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Shell’s Covert: Landowers’ Guide to Quail Population Management

I’m often asked, “Since quail are declining, and you are all working so hard to restore them, why do you still allow quail hunting?”

This question often comes from landowners who participate in our quail recovery efforts but do not hunt. However, even some hunters question us. Books have been written on the subject of wildlife population management. It can be made to sound real complex in a hurry, but that is not my goal. In this article I want to give you a basic understanding of quail populations, and how to view their management at different scales. To do this, I need to lay some groundwork.

Let’s think about populations. They occur at widely varying scales. In descending order we can refer to the quail population as the entire population of bobwhite quail throughout their native range, or a population within a given region – such as the Southeast, or within a given state (in our case Virginia), or within a physiographic region of a single state, or within a single county within that region, or within a few thousand acres within a county, or on one single property of say 500 acres … and then we could even state “the quail  population within a single quail covey’s home range (let’s use 50 acres – a good average range size for a covey in moderate habitat). So to say hunting does or does not affect a “quail population” depends greatly on how you define the population.

To answer the original question, I will use the quail population within Virginia – the entire state. At that level I can safely say hunting has no impact on the quail population. Why? Because there are so few remaining quail hunters in Virginia – about 8,000, that they cannot possibly harvest enough quail to affect a population that large (we estimate between 300,000 and 400,000 quail in Virginia – based on NBCI Biologist Ranking Information and habitat interpretation).

We also know that hunting is not the driving factor behind the quail decline. We know this because many other species that are not being hunted at all, birds like field sparrows, prairie warblers, grasshopper sparrows, Logger-head Shrikes, Henslow’s Sparrows and many, many more, are also declining rapidly. And while other factors may be contributing, habitat loss is the number one reason for the declines.

Further, we can say that when quail populations decline beyond a certain level, interest in hunting them declines even more than the species itself. It is the law of diminishing returns, below a certain threshold, hunter success is low to non-existent, thus in this way quail hunting can be loosely called “self-regulating.”

I will say that I believe, and some may dispute me, but I believe this logic is valid right down to the level of a group of properties comprising a few thousand acres within a portion of a single county. Or down to the level of one large property of a couple thousand acres. And I believe that once you are considering a quail population below that level, hunting can indeed have a negative effect on local quail populations over the short term, and even over the long term if combined with random events during the reproductive season like drought.

You might ask then, “Well, if that is true, that quail hunters cannot impact the quail population in Virginia, why have a season or a bag limit at all?” Public perception is one reason. It would be viewed negatively to be trying to restore a species with a perception of “unlimited” hunting. And the seasons and bag limits can protect quail at the local level.

For example, suppose a group of two quail hunters hunts a single property repeatedly. During mid-season they encounter two coveys of quail, each containing about 8 to 10 quail. Let’s say for some reason they shoot exceptionally well and they harvest 6 quail out of both coveys (I know some hunters who can do this – 3 each out of 2 coveys).

They have reduced these individual coveys down to such a low level that their survival chances are poor. The daily bag limit of 6 per hunter in Virginia in this case would limit the number of additional coveys that could be “shot down” in numbers that particular day. And at the local level – by ending the season before late winter – it’s possible to insure the survival of good numbers of quail entering the breeding season in early spring. A quail that is alive at the end of January has a much greater chance of surviving to reproduce than a quail alive at the beginning of November.

And studies have shown that the later in the season quail are hunted, meaning the closer to the breeding season they are removed from the population, the more negative the effects of hunting can be. And I believe this is particularly true at a local or small property scale and perhaps most true on small parcels of state game lands with no special quail management regulations in place (hunting is not more restrictive than general state guidelines).

For example, say you are managing a modestly sized wild quail plantation – 2000 acres. Your best bet will be to take a conservative approach to harvest with regards to what is allowed by state regulations. In your case, state regulations should be thought of as the most liberal side boards available. As a landowner, you are not allowed to set regulations on your property more liberal than those allowed by the state agency. But – you are allowed to set regulations as restrictive as you like – up to and including not allowing hunting. I am a proponent of hunting, and am not advocating the elimination of quail hunting. So let me explain where situations might merit more restrictive harvest.

Example 1 – You manage your own property of 250 acres. You are highly familiar with it and each year, simply by spending so much time on it, you know approximately how many quail coveys you have. You know during severe drought years that hatch can be negatively affected. And you know the years when conditions are perfect and you have a great hatch. You are in a position to limit harvest based on the number of quail you believe you have. You can change the harvest levels every year if you wish. During the worst years, you can allow no harvest at all. During the best years, you can allow more harvest.

