Recently, a client of mine said to me,“Jim, I have two questions for you. First, are my early release coveys running off the native birds? And second, can released quail reproduce?” These are probably the two most frequent questions I have had come my way during the past thirteen years of working on pre-season release quail projects. Whats really going on? Who are the real Survivors in the quail game?Print This Post
Note: For the context of this article I am defining “released quail” as follows: Quality flight conditioned birds, grown in isolation and released four to six weeks prior to hunting season. Their release is accompanied by some method of feeding to assist the birds as they transition from the flight pen to the wild, not just dumped and left to chance. Now lets get back to the client. After a few years of releasing quail, controlling predators, and improving the habitat, this man saw baby quail during the summer on his property.
September came and the client conducted his early release of birds as usual. Several weeks later he began to hunt with the anticipation of finding both the released birds and the birds he had seen a few months earlier. He found several coveys containing about twenty birds each. “Oh, these are the birds I released this year”, he surmised. But where are the other birds? Are they gone? Were they voted off when the new contestants arrived or are they still in the game?
Now lets discover what really happened by examining a case study conducted by Clay Sisson and the Albany Quail Project based out of Auburn University.
In this study a landowner in East Alabama had several thousand acres of quail land. Part of it was dedicated strictly to wild bird management, while the remaining area was used to conduct a pre-season release project. In early fall as the owner planted scattered plots of wheat, he spotted numerous quail broods on the property. After the pre-season release was conducted and hunting season was in full swing, the landowner concluded that he, like the client, was not finding any of the wild coveys.
Clay and the other members of the AU team were notified and got to work. During the fall of 2002 the researchers trapped four coveys of native quail located in the release bird area. Tracking radios were then placed on each one so their movements could be monitored both before and after the introduction of released quail. Also, all the early release birds used that year were leg banded for identification purposes.
The investigation ended in the spring of 2004 with interesting results. Birds in three of the four radioed coveys mixed with birds in early release coveys. The fourth radioed covey remained unmixed. None of the four radio marked coveys were run off the property. In fact, they never left their original home ranges.
These results were similar to an earlier Auburn study conducted during 1990-92 by Ted DeVos and Dr. Dan Speake. (Wildlife Society Bulletin 1995, 23(2):267-273). The remote video and banded bird studies I conducted in Georgia from 1996-98 yielded these same types of findings.
Now, back to our question. Why did the client and the landowner think their native grown quail had been run off? To answer this you have to look at what happens to a released covey during the “boot camp period”. This is a term I first used back in 1993 to define what happens to a released covey of quail during the first four to six weeks as they settle into the new area and establish a home range. For example, lets say we released a covey of birds at a prepared site in mid-September. By the end of October we could have lost 30 to 40 percent of the covey, but the birds that remain are graduates of the “boot camp” and survive at a rate almost identical to their wild counterparts. Now what happens is that our native coveys begin to mix with the survivors thus, restoring our released bird covey back closer to its original size. This shell game creates the illusion of a “wild bird disappearing act”.
Now lets address our second question, Can released quail raise young in the wild?
What does the Alabama study imply about reproduction from early released quail that survive the hunting season? The weights of “native” quail trapped and radioed for the Alabama Quail Project study ranged from 170 to over 200 grams, with many falling somewhere in between these weights. This would suggest that the native population was already a cross between pure wild birds that are smaller(about 170 grams) and the released birds, which are larger (about 230 grams). In fact 20% of the birds in the bag had no bands. This means that these birds were raised on the study area.
Other studies have shown similar results. Ted DeVos study concluded, “Pen-reared quail which survived the winter appeared to contribute to the reproductive season normally.” My research also captured several remote video events at Base Camps where banded quail from the previous season were bringing in broods for water and feed. In South Carolina, Brad Mueller conducted a study where he radio tagged 120 pre-season released quail that had survived the hunting season and 135 wild quail that had survived the hunting season. These birds were monitored throughout the breeding season. Brads report stated, “Overall, there was no difference in the average clutch size, percent hatch or percent survival of chicks to flight stage.”
All these investigations make no bones about it. Pre-season released quail that survive the hunting season are capable of producing offspring in the wild. Your next question is probably, “How much reproduction will I get on my land?” That is like asking, “How long is a piece of string?.” The amount of production is what us “bio-types” call site specific. It all goes back to the fundamentals of how much land you have, how good your brood and nesting habitat is, and how many predators you have.
In reality, most of the early release projects I work on are 200 to 300 acre tracts of land. On well managed projects we expect to raise 4 to 6 coveys of quail but continue to release 12 to 15 coveys each fall. In these type of situations, I know that if I can raise a few coveys of “carryover” birds, then my odds of having a successful early release project are almost guaranteed.
I read a quote in a book by Rick Warren recently that put all this in a neat package. He said, “methods are many, principals are few methods change, but the principals never do.” So no matter how small your early release project may be, do whatever you can to manage it like you would for wild quail. This needs to be your foundation principal.
If you have had much experience with conducting an early release of quail, then what I am saying is not news. If you have a philosophical bias against released birds, you probably wont believe any of the studies anyway, but Ive learned not to worry about such things. Come hunting season I just take my pointer Tatt out to my 150-acre project and have a blast hunting the “REAL SURVIVORS”.