Crossover Quail

Crossover Quail

In the right counties west of D/FW and in the lower Panhandle, quail shooters can double their bags by hunting both bobwhites and blues. These are some top spots for doing just that! (December 2008)

Panhandle quail hunter Michael Haggar admires a handsome blue quail. This view shows why they're called "scaled quail."
Photo by Brandon Ray.

"In the hard-scrabble fringes of Texas' bobwhite range, the gentleman bob often shares habitat with the maddeningly undisciplined blue quail. The exquisitely marked blues, more properly called scaled quail, will quickly make a classic bird hunter sing the blues. Running like sawed-off pheasants, blue quail will drive a pointing dog crazy."

That quotation comes from the book Texas Quail, by Ray Sasser and Wyman Meinzer. Its reference to places in which bobs and blues share common ground makes me think of memorable combination hunts from the past -- hunts made more exciting because they were for two species instead of just one.

When I hunt Texas mule deer, I often do so in Panhandle counties, where it's possible to find whitetails. In certain regions, the species overlap with only slight differences in preferred habitat. In such places I've glassed mulies feeding on winter wheat near broken canyons and then swiveled my scope to find whitetails cruising a nearby river bottom. When I hunt javelinas in South Texas, feral hogs share the same real estate and come as a bonus. Often I see javvies and fat porkers vacuuming corn kernels on the same sendero. So it makes sense that when I'm planning a quail hunt I usually do so in an area where I can double my opportunities.

I guess it's a sign of the times that I want more opportunities from my limited days in the field. When I start each morning, I eat breakfast at my keyboard while checking e-mail. When I drive to my ranch office I return phone calls while at the wheel. It just seems like in today's fast-paced world we have to do more with less time. Instead of planning one hunt for bobwhites and another trip for scaled quail, why not combine the two? That's certainly one reason why crossover quail counties appeal to me.

Another reason I like hunting these crossover counties is variety. When I'm tired of playing run-and-gun on racy blues, I'll shift hunting terrain to places that favor bobwhites. Maybe they'll be more polite and hold tight for the dogs? Yeah -- maybe.

Another benefit to hunting a ranch where both birds exist is annual weather patterns. In some years bobwhites reproduce best, and so their numbers are high. At other times, typically in drier years, blue quail numbers are more stable while bobwhites might crash. By hunting crossover counties you can usually find huntable numbers of at least one quail species. If, for example, you hunt in a county to the east known only for bobwhites, due to scarce rainfall there may not be enough birds to justify those all-day walks. It's sometimes boom or bust. By contrast, birds found farther west are accustomed to dry weather and therefore more tolerant of drought conditions.

My friend and TPWD technical guidance biologist in Weatherford, Ty Bartoskewitz, shared more insight on the differences of these two species of quail.

"Blues prefer more open and xeric habitat than bobwhites. If you see a lot of jackrabbits, you are likely in blue quail habitat. If you see a lot of cottontails, you are more likely in bobwhite quail habitat. From research, blues and bobs have the same general diets with blues usually having more 'greens' than bobs who seem to fill this gap with grass seeds.

Blue quail eggs are a tad larger than bobwhites and researchers at Texas Tech in the late 1990s hypothesized that scaled quail are more drought-tolerant than bobwhites. They also found that blue quail required less water and food (relative to body mass) than bobwhites to successfully reproduce. Nesting sites are similar with most blue quail nests on the ground located under shrubs or within prickly pear cactus. And of course, there's behavior when hunting. Blues are more likely to run than fly, and thus make them very challenging to hunt in dense brush cover."

According to the informative book, Scaled Quail in Texas -- Their Biology and Management, by Ruben Cantu, Dale Rollins and Scott P. Lerich, "Scaled quail are commonly known as either 'blue' quail, referring to the blue-gray body color; 'cottontop', referring to its white crest; or 'scalies', referring to the scale-like appearance of the breast feathers; and chestnut-bellied quail, referring to the dark brown belly feathers commonly found on the South Texas subspecies.

"Scaled quail inhabit the western one-third of Texas, generally west of the 100th meridian, which corresponds roughly to U.S. Highway 83. Within scaled quail range in Texas, rainfall varies from 8 inches per year in the west up to about 25 inches per year in the east. The eastern edge of scaled quail range may extend eastward during periods of drought.

