Quail gone wild

Published on Wednesday, 1 February 2017 10:40 - Written by DALE ROLLINS/RPQRR

As a student at Oklahoma State in the early 1980s, there used to be a note pasted just outside the first-floor elevator in the Life Sciences West building that warned “Adapt or perish.” At some point, someone edited the maxim to read “Adapt and/or perish.” There are few certainties on the Back 40.

A long-time quail hunter inquired recently asking whether bobwhites have adopted a running style instead of being the “Gentleman Bob” of old.

He writes: “I’ve hunted quail since 1956-from Brownsville to the Panhandle, etc., etc. Currently we hunt above Abilene, you know that county well. Beginning last year, we began to see all bobs (no blues anywhere on the lease) start to use avoidance techniques used by blue quail, i.e., the dogs point, we walk up to the dog and a tight covey gets up thirty yards ahead, glides 100 yards, and flops (lands). If you follow them, they repeat the behavior. What’s up with all these coveys? In my youth in Bell County, Gentleman Bob would never behave like that.” - WF

I often get questions like this, especially from the more senior members of the quail hunting fraternity. They bring a 50 or 60-year perspective on today’s bobwhites’ behavior and hint that the bobwhite itself has changed (i.e., genotypically); that it’s either been “bred up” with “Mexican quail”, or that the local bobwhites have crossed at some point with blues (which are inherently more likely to run), or perhaps just observed the blues and their ability to frustrate bird dogs then copied their tactics. Tempting hypotheses, but unlikely.

As Bob Dylan wailed “the times, they are a changing.” Today’s bobwhite is perhaps “wilder” than its predecessor from the late 1950s (i.e., after the drought broke, e.g., circa 1957). So, what’s changed since WF began quail hunting in 1956?

Perhaps hunting pressure has increased, at least on a per acre of quail habitat-basis. We’ve lost much of the bobwhite’s habitat, especially east of the 98th meridian (e.g., Bell Co.). Other sites west of there have likely been compromised via overstocking, brush encroachment, and removal of fire from the toolbox. But, if we compare 1958 with 2016 I assume habitat conditions (and quail abundance) were comparable. I’ve been saying the 2016 quail crop is the best I’ve ever seen in west Texas and many agree with me. Some of the seniors maintain 1958 was better. (I was only three then, so will defer to them!) Note both booms came 2 years after a historic drought broke.

The first year after a drought breaks, we observe what A. S. Jackson referred to as a “lateral increase.” Survivors expand into improved habitat and do well reproductively, but their “corpus” is small. Another good year and these birds demonstrate a “vertical increase”, i.e., a boom. Now, allow me to speculate about what the consequences of this are for the quail population (i.e., demographically), and for the quail hunter.

During the drought, and the first year thereafter, only the strong survive . . . I call these birds the “Yogi” quail, after cartoon character Yogi Bear. Remember he was “smarter than your average bear.” Grass conditions are lean, and running birds survive better than “gentlemen.” During the boom year, we see a proliferation of young birds, or what I call the “Boo-Boo” birds . . . not quite as smart as Yogi. A population comprised mostly of juvenile quail (it was almost 90% juvenile birds in 2016 at Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch) may be less likely to flush wild. Now, in 2016, our juvenile:adult ratio is only about 2.1:1, i.e., a larger proportion of Yogi quail. Perhaps they run more and flush wilder . . . both are adaptive traits. Indeed, as a quail hunter you’ve observed “wilder” birds toward the end of the season. Adapt or perish.

Research at Auburn University about 30 years ago monitored how coveys of radio-marked bobwhites responded to approaching quail hunters. A third of the birds skedaddled as soon as they heard the approaching hunting party, i.e., the bird dogs might’ve smelled them, but they were done gone. Another third were pointed by the dogs, but the birds flushed wild, or behind brush, thus not allowing any shots at the fleeing covey. The final third were pointed and shot into. Genetically and behaviorally, which group was selected against? The “Gentlemen Bobs.”

Reckon that first third (perhaps more Yogi quail) take off at the sound of a dog whistle, the rumble of a Kawasaki Mule, or as Bill cusses loudly because his hard-headed pointer Tex isn’t working like Bill wants? Recently I was hunting at RPQRR with a couple of fellows from a pickup truck. When one of my dogs pointed, we’d drive within 50 yards, then disembark. On two occasions, a slamming truck door caused the birds to flush. Accordingly, I recommend a quick, but quiet, approach to one’s pointing dog. Many of us, myself included, aren’t as nimble as we were in our twenties.

There may be one other technological change that’s impacting this equation. The GPS tracking collars on bird dogs have become standard issue. You look down at your receiver to see where ol’ Tex is and whether he’s pointed or not. I never had one til last year, but now I’d feel blind without it. And it seems to me that my dogs “know” I can find them now even if they’re out there at 300 yards or further. But the further the point, the longer it takes me to get there, and the more time the birds have to run . . . and they do.

Sometimes the habitat itself precludes a stealthy approach. Take mares’ tail (Conyza canadensis) for example . . . we had it ad nauseum at RPQRR last summer. It’s almost like walking through a bamboo forest yet it’s open at quail level and they can run through it like Usain Bolt. Shinoak and tall broomweed pose the same “problems” for quail hunters. I put “problems” in quotations because what becomes a problem for hunters becomes an asset for the prey. I always hope to err on the side of the quail.

Range that’s grazed too closely mandates a wilder quail. Always be careful of the trade-offs between stocking rate, residual grass cover, and propensity of a covey to hold for a covey rise.

So, for a combination of reasons, Gentleman Bob is unlikely to return to what WF remembers. And I predict it’ll be even more challenging next year. Improvise, adapt, and overcome.