When I was a youngster, my father and I would just go quail hunting. The culture was different then. The crop fields were generally smaller and surrounded with hedgerows. Because deer were much less abundant, residual crops left after the harvest were available to small game. A strong trapping market kept predator populations in check, and winter burning was just a normal occurrence. All these factors combined to create a “quail friendly landscape”.
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Just the opposite is true today. Pine plantations, development, and a proliferation of exotic sod-grasses have divided the existing quail habitat into isolated pockets. Often landowners now have to hire someone to trap predators or do the task themselves.In addition, deer populations have become so dense that food plots planted for quail become decimated before late winter. Also, there is a loss of native plant seed production due to heavy browsing. Control burning has become less frequent as well.
In fact, many areas of the southeast have been void of quail for so long that there are no birds present to respond to habitat improvements. Even if you have a few remnant quail hanging on, it is still hard to get enough reproductive output to obtain and sustain a huntable population. All these factors have caused many of us to use an annual pre-season release project to keep our quail hunting alive.
It is very important to keep in mind that a pre-season release is a management technique and not a silver bullet. It involves releasing juvenile or adult birds into functional fall quail habitat.
As with any mission, it is important to identify all the areas where problems may develop. I like to put it this way. If you were out in the ocean and your boat had several holes in it, would you fix one or two of the holes and call the repair successful? No! Naturally, you would fix the biggest holes first and then keep going until all the leaking has either stopped or slowed down enough that you could bail it out.
In the same way the goal of an early release quail project is to introduce good quality captive reared quail to your land and have them establish a home range on the property. It is important to identify the holes so you can keep your project floating in an environment that is trying to sink it. One area is habitat management.
HABITAT MANAGEMENT for a pre-season release concentrates on creating and perpetuating the habitat requirements needed during the fall and winter months. Food and cover are the basic needs during this time.
Food must be present within the bird’s range during the entire season or he will pack up and leave. Weed seeds are great, but not enough to sustain more than a few quail all winter. Feed patches (of millet or sorghum) are another approach, but these are often decimated by late winter. Supplemental feeding through the use of large spreaders or self-contained feeder systems is still another solution.
Spreading feed involves using a mechanical spreader every 10 to 14 days. It throws the feed from a hopper. It is important that the feed be scattered in areas of cover, so that your quail are not lured out into the open where they become the targets of hawks. In other words, spreading feed down mowed access roads may be disastrous, but spreading feed in cover patches located in the interior of fallow weed fields will be advantageous.
The type of feed provided is also a point of consideration. For instance, if you have a lot of deer, it is better to spread small grains such as wheat or sorghum instead of corn. The smaller grains will not be consumed by deer nearly as fast as corn. This means that you will not have to spread as often, and quail will receive more of the benefit.
Spreading of feed is more prevalent on larger tracts because it involves bulk storage facilities and equipment. Self-contained feeders are usually the method of choice for smaller tracts. It is important that these feeders be concealed and placed were the quail can approach and leave under cover.
Servicing the feeders must be done on a regular basis. DO NOT LET THEM RUN OUT OF FEED. How often you service them will depend on the size of the feeder, the amount of native food available, and the number of quail you have on the property.
Bottom line –plenty of food must be available to quail either in the form of weed seeds, planted crops, or supplements. THE BEST SOLUTION IS TO COMBINE ALL THREE. To determine an appropriate strategy for your situation, consider the size of your property, available manpower, and your budget.
Cover is a must for success but what is good fall cover? Good fall cover is made up of a mix of native grasses and a variety of “weeds”. This is the vegetation that remains standing after a killing frost has turned it from “summer green” to a “winter brown” color. Scattered clumps of “hard cover” need to be dotted throughout this area as well. An example of “Hard Cover” could be a patch of rank briars or perhaps a cluster of bushy wax myrtle about waist high. Simply put, hard cover holds up better in late winter and affords the birds a nearby place to escape when their danger index is elevated.
When managing for fall cover you have to think like a quail and a quail hunter. The cover needs to be good enough to function for the birds, but at the same time accessible for the dog and hunter. Fall strip disking, control burning, and chemical brush control are the various methods used to keep all these necessary factors in a healthy balance on your land.
Another potential sinkhole is the lack of PREDATOR CONTROL. No one wants to learn how to swim in a shark tank. Controlling varmints is important when managing wild quail on a vast plantation. It is equally important when managing quail on smaller areas using a pre-season release. I have seen great habitat yield poor results when this factor is ignored, and marginal habitat yield surprising results when taken to heart.
As we mentioned, good cover obtained through management is the first step to slow- down predation. I want any varmint after my quail to have to work for a living. Removing a surplus of predators from the hunting area is the next step. Your options vary from state to state. Some states such as Georgia and Virginia allow quail managers to obtain a permit to trap small mammals (fox, raccoon, opossum, etc.) on a year-round basis. In other states you may have to remove them during the trapping season. If you don’t have the skills or time to do the job yourself, it is sometimes best to hire a nearby neighbor that trapped back when we had a strong fur market. They usually have the equipment on hand to do the job. Some animal control companies also offer trapping services for quail managers.
QUALITY BIRDS are also important. Obtain your quail from a bird grower that knows what he is doing and has a good reputation.
The birds I use are grown in relative isolation. By this I mean that the flight pens have shade cloth around them that prevents the quail from becoming accustomed to outside traffic and people. Many of the growers also use automatic feeding systems to minimize human contact. Others fill the feeders at night to accomplish the same thing. Remember, if a quail is raised like a chicken it will act like a chicken. When the birds have good genetics and are grown in isolation they will be more able to survive the transition from the flight pen to the wild.
Our final area is RELEASE TECHNIQUE. Don’t just dump the birds out. Remember, our goal is to create a situation that allows the quail to establish a home range on your hunting area. To accomplish this I conduct a “gentle release”, using the following method. The evening prior to my release day, I have the quail grower catch up twenty-five quail and place them in a corrugated box. I hold the birds overnight in a cool and secure place. In the morning I take the quail to my release site (in my case this is a Base Camp with a nearby electronic recall bird). I then cut a flap in the side of the box, place sheet of melting ice against the flap, and leave the site. This allows the birds to exit on their own undisturbed. Since they are hungry and thirsty, they begin feeding and watering at the site.
Whatever your options may be don’t overlook plugging the sinkholes for your quail before you conduct your release project. During the 4 to 6 weeks after release these quail will be going through what I call the “Boot Camp Period”. This is where all the other elements we have discussed come into play. With good cover and abundant feed, minimal predator pressure, and quality birds released calmly, your quail project should sail right along.
For more information about conducting an early or “pre-season” quail release, see the DVD, Putting Quail Back In Your Quail Hunting”. CLICK HERE