“O.K. – well how much?” you ask.  Good question. Various percentages of harvest have been postulated over the years as being “safe” – meaning no adverse affect on the population’s ability to recover. I have seen a range of from 20% to 40% stated in different scientific papers. I prefer to go conservative with harvest, so we’ll use 20%. Suppose you have a good year with 6 coveys of quail on the property. Entering the hunting season you estimate an average of 14 quail per covey. That’s 84 quail of which 16 quail would be 20% – that is about 2 to 3 out of each covey. That level of harvest could provide 2 or 3 memorable hunts. But as you can see, repeated hunting of these 6 coveys over a long quail season would not be advisable. Back in the “good old days” when many farms had at least some quail cover, hunters might have 6, 8 or 10 such farms upon which they hunted. By rotating their hunting effort and paying close attention to the numbers of quail within the coveys, many of those hunters knew how to limit their own harvest. The last thing a good quail hunter wants to do is “shoot out” a covey.

Example 2 – You manage a 2,000-acre wild quail hunting plantation for a small group of quail hunters. The property is very well managed and the quail population is high relative to other properties in the area. During the best years, you may have a quail covey per 30 acres going into the fall hunting season. That is 66 coveys of quail. At 14 per covey entering the season, you’d have 924 quail, and 20% of that could provide a harvest of 184 quail. That is a pretty good bit of wild quail hunting.

Example 3 — Let’s say, though, during a very bad year, perhaps one following a severe winter, followed by a disastrous drought during June and July, and then by late summer hurricanes that flooded out late nests and your production was near zero. You may be down to a handful of small coveys – maybe 15. During years like this you should consider walking behind your bird dogs without a gun, or at most a very limited harvest early in the season. The good news in this case is that quail can bounce back rapidly if conditions the following year are good again.

If you really want to apply what biologists call “adaptive harvest management” – meaning harvest levels are tailored every year to annual conditions and population levels, you can learn how to more accurately estimate your quail population just prior to the fall hunting season. Next month’s Shell’s Covert will address this in more detail.

Busting the “busting myth:” “Say whaaaaatttt?” Well, every quail biologist has heard the following at least once in their career. “You know you got to shoot into those coveys every year to help break them up. If you don’t’ shoot a few birds, especially the cock birds, those coveys won’t break up and breed like they should.”

Never has a more untrue and ridiculous notion been postulated about quail management. Let’s think about this – whether you take a strict Biblical view, or whether you adhere to the Theory of Evolution, or fall somewhere in between, quail have been around for a long time – long before shotguns and bird dogs. Quail are programmed to disperse during spring and breed. They absolutely do not have to be “shot into” for this to happen.

“Tragedy of the commons” – the worst case scenario for quail: One great thing about America, a lot of public land is available for all of us to hunt, fish, hike, bird watch and camp on. We are truly blessed compared to many other nations. But with an ever increasing human population pressures on those lands is increasing. From the standpoint of quail harvest management, let’s think about Example 3 – public lands quail harvest. I will use a 2500-acre public wildlife management area, managed for multiple-use with fair quail cover over about half its acreage. There are no special quail regulations in place on this area.

At 8:30 Friday morning a group of 4 quail hunters and 5 dogs hunts the area, finds 3 coveys of quail and kills 8. They leave for lunch. At about 12:30 a second group shows up, unknowingly hunts the same area, finds some scattered singles and kills a few of them. About 3:30 that afternoon the scenario is repeated, then again Saturday morning and so on until hunters toward the end of the season complain about there being no quail on the WMA. It is easy to see that unregulated harvest on small public lands can be detrimental to local quail populations.

Quail hunting is a great tradition that should continue. And we can all do a better job of managing the quail resource. I will leave you with this – the better the habitat and the more of it you have, the faster quail can recover from population lows regardless of the cause.

Marc Puckett

Photo by Meghan Marchetti, VDWR

Marc Puckett is a Small Game Project Leader with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR).

Marc has worked with VDWR for 25+ years. He currently serves as the small game project co-leader. He was involved in several quail studies, including for his master’s degree at NCSU. He served his country for four years in the US Army’s Airborne Infantry. Marc resides with his family on a farm in central Virginia.