Quail are making a comeback and there are many areas to hunt them across the state.
Slivers of ice crystals turn to water droplets on a bramble of briars. A lazy sun begins to creep over the distant prow of pines. Tips of broom straw sway slightly in the February breeze. All elements are in place for another perfect day afield for quail hunting.
Sally, a 2 1/2- year old lemon pointer, trots through the scattered briar clumps, her nose to the ground. The guide shouts commands to Sally to change directions. A pair of quail hunters has begun commenting if they are dressed appropriately for the winter chill in the air.
Less than 30- yards in front of the group Sally is frozen, nose to the ground, tail straight and rigid as a pool cue. Her nose knows the scent of quail and the sudden flush of three bundles of feathered lightning confirms the fact. The hunter’s guns find their shoulder and report. A single puff of feathers signals a hit.
With the quail retrieved, Sally begins her search for the next covey. The hunters reload their shotguns in anticipation of the next covey rise. This was a common scene across the Cotton State several decades ago.
Quail Habitat Renewal
Back in the late 1950s and early 1960’s small farms dotted the countryside across Alabama and the southeast. Farmers would leave brushy areas intermingled with bottomland and small fields. This offered excellent cover and brood locations for the bobwhite quail.
How did we get in this shape with the quail population? Urban sprawl took away many of the smaller farms that had garden plots and field edges with natural forage. Intensive farming practices removed much of the natural grassland habitat suitable for quail chicks. Also, the introduction of exotic grasses choked out the prime quail cover and wild seeds.
“So much has changed in the way we manage our forests to the way we have industrialized agriculture,” mentions John Doty, Communications Director and SOTB Editor with the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. (NBCI). “The small family farms are gone. We’re row-cropping from border to border. We’re replacing native, warm-season grasses with fescue.”
“The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources working together with NBCI are re-establishing quail habitat in various sections across the state. The is the first step in helping to grow the quail population.”
Other factors also caused a decline in wild quail numbers. Fire ants across the South took their toll on quail eggs and newly hatched chicks. An increase in predators like hawks, bobcats, and coyotes added their negative impact on quail numbers. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) planting guideline changes in certain crops also contributed.
As biologists note the decrease in quail, they also saw a dramatic decrease in songbird numbers. It was discovered that many of the songbirds shared the same habitat as the quail. With the natural grasses and forbs erased, pollinators, like bees, also declined.
The NBCI was created by the state wildlife agencies in the 25 states that make up the core bobwhite quail range. They do not do the same things the state agencies do. NBCI works at the regional and national levels to look at opportunities and obstacles to quail restoration. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved NBCI as a Pittman-Robertson program, so they can receive Wildlife Restoration Act funding.
Currently, quail harvests are less than 5 percent of the harvest during the 1960s. During the 1960s annual quail harvests were reported as high as 2.8 million birds. Hunter surveys form the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) indicated 11,600 quail hunters harvested around 267,000 quail. But, less than 10- percent were wild birds.
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources working together with NBCI are re-establishing quail habitat in various sections across the state. The is the first step in helping to grow the quail population.
The ADCNR and the U.S. Forest Service recently signed an agreement establishing the Boggy Hollow Wildlife Management Area (WMA) as Alabama’s first NBCI quail focal area. The WMA is a 7,000-acre tract in the southern part of the Conecuh National Forest (NF).
As part of a quail monitoring program, 13 WMAs around the state are participating in a fall covey counts and spring call counts. Also, efforts are ongoing between ADCNR and NF in the state to establish quail management units.
While the quail population continues to grow, so does quail hunting. While the population of wild birds is not at the level of the mid-1970s, quail hunters do have an option.
Quail Preserves Keeping the Tradition Alive
Throughout the state, quail hunting preserves offer hunters the opportunity to hunt. Professional guides to hunt-on-your own trips are available at most hunting preserves. Also, there is more than just quail hunting. Some preserves can provide lodging, corporate meeting areas, and additional amenities.
“We offer fully guided hunts and quail packages,” reports Richard Sprayberry, owner of Mountain View Plantation near Delta, Ala. “If hunting is not preferred, we have a five-stand sporting clay range, team building and a dining area that holds up to 40 people.”
Like many of the quail hunting reserves across the state, individual hunts for quail along with pheasant and chukar are offered. Also, the hunting reserves can provide hunting areas for quail shooters to use their own bird dogs. Or hunters have an option of a guided hunt with dogs provided.
“Our birds flush and fly hard,” Sprayberry advises. “We do an early release of quail beginning in September and birds are released throughout the season.”
There are many advantages in hunting quail on a preserve. One is the season runs until March 31. Also, hunters on the reserve are not required to have a hunting license. This is covered under the license of the preserve. Mt. View Plantation has been licensed by the state for the past 17 years.
Another advantage is the opportunity for combination hunts. With turkey season opening on March 15, hunters can hunt gobblers in the morning, take a break for a catered lunch and shoot quail in the afternoon. Or, another option is a morning quail hunt and an afternoon fishing trip on preserves that have lakes nearby.
In most cases, a few days’ notice may be required. However, hunts can book up quickly. Quail hunters will want to make reservations in advance to assure a slot.
Mt. View and other quail hunting reserves and plantations are working to develop good quail habitat on its lands. Food plots, traditional plantings, and native grasses are being established to help quail and other wildlife.
“If you can get rid of fescue and other plants that were part of the new farming process, and bring back the native grasses and plants everything benefits, not just the quail but all wildlife” Sprayberry reported.
There are huntable populations of wild quail in some select areas around the state. But, while the wild quail numbers continue to improve, quail hunting preserves can fill the gap for hunters. And this will make for a great day outdoors when the fervent flutter of quail wings fills the air.