The range of scaled quail overlaps that of northern bobwhites east of the Pecos River. In far West Texas, scaled quail range also overlaps that of Gambel's quail and Montezuma quail. Scaled quail inhabit arid and semi-arid lowlands of sparse low-growing shrubs in level or rugged terrain. They are found throughout West Texas, except in the higher elevations (above 6,500 feet) and throughout the Panhandle where the highest densities occur along drainages, canyons and rough breaks. Scaled quail typically do not 'boom' as high in good years as bobwhites do. Conversely, they typically do not 'bust' as badly as bobwhites during dry years."

You'll also find scaled quail in Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Old Mexico.

I've heard hunters and ranchers refer to scaled quail as blues, scalies, and cottontops. I thought I'd heard every possible nickname until a trip to New Mexico two years ago. The rancher, a middle-aged woman who lived in town but traveled to the ranch often to monitor cattle and check rain gauges, told me of the numerous coveys of "grays" on her place. Grays? I thought to myself. What's she talking about? After some discussion, I realized that she meant scaled quail. Blues, scalies, cottontops, grays: All of these nicknames refer to the same bird. By comparison, bobwhites are typically referred to just as "bobs."

Looking at a tattered Texas map that usually rides in my pickup during hunting season, I can recall counties and towns where I've doubled up on quail. Just south of Amarillo on my family's ranch, it's not uncommon to encounter both species on the same day. Around towns like Post in Garza County and Snyder in Scurry County, I've seen good numbers of bobs and blues.

West of the town of San Angelo in Irion County, I'v

e seen both birds, but more blues than bobs. The farther west you travel, blue quail typically outnumber bobs. And even in Webb County in South Texas near the town of Freer, while chasing whitetails first and quail second, I've chased both birds. Blues in that part of the state are even prettier than blues found farther north. The subspecies of South Texas blue quail have colorful chestnut-colored bellies in addition to their scaled feathers and cottontop heads.

Way out west in the Trans-Pecos around the towns of El Paso and Fabens, you find a different crossover. Here the handsome Gambel's quail roams desert sand dunes, and blue quail can be found on grassier hillsides. I've hunted these desert species in El Paso and Hudspeth counties. These are just a few specific locations where I've hunted two species in the same county, and usually on the same property if not the same hillside.

Like the majority of Texas, crossover quail country is privately owned. Options include leasing land for hunting rights, paying a guide for a package hunt or hunting a friend's ranch or family land. Public hunting opportunities are limited at best.

Blues are different from bobs. On the open ground they inhabit, running from predators is a better escape reaction than is hiding. This reputation for fast getaways has even made its mark on modern sporting art. Here's another quotation from Texas Quail:

"Jack Cowan's classic Panhandle painting of blue quail hunters captures the flavor of a region and a challenging sport. The painting's title says it all: 'Any Way You Can.' Rather than the staunch dogs and poised hunters that inspire most upland bird-hunting art, Cowan's models are on the run, chasing after fleeing birds that are reluctant to fly. It's not considered bad form to shoot blues on the ground or even from a vehicle. This is the one quail hunt where auto loading 12-gauges take precedence over sleek 20s, 28s and .410s. Hunting blues is more like hunting big game. You simply drive ranch roads until a covey is spotted, then you take 'em any way you can."

Whereas hunts strictly for bobwhites are very organized and dogs do most of the work, blue quail hunts are more chaotic. Once a covey is flushed, hunters and dogs usually sprint in hot pursuit. Dogs are usually more successful at pointing single blues than they are at holding coveys. If you hunt blues with dogs, don't shoot quail on the ground since at any moment a dog could race into your sight picture.

Now that I have two English pointers of my own, Sue and Jane, hunting bobwhites without a favorite pointing dog seems like a sin. However, when hunting blues, cruising ranch roads in a Jeep or dune buggy until you've flushed a covey, and then running them down on foot is probably more productive than using dogs. Even with the help of a vehicle to cover more ground, it ain't easy. Of all the days I've spent chasing quail I can't ever remember filling my limit on blues.

My old friend Marc Haggar of Dallas is a fourth generation quail hunter. His great-grandfather used to hunt quail out of an El Camino with dog boxes in the bed! For the last few years he's hunted a 6,400-acre ranch near Colorado City in Mitchell County. Marc shared some reflections on hunting this crossover county.

