Learn how to hunt the quail of the arid grasslands
Hunting scaled quail is different than hunting other quail of the semi-arid landscape. Scaled quail even though they may be in the same vicinity as Gambel’s and Mearns, and yes even Bobwhite himself, are unpredictable in where they will be. Many bird hunters who go after cotton tops or blue quail, as they are commonly referred to in other parts, have a much more expansive range. The movements of scaled quail are akin to a dusty windswept current drifting across the desert grasslands or savannah – all around you unexpectedly, and the next moment gone.
When scaled quail hunting, many bird hunters have a preconceived notion and visualize ONLY the Southwest with its sandy arroyos, mesquite, and cacti. The surprise comes when they discover this quail with its scalloped or scaled effect markings in fact inhabit other areas besides Arizona and New Mexico. Places such as southern and western Texas to as far north as southeastern Colorado, and the western panhandle of Oklahoma, with the biggest surprise being sporadic parts in extreme southwestern Kansas.
Preferred habitat of scaled quail
Bagging scaled quail starts with one fundamental key and that is finding the right habitat. Scaled quail typically inhabit dry, open valleys, plains, foothills, grassy uplands and savannahs, as well as foothills, rocky slopes, draws, gullies, and canyons that have a mixture of bare ground and low vegetative growth interspersed with a scattering of brushy cover. Think spare grass cover. Low-growing grasses, forbs, and shrubs can be described as good scaled quail cover.
The habitat they live in allows them to take advantage of their best defense…running! Scaled quail are notorious for this and would rather run than fly when avoiding predators or orange-clad quail hunters and their big ranging bird dogs during hunting season. Scaled quail when flushed tend to fly farther away than their brethren quail counterparts.
Quail require four basic habitat components: food, cover, water, and open space (discussed above).
- Food: Seeds are a large part of a scaled quail’s diet, however, the use of seeds can fluctuate, relative to availability. Scaled quail will take advantage of grain and crops, green leaves, shoots, berries, and insects. Food resources are closely connected to cover.
- Cover: Quality habitat usually consists of scattered pockets of cover. Scaled quail need overhead cover with open ground space. The scattering of open cover allows scaled quail to run rather than hide or fly when pressured and disturbed. When scaled quail do fly, they do so in much longer distances and glide to the ground and continue running seeking the most available cover. Several cover types are used by scaled quail, from grasses, to large woody plants such as mesquite and cholla cacti to brush piles. Brush piles – tend to be old discarded farm implements and machinery, stacks of railroad ties, old farmsteads, to overgrown weedy windmills. Any natural or artificial structural components warrant further exploration by quail hunters and dogs. These replace areas where natural cover is lacking.
- Water: H2O is a critical element in quality scaled quail habitat. Scaled quail will frequently concentrate around a water source if available. While doing research it was discovered that there is some debate over the actual requirement of a nearby open water source. Scaled quail are able to obtain their necessary water intake through dew, succulent vegetation, and insects. However, hunters should concentrate around stock tanks, windmills, and other water sources when hunting scaled quail. A highway of tracks in the dirt and sandy ground is a good indication as to the use of an area where water is present.
Range of the scaled quail
Arizona scaled quail
The heart of scaled quail habitat is found in southeastern Arizona in the semi-desert grasslands. The southern part of the state is dominated by mountain ranges, in which scaled quail seem to inhabit the shoulders and edges of those mountains that extend down into the grasslands flats of these basins. Areas of sparsely scattered shrubs, yucca, and cholla cactus no greater than 5 ft. in height should be targeted by hunters. This type of canopy habitat interspersed with bare ground are important for scaled quail to avoid danger and easy escape by the way of running.
With a bit of research, hunter access should not be an issue in Arizona. The state is comprised of 60% percent public land, making it relatively easy for bird hunters to find a place to chase scaled quail.
Colorado scaled quail
Southeastern Colorado is scaled quail country. The area comprised from east of Interstate 25 and South of U.S 50 is in large part where hunters should focus on. They are present in the plains and mesas where relatively open bare ground is present. Hunters should stay away from heavy grass cover. In most cases, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) cropland is too dense for scaled quail to thrive.
