Ben Chewning has run bird dogs over most of the 5,000 acres on the Buchanan Shoals Sportsman’s Preserve in Anson County, so he’s got a good idea of what kind of wild quail live on the property — even though he mostly runs guided hunts for released birds.
"We probably have about 20 wild coveys on the place," Chewning said. "You can hunt ’em about two or three times early in the season, and you’ll find ’em in places where they’re easy to find, where you’ve got easy walking.
"But after you’ve shot ’em three or four times, those wild quail get smart, and they go to the thickest, wildest places."
Apparently, the days of being able to hunt quail on the edges of broomstraw fields and cornfields — places where a hunter could count on a decent shot at a rising covey —– are mostly a distant memory. A generation of hunters has grown up without the opportunity to watch a pointer and a setter come to a sudden halt, their muscles quivering and heads cocked to the side, noses trying to soak up every molecule of quail scent.
ut there is still hope, if you’re willing to literally go the extra mile — as long as you’re wearing briarproof clothing from head to toe. Quail numbers have fallen precipitously over the past 50 years as land-use practices have changed, and the number of places where you stand a chance of locating a covey have crashed.
"There are still places where you can count on finding birds," said biologist Ryan Myers of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. "But quail, which have been plentiful for a hundred years, have taken a steep nosedive within some peoples’ lifetimes."
What does this mean to the North Carolina hunter?
Quail populations can profit from intense habitat management on "local" properties, but not likely on a larger scale, on a more regional basis. A handful of farmers with contiguous properties can do prescribed burning, predator control and manage field edges and ditch banks across their properties to provide the kind of habitat in which quail thrived in the middle of the 20th century — and they can expect to
find birds. John Wooding, the Commission’s former small-game biologist, wrote in a report that, "If the birds get the habitat they need, nature equipped them with the reproductive potential to capitalize on the conditions."
"I think we’ve got as many birds (here) as we had years ago, but we’ve protected ’em as well as we can," he said. "We plant lot of food plots, partridge peas; they may not be planted specifically for quail, but they profit from them. The birds we clean, their stomachs are full of beggar lice.
"Quail have to be protected; predators will take toll on lot of quail, and you can’t always help that, but as far as food and cover, we can do a pretty good job."
The other thing is, quail have done better in the eastern third of the state than anywhere else in North Carolina. Surveys done over the past 30 years showed a decline in quail numbers everywhere in the Tarheel State, but the drop wasn’t as steep along the coastal plain, and it didn’t last as long.
Bobwhites found protection along grown-up ditchbanks, in fallow fields, along grown-up field borders and in cutovers — enough protection to give them a fighting chance against the hawks and foxes that prey on them. Ditchbanks, in particular, provide excellent habitat for quail, and they are everywhere in the coastal plain; farmers use ditches to drain water off their fields.
The Commission’s Spring Call Count and Avid Quail Hunter surveys have documented hunter success over the past 30 years, so they have also documented the decline of the bobwhite. They clearly shows that quail have done better in the eastern third of the state, and on private land in general.
The Call Count surveys document the number of quail heard calling along prescribed "routes" in different counties. From the 1950s through the mid-1970s, the number of quail heard calling per route ranged between 60 and 80. Since 2000, call-count routes in the eastern third of the state are reporting around 30 birds per route, compared to anywhere from one to six birds in the Piedmont and few birds at all in the mountains, where quality habitat is largely missing.
have to rethink how we monitor them, because numbers have dropped so low that in some places, we can’t document any," Myers said.
As recently as the 1980s, avid hunters reported flushing between three and five coveys in a half-day hunt and up to three quail bagged per trip. In the 2010 avid hunter survey, the average half-day hunting trip in the coastal plain resulted in 2.1 coves flushed, compared to 0.8 in the Piedmont and even lower numbers in the mountains. The difference between hunting on private land and public game lands was just as stark. Hunters averaged flushing 2.2 coveys per trip on private land a 0.6 coveys on public game lands.
In the 2010 reports, Wooding wrote, "Fortunately, quail on the Coastal Plain routes have stabilized with reasonable numbers. Stability has also come to the Mountains and Piedmont routes, but with such low numbers that wild bird hunting may not be worth the effort except in local areas where reasonable numbers remain…. On the bright side, the number of coveys flushed per hour has been steady in the Coastal Plain over the past 20 years. The future of quail hunting in North Carolina rests in the Coastal Plain, although pockets of birds at huntable numbers still occur in all regions."
One factor the most recent surveys indicated is that quail hunting isn’t nearly as popular as it used to be. Hunter effort continues to dwindle, and the quail-hunting population continues to age. The average of those who contributed to the Avid Quail Hunter Survey was 60, and the number of trips per season was down to 14 — around half the effort of hunters 60 years ago.
Quail season dates have remained roughly the same over the years; the 2011-2012 season opened Nov. 19 and runs through Feb. 26. But the bag limit is down to six birds per trip.
What do hunters need to do to kill a daily limit of quail — outside of trying to improve the habitat on their land? Hunt in the thickest cover possible. Places where rabbit hunters would normally turn their beagles loose are the kinds of places where bird dogs are finding the most quail. Cutovers, places where trees that have blown down form almost an impenetrable mess, thick hedgerows — places where quail are protected from predators — that’s where you have to send in the dogs.
The bobwhite quail has always been a favorite gamebird among wingshooters, and not just for the explosion of wings when a covey takes flight, inches in front of the nose of a quivering pointer or setter.
The quail is a real favorite next to a plate full of grits and gravy, or served in a “bird pie.”
Apparently, hunters aren’t the only ones who like a good meal of quail once in a while. Biologists estimate the predators — foxes, raptors, coyotes, raccoons, opossums and snakes — take 80 percent of the available quail in a calendar year, before or after they hatch.
Like a pink shrimp in the salt marsh, everything likes to eat quail, and fortunately quail are like rabbits and wild hogs — they can reproduce at an amazing pace.
Quail can raise as many as three broods in a year, with an average of 12 eggs per clutch. Much of the predation comes during the nesting stage, when snakes and other ground-based egg-eaters can do the most damage. Approximately half of all quail nests are destroyed by predators.
Beyond habitat management, biologists suggest that landowners looking to bolster the quail population on their acreage should look into consistent predator-control efforts.
Predator control must be year-round and include the entire range of predators, and it must be consistent from year to year or predators will move in from adjoining properties to fill the void.
Quail habitat can be improved on local level
Bobwhite quail were once the prince of southern forests and fields, a gamebird that filled the dreams of young boys approaching hunting age and old men alike.
But changing land-use practices on what biologists call a “landscape scale” have severely reduced the number of quail across the Southeast. In fact, it is estimated that over the past 40 years, bobwhite numbers have been reduced by 80 percent. Those days of starting at the back door with a side-by-side 20-gauge Parker, Foxx or L.C. Smith and leading a pointer and setter out to the “back 40” to find four or five coveys in an afternoon are generally gone but not forgotten.
The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative is a movement fueled by biologists from 25 states in the “traditional” southeastern quail belt that began studying the decline of the bobwhite on a regional basis in the late 1990s. NCBI has identified 195 million acres across those 25 states that have the potential to provide good habitat for quail and other grassland songbirds that were also negatively affected.
NCBI also identified five major ways for landowners to improve habitat for quail: • Increased use of prescribed fire; • Field/edge management; • Compatible forest management; • Conversion from sod-forming grasses to native warm-season grasses; • Brush management.