"The most interesting dynamic between bobs and blues overlapping that I've found was on our lease south of Colorado City," he stated. "The ranch is divided by four miles of the Colorado River. The east side of the ranch is sandy, shin oak country and completely without blues -- strictly bob country.

"As you travel closer to the river you immediately pick up blues. As for predicting when we'll find each species, when in danger blue quail run from predators. Bobs are more likely to hold in cover in hopes the predator is unable to find them.

"Consider the cover you are looking at when you think of this dynamic," he continued. "For blues to run effectively they don't want a lot of grass around. They need more bare ground, and the rest shrubbed out.

"Bobs are the opposite. You will find them in these overlapping counties where there is a larger percentage of grasses and forbs. On our lease, spots with a natural draw, canyons or cedar trees lend themselves more to blue quail."

Last year, I spent most of my winter days in pursuit of venison. That meant few days to chase quail. I'm hoping bucks will be more cooperative this fall so that I'll have more days for dogs and birds in the 2008-09 season.

I did find a few afternoons to share with my pointers. We hunted family land near Amarillo in Randall County in rough breaks at the edge of the Palo Duro Canyon. I'm at the ranch every week, so I know where a few coveys hang out. I only take a few birds from each covey every year, and then I move on. Some of these places are good for a covey every year.

A covey of bobs is usually somewhere close to headquarters, either around the buildings, corral or in a CRP field to the west. Farther south about half a mile, near a stock tank and a small canyon, a covey of blues is usually hiding. And a couple of miles away, on the east side of the property, I'd seen a covey of bobs near a corn feeder regularly while hunting deer and a covey of blues in a draw near a windmill.

We started at the barns at the headquarters on a cool afternoon with light winds. Sue was weaving back and forth, cutting a swath through the knee-high CRP grass while Jane stayed close. Working down the fenceline, I thought I heard a quail call. I stopped, cupped my ears and listened. Sure enough, due south was a talking quail. Sue worked into the wind and then stopped like she'd hit a wall. Her tail went stiff. I waded in and flushed nine birds. I dropped one, and then we found a few singles by working through the cover. I left the field with three birds in my vest.

We jumped in the truck, both of the dogs and I, muddy paws and all, and drove a short distance to the rocky ravine. Walking along the top with both dogs below me, I heard the flush but didn't see it. Running ahead, I found Sue coming out of the canyon and then locking up tight in some broomweed. A single blue quail shot out like a bottle rocket; my 20 gauge swung with him, and he folded on my second pull of the trigger.

After shuttling dogs and gear to the east side of the ranch, we scoured the surrounding terrain for the covey of blues that I knew was somewhere near the windmill. After 40 minutes we gave up and moved on.

The last stop, shortly before sunset, was at the corn feeder. Walking in I ran off two deer and had to yell at both dogs not to chase. We worked the surrounding oak brush and cedars until Sue went on point. Slowly, I eased up behind her. I kicked the grass. Nothing. Off to my hard right the covey of bobwhites exploded like a grenade. I shot twice and missed both times. The covey coasted out into a steep canyon, so I called the dogs back. Sometimes bobs act more like blues in rugged landscapes like that canyon.

My bird strap was hardly full of quail, just three bobs and a single blue, but it was good to be o

ut with my mutts. It's a hunt I hope to duplicate several times this fall in crossover country where bobs and blues share common ground.

From Scaled Quail in Texas -- Their Biology and Management: "Recent studies involving radio-tagged scaled quail in Brewster, Irion, and Pecos counties found predators accounted for 77-90 percent of mortalities from February-September. Of these, mammals accounted for 71 to 89 percent of the mortalities, while raptors (i.e., birds of prey) accounted for 14 to 28 percent. Other reported mortality factors include rattlesnakes, drowning and hailstorms.

"Potential predators of scaled quail at various stages in their life cycle include the following mammals: feral cats, feral hogs, coyote, badger, bobcat, striped skunk, raccoon, gray fox, red fox, ground squirrel, kit fox, armadillos, opossum and cotton rat. Raptor predators include northern harrier, Cooper's hawk, red-tailed hawk, great horned owl, prairie falcon and raven. Predatory snakes include diamondback rattlesnake, bull snake and western coach whip."

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