Scaled quail thrive on the open lands of the Comanche National Grasslands, located in the extreme southeast corner. Scaled quail are most commonly found in sand sagebrush, cholla, or yucca stands on sandy soils mixed with croplands. They also may occupy shrublands and pinon juniper woodlands infused with open grasslands.
Colorado public access abounds with their Walk-In Access Program (https://cpw.state.co.us/wia), providing hunters the opportunity along with state trust and federal lands to hunt scaled quail.
Kansas scaled quail
Tucked away in the far southwestern corner of the state, the scaled quail is not nearly as well-known to bird hunters. It has adapted to living in the arid, sandsage prairie. The scaled quail has been documented in 12 counties, primarily along the Cimarron and Arkansas rivers. The Cimarron National Grasslands offers hunters the most popular hunting place for these birds. It consists of over 108,000 acres of public hunting access.
The area also has several thousands of acres enrolled into the Kansas Walk-In Hunting Area program. https://ksoutdoors.com/KDWPT-Info/Locations/Hunting-Fishing-Atlas/Fall-Hunting-Atlas
Good scaled quail cover includes grasses 12-15 inches tall, intermixed with sagebrush. As a common component of nearly every other state that has scaled quail, bare ground and forbs are critical. Cover consists of sand plum thickets or stands of sand sagebrush with available canopy cover. This may come from the grasslands yucca plants and sporadic cholla cactuses, along with “quail huts” that have been erected to provide cover. Over 100 water guzzlers abound throughout the grasslands providing cover and water. Scaled quail tend to gravitate towards old buildings, overgrown and weedy corrals and windmills, old board piles, and abandoned farm machinery. Artificial brush piles have also been created to help both scaled and bobwhite quail.
New Mexico scaled quail
Scaled quail inhabit most of the Land of Enchantment state, except in the higher elevation areas and are linked to the desert grasslands. Hunters should focus on areas of semi-arid rangelands with mixed scrub (shrubs, grass, and barren ground). Scaled quail often inhabit areas where prickly pear and cholla cactus, and scattered shrubs grow. In areas lacking overhead cover such as cholla cactus, scaled quail will use wolfberry and mesquite.
Hunters need to be aware that in some areas, Gambel’s and scaled quail habitat overlap and a mixed-bag opportunity is possible.
New Mexico contains approximately nine million acres of National Forest and 13 million acres of BLM lands that are accessible for hunting.
The state also has the Open Gate Access Program (http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/open-gate/open-gate-property-list/) which leases private lands to improve public access for hunting.
Oklahoma scaled quail
The highest densities of scaled quail are found in the extreme northwest panhandle and southwest portions of the Sooner State. Scaled quail occur in sand sagebrush grasslands, which include yucca, skunkbrush sumac, and sand plum. They inhabit rough or rolling lands with short-grass with barren ground located in the High Plains. Cholla cacti, mesquite, man-made structures, and even rocks furnish overhead cover.
During winter months, scaled quail often times migrate to farms and ranches to be close to a water source. Scaled and Bobwhite quail reside in overlapping ranges, and it is not uncommon to flush a covey of bobs while hunting scaled quail.
Oklahoma’s Land Access Program (https://www.wildlifedepartment.com/wildlife-management-areas) is similar the other state’s walk-in programs, whereas private lands are opened up to hunters. Although not as prevalent in the western panhandle of the state, Wildlife Management Areas are available to hunters.
Texas scaled quail
Texas Blue Quail are found in the western portion of the state. Scaled quail habitat consists generally of arid to semi-arid environments with juniper grasslands, tree cholla, prickly pear, yucca, and catclaw blended in with bare open ground in varying densities.
Most of the hunting for scaled quail is done on private lands as Texas does not have a large public access program. https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/public/
Prior to hunting scaled quail, hunters should contact state wildlife agencies and speak with staff, land managers, and biologists to obtain information, including the expected quail hunting forecast. One important factor that should be taken into consideration is that quail as a whole are sensitive to rainfall amounts. Drought years and climate change can mean fewer birds. Populations are heavily based on the amount of water that falls, land use changes, improper grazing, and habitat loss.
In the end, for the determined scaled quail hunter, these desert grassland birds are big ranging and running fools. No matter what state scaled quail are found in, one thing is known for sure…these blue devils run like the dickens.
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.