near crop sources. Even so, those fields still must have the appropriate herbaceous vegetation and nearby woody cover that the quail depend on. 

Hunters must identify areas of adequate woody cover to find birds in winter. During the early season, some plants like wild sunflowers or Kochia can act as a surrogate for woody cover. However, typically as the season progresses, snow and wind break down these plants, and birds will eventually end up somewhere with substantial woody cover.

Hunting pressure on public land

Publicly accessible lands receive considerable hunting pressure in some states, due in part to the reduction of quality hunting on private land in many cases, or just simply a lack of access to private hunting grounds. This hunting pressure has a direct effect on bird locations and use, or in some instances, lack of use of an area. 

Early-season hunters can find birds in textbook habitat: a WIHA parcel with some adequate herbaceous cover enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), some row crops, and a shrubby draw running through the middle of the area.  However, in heavily hunted areas, those coveys seem to vanish by the second or third weekend of the season.  Hunters who don’t like dealing with opening weekend crowds sometimes choose to head out a bit later, only to find textbook habitat devoid of quail. If the adjacent property contains even marginal habitat, coveys will readily move off-site to avoid the orange army that arrives each weekend.   

In Kansas and Missouri, we have witnessed birds using adjacent, off-limits crops field for feeding, a shelterbelt as shrubby cover, and only stepping on the grass-dominated publicly hunted area to roost each night.  Such adjustments of use create minimal times for these birds to be huntable on the publicly accessible property.  

If hunting mid to late season, use OnX or personal observation to identify public tracts that create a situation most hunters will avoid. Areas where a walk is required across a quarter mile or more of inhospitable ground, like a winter wheat field or bean stubble, to get to proper quail habitat often hold birds that few hunters find. Many hunters won’t waste time on spots like this, and often the coveys are still around. Also, consider that most hunters on CRP tracts are pursuing pheasants. These parcels, where the only adequate woody cover that might hold a covey is in a back corner, can sometimes be gold mines. So, too, can be pastures, where no self-respecting pheasant hunter would waste their time. These may contain an abandoned homestead, windmill, or something with enough weeds and brush to house a covey of unsuspecting bobwhites.

Time of day determines success for public land quail hunting

This might be the most common mistake bird hunters make, and it can happen on both public and private lands. 

Quail typically follow a fairly strict routine. They roost somewhere within light to moderate herbaceous cover, not under thickets. They form a circle, typically between clumps of grass, and spend the night prepared to burst into flight at the first hint of danger. When dawn breaks, if it is really cold, the birds may sit tight for a while. 

Quail will feed sometime before mid-morning, but trying to find quail at dawn can be difficult during harsh weather. They will likely not have moved from their roost site yet, thus they haven’t left much scent for the dogs to find. After feeding in nearby crop fields, food plots, or in diverse weed patches, quail will move to some type of shrubby cover or similar type habitat described previously. 

Hunters heading down hedgerows, draws, or shelterbelts for quail at first light will be disappointed. Quail don’t typically occupy these types of areas until mid-morning.  However, the good news is the birds usually spend the majority of their day in some type of shrubby habitat, hoping to evade predators while digesting their breakfast. Hunting wide open grasslands or CRP fields during mid-day will rarely yield a point on a covey of quail either, since the birds are loafing in woody cover somewhere. 

By mid-afternoon, the process is reversed. Birds travel short distances to feeding sites in preparation for going to roost. Hunters are best served hunting this “golden hour,” typically around 3-4 PM, by canvassing areas where crop edges meet nearby thickets and herbaceous vegetation. Weed patches can also be hot spots during the afternoon feeding sessions. Pursuing birds much past their afternoon feeding session can bring about much debate, particularly if the nights are cold or the conditions are harsh. Allowing birds to regroup prior to roosting is likely the most preferred option.

Nothing can ever substitute time spent afield. Hunters who frequent the same areas year after year typically have a solid list of quality spots to hunt. But if you are exploring some new spots, or you are wondering why some of your current spots are hit or miss, maybe some of our advice will result in your dogs spending more time on point.

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