December 13, 2021
Middle-aged bobwhite quail hunters recall their youth as halcyon days for quail hunting. Moving 30 coveys per outing was entirely possible, and warm spring days brought plenty of bob-bob-white cheery songs to the ears. Those just one or two generations earlier had even better hunting memories.
Progress brings change to rural America, and habitat loss has made the bobwhite quail something of a stranger in its native range. Long a bird of edge habitats, some favorite quail fields have become housing developments or city expansions, while others have become less hospitable due to fire suppression or changing farming or forestry practices.
The cumulative effect of all this human influence is that quail now have fewer places to call home. On top of that, humans have also made those remaining quail habitats increasingly isolated and the small, fragmented pockets of quail living on them more vulnerable to predation or extreme weather.
Still, while quail are not as abundant as they once were, they are around in huntable numbers for those willing to put forth the time and effort. The key ingredient to good quail hunting is likely the same now as it ever was: finding quality habitat on which bobwhites thrive. So, although it might require a bit more looking these days, if you want to put more quail in your bag this fall, focus on probing the right lands with the right types of food and cover. The habitat quail prefer often has many of the same attributes, but ideal locations also vary depending on conditions, too. A good quail hunter will begin by understanding what a quail needs to survive and by realizing how changing wind and weather conditions affect the behavior of birds.
QUALITY QUAIL LAND
Bobwhite quail need a mixture of food sources, as well as roosting, escape and nesting cover. The most attractive quail properties consist of a fusion of land types that make moving between sections almost effortless. If we were to picture a fairly ideal piece of quail habitat, it would probably look something like an agricultural field next to a thicket, an old pasture, a fenceline or a wooded stream course. On a truly perfect landscape, all the forementioned features would be sewn neatly together in harmonious patches.
Unfortunately, life is rarely perfect. Most land plots don’t check all the boxes, though many do check enough for quail to eke out a pretty stable existence. Let’s examine some types of habitat that bobwhites frequent and discuss how variable conditions can affect which part of these areas bobwhites occupy.
Pasturelands that aren’t overgrazed can contain the right mix of roosting cover and food. An array of grass and weed seed heads bring the birds in for food and offer a place for coveys to spend the night. Sage, chicory, switchgrass, partridge pea, cane, wild sunflowers, ragweed, sweet clover, Indian grass…all the varieties of grasses and forbs offer some value as cover or food. It’s just a matter of discovering where the birds are bunched up and what they might be feeding on—either what’s most available or the most preferred foods. When the wind blows, seek out the thickest portions, as quail will do the same. Pastures also often have water tanks with windmills or cattle dugouts, and, just like everything else, bobwhites need water, too.
Conservation Reserve Program lands and other ground planted to perennial cover will hold and produce quail. Seek out state wildlife management areas, Army Corps of Engineers properties, Bureau of Land Management lands, federal waterfowl production areas with an abundance of uplands and private parcels enrolled in walk-in hunter access programs that offer a diverse planting of grass types. Look for transitions (areas where one grass type switches to another), ridge edges and woodland interfaces. Low spots where water intermittently collects can kill off unsuitable plants, leaving only those that will grow. Insects often concentrate in these spots, and they are a natural draw for quail. Many states include food plots on these areas, too, and while intended to attract deer, they also hold quail coveys.
Fencelines might be a solo quail hunter’s best friend. If you’re short on time and can only hunt for an hour, stroll down a fenceline along a farmed or fallow field edge. It’s possibly your best bet early or late in the day when birds are primed for feeding. Weedy fencelines—relics from fencing cattle, marking property lines or framing tree-lined shelterbelts—are great places to find small coveys of quail, as well as singles and doubles that break off from larger coveys. The more irregular and varied the plants and brush, the better your chances to find a few birds mixed in there.
Streams and Drainages
Small, wooded streams and drainages tend to be good places for young willows, sumacs, boxelders and cottonwoods to take root. A mix of vegetation also grows on stream banks, which creates numerous transitions. Water runs downslope and collects in low areas, and these low spots provide good shelter from the wind. So, when you’re blown off high ridges and grasslands, look for quail in low-lying stream bottoms and drainages.
Early-season bobwhites will run, scatter and eventually fly, and escape cover is a good safety blanket for those birds. Thickets are ideal cover. Look for brushy areas amongst trees. Greenbrier, blackberry, sumac and wild plum make perfect shrubs for thickets. Many of these species were planted as quick-rooting, soil-holding plants in places where water and wind erosion were taking topsoil from farmers. Similarly, open woodlands where undergrowth is minimal serve quail well.
Early in the season, on unseasonably warm days, quail often rest in the shade thickets provide. Late in the season, on the other hand, thickets hold birds hesitant to flush, as cold and snow keep them pinned down. When the wind is howling, you’re wise to do your hunting in thicket edges where birds are taking refuge.
Small Grain Fields
While insects are a huge part of a bobwhite quail’s diet, they must survive through the non-growing season on waste grains and plant seeds. A quail’s basic caloric energy requirements each day make them patternable. Field edges—often no more than 50 to 100 feet into a field, but farther if waste grain becomes scarce—are tremendous places to find quail in the mornings and late afternoons during feeding binges. Wheat, soybeans and corn are popular with quail, and they find sorghum almost irresistible.
A mix of habitat types in close proximity serves bobwhite quail well. But, the landscape’s composition also matters. Across the bobwhite quail’s range in the Midwest and Great Plains regions, the terrain is generally variable and rolling. These are places where the wind blows often and hard throughout fall and winter.
Open grass pastures may not hold birds for much of the day in the late season, but a tucked-in draw can be loaded when it offers shelter from the wind. The same applies for ravines; their steep slopes preclude row cropping but are great spots for thickets to naturally sprout and provide cover. The leeward side of a ravine, hilltop, stream bank or draw can be the kind of refuge coveys need from predators and heat loss. Something to keep in mind, especially as the season progresses.
ANALYZE AND ATTACK
Dissecting different hunting properties ahead of a hunt can set you up for success when pursuing Gentleman Bob. It will help you identify the most productive parcels, and you can best plan which areas to hunt based on the conditions you face. Whether it’s sunny or cloudy, calm or windy, early or late—in the day, or in the season—all will affect where birds are found. With a steady daily pattern of roosting, feeding, loafing and repeating, you can find birds in familiar haunts matched to the conditions at hand. Figure this out, and you’ll put more birds in your bag.