When it Comes to Hunting, Are You Smarter Than Wild Bobwhite Quail? Maybe Not.

Don’t blame your bird dog if you’re bedeviled by elusive wild bobwhite quail. Research by the biologists at Tall Timbers has in fact suggested that bobwhites in the Southeast have been harder to hunt for decades despite a growth in population.

If the paradox of bigger bird numbers that are harder to hunt makes your brain wiggle, it’s important to understand a particular bobwhite quail behavior called “wariness.”

To delve into the dilemma I met with Tall Timbers biologists Justin Rectenwald and Alex Jackson at the research center’s facilities in Tallahassee, Florida to find out more about Justin’s paper “Are Bobwhites Becoming More Wary?” It was originally published in the Summer 2022 edition of the organization’s Quail Call newsletter.

Justin Rectenwald (left) and Alex Jackson.

Justin and Alex have access to a veritable candyland of bobwhite resources for their work. Tall Timbers is located in the Red Hills Region that traverses North Florida and Southwest Georgia. The Red Hills Region has the world’s largest concentration of private wild quail plantations complemented by quail-hunting preserves open to the public. Founded in 1958 by Henry Beadel and Herbert Stoddard, Tall Timbers is recognized as the birthplace of fire ecology that studies, educates and advocates the use of prescribed fire for land management – notably quail habitats. 

As the birds become more wary, they become more elusive. The cycle starts with wariness, which Alex explained as “birds flushing sooner, not holding. A hunting party gets 200 yards away from a covey, and the birds will either fly or run to avoid contact.”

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A mule-drawn wagon used on one of the Red Hills Regions bobwhite quail plantations.

“The birds are not over-hunted, but are facing more pressure,” said Justin, “They respond to the sound of a mule wagon or shot. Quail associate this with being flushed and shot at and they don’t like it.”

The work by Alex and Justin on wariness is inspired by Stoddard’s seminal book “The Bobwhite Quail” published in 1931. In it, Stoddard asks: “Are bobwhites becoming more wary?” The question arises from conversations between Stoddard and quail hunters of that era, some with four decades of experience, who observed that the birds were becoming more educated in the ways of hunters and consequently more difficult to hit.

At the time, bobwhite quail habitats were becoming “heavily stocked” at greater than one bird per acre. As Stoddard wrote, it was a new experience “to see the majority of coveys habitually flush out of shooting distance.” He inquired: “How far will the process of education be carried?” But as Justin and Alex have discovered, the process of covey education in terms of wariness is not slowing down – and in fact could be accelerating.

A bobwhite quail wearing a radio transmitter as used in the study “Are Bobwhites Becoming More Wary?” (photo: Justin Rectenwald).

“Stoddard’s observations from his work with old-time quail hunters shows us that as far back as the 1800s quail were flushing more frequently out of range,” Justin said.

“When you have a higher density of wild quail, the sounds of quail flushing prompts other quail to flush,” Alex added. “The problem is that the quail flush out of range. Wary birds flush and run sooner. They’re not holding.”

Most wingshooters would assume that more birds per acre would make them easier to hunt. But given the proliferation of educated coveys, hunters could encounter the complete opposite due to learned wariness.

As a result of modern supplemental feeding and predatory management programs, “We’ve been seeing a high survival rate over the past five years,” Alex noted. “We’re seeing an annual survival rate of 30 to 35 percent. Some birds could be in their second or third hunting season. One or two of those birds in each covey could cause the rest of the covey to flush.”

A covey of wild bobwhite quail flushing on a Red Hills Region plantation (photo: Justin Rectenwald).

He added that on plantations in the study “it’s likely that genetics have shifted towards a more wary bird, with populations having been hunted for the past 100 years. It’s this gene flow that changes over time to react to the hunting pressure.”

Wary wild quail could also cause more false points, Alex noted. “The birds were there, and then gone, because they were wary.”

The wariness research conducted by Alex and Justin builds on the Albany Quail Project in the vicinity of Albany, Georgia. That study, which focused on Albany-area plantations, lasted for eight hunting seasons, according to Justin’s 2022 paper. The researchers set out to assess how radio-tagged coveys were interacting with the hunting parties. The general consensus was that the hunting party only saw about half of the coveys that were available.

“Since the early 1990s, bird densities have at least doubled on many places and we have recently seen a string of years with above average adult survival that have resulted in an older and perhaps wiser age structure along with high fall densities,” Justin wrote. “Both of these factors have likely played a large part in explaining why the birds have much wilder behavior and are harder to get shots at. Because of this unruly behavior that has been observed over the last few years, there is a renewed interest in revisiting this study from the 1990s, to determine if birds are becoming even warier than they were in the past.”

Justin interjected that the 1990s research indicated a near-doubling of wild quail populations from 1-1½ birds per acre to 2-3.

Later, the paper went on to say “We expect that on sites with higher densities and age structures that favor older, wiser birds, that the hunting party will see a higher percentage of coveys flushing wild, and fewer that are holding tight.”

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A radio transmitter around the neck of wild bobwhite quail tracks the birds for Tall Timbers research.

Supplemental research on the subject resumed in the hunting seasons of 2021-22 and 2022-23 with radio-tagged coveys. Alex described the work as encompassing “a big sample size, nearly 900 encounters with wild quail coveys in Georgia, Florida and Texas.” 

Despite the growth in wariness with increased wild quail populations, plantation owners continue to manage for higher densities, Justin said. 

Beginning in the Fall of 2021, Tall Timbers biologists and technicians rode along with the hunting parties on six properties and tracked radio-tagged coveys to record what percentage are seen and how they are evading detection. 

Justin documented in the paper that “After over 500 encounters in the first hunting season, preliminary results indicate that modern coveys seem much less likely to “hold” to avoid detection and are flushing wild about 30% more often than they did in the 1990s. It is unclear how much of these behaviors are being learned and how much is the result of being in a high-density population with high adult survival. We will continue this study for several more years to fully understand how far this process of education can be carried, and how much warier the birds have become.”

Alex summed it up best in our conversation by saying “The birds are learning evasive tactics.”

Irwin Greenstein is the Publisher of Shotgun Life. You can reach him at contact@shotgunlife.com.

Helpful resources:

The Tall Timbers web site

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