Bird hunters are hoping the quail season won't be pointless
It was a hot and unusually windless day in the Oklahoma Panhandle Saturday morning, not great scenting conditions for bird dogs to be locating quail, but hunters were flushing a few bobwhites on the opening day of quail season.
"It was 80 degrees out there," said Laura McIver, who made the trek from Oklahoma City to the Panhandle to chase quail on the Beaver River Wildlife Management Area. "From all the hunters that we ran into, everybody seemed to be pushing (at least) two coveys. Some of them pushed six to nine coveys. But it's dry, really dry, and it warmed up in a hurry. They were tough to find. I just think the weather definitely needs to be cooler."
The coveys that were located averaged between 15 and 20 birds, McIver said. Mark Vaughan of Oklahoma City was hunting in Ellis County and had similar results.
"It's 75 degrees and the dogs are kind of pooped," Vaughan said. "We moved three coveys. The birds seemed healthy. They were good-sized birds. Opening day on this same ranch last year we moved eight coveys of birds, but it was a much nicer day (for hunting) last year. I think if conditions had been better we would have found more birds."
The statewide quail season runs through Feb. 15 and there appears to be a few more birds this year, according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s roadside surveys taken in August and October. The statewide average is up, with southwest Oklahoma showing the greatest increase. The challenge will be finding them.
Quail hunting in southwest Oklahoma this season will be kind of like playing the lottery, said Tell Judkins, upland bird biologist for the Wildlife Department. A few lucky hunters will find a good number of coveys, he said.
“It’s going to be patchy,” Judkins said. “There are going to be spots that are really, really good. Not like the 1980s and 1990s good but compared to the last few years really good. And there will be spots as bad as last year and possibly even worse.”
McIver, Oklahoma's regional representative for Pheasants and Quail Forever, said last year’s drought really hurt bird production in southwest and far western Oklahoma, which in turn also hurt the carryover stock available for breeding this past spring.
“Those areas will probably be marginally better than last year, but I'd say overall, hunters in southwest and central western Oklahoma will not likely see an abundance of birds like they saw previously in the peak years of 2016 and 2017,” she said. “I've had some reports from that region that tell me they've seen some small pockets that have more birds than a lot of the surrounding area.”
McIver said the reports from northwest Oklahoma before the season opener were mixed. Some places were better than last year and some were worse, she said.
The August roadside surveys showed northwest Oklahoma to have more birds, but that changed in the October survey. The region might have fewer bobwhites overall than last season but still will have the densest population of quail like it usually does.
Quail numbers were slightly down in the central part of the state and slightly higher in eastern Oklahoma, according to the surveys.
But Judkins said the roadside surveys are just a gauge and no one really knows for sure until hunters get into the field.
Quail hunting was once more popular than deer hunting in Oklahoma, but that has flipped over time as the bird numbers have declined and the deer population has soared. The number of quail hunters in the state is now down to slightly more than 20,000, but Oklahoma still is visited by a lot of out-of-state bird hunters.
Even though quail hunting is not like it once was, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas are considered the three best quail hunting states in the country. Judkins said he gets a lot of phone calls from out-of-state hunters looking for a scouting report before opening day, particularly from hunters in Alabama and Georgia, places where quail hunting was once huge but where the wild birds are almost gone.
There are many theories why quail are no longer in abundance like they once were. Disease and predators are often blamed, but biologists say habitat loss is the biggest reason.
“(Quail) are very fragile and it doesn’t take much to push them out, and when they get pushed out of enough properties, their numbers go down and that is where we sit today,” Judkins said. “The Eastern red cedar has taken over a ton of landscape and that might as well be the Sahara Desert to a quail. Bermuda grass might as well be a paved parking lot. Those are two things you can probably throw a rock at and hit either one of them anywhere in the state.”
Judkins said landowners can help bobwhite quail by eliminating Eastern red cedars and leaving buffer strips along fence lines to provide food and protective cover. The Wildlife Department offers a quail enhancement program to assist landowners interested in increasing the number of birds on their property.
If landowners can provide the proper environment for quail to live and thrive, then on years where the weather cooperates during the nesting season, they can have a bumper crop of birds, Judkins said.
“The biggest factor is weather,” Judkins said. “But if we do the habitat work, pardon the Field of Dreams reference, if you build it, they will come. If you have the good habitat in place, and that good weather year hits, the quail are on.”
McIver said more conservation work is being done for quail. She helped launch 30 new Quail Forever chapters in Texas and Oklahoma over the past five years. The conservation organization often hosts seminars and educational days in the field, teaching landowners about improving quail habitat.
“More and more Oklahomans are realizing the importance and value of learning how to better manage their land for all wildlife and not just for quail,” she said. “Quail populations respond positively when the habitat is there for them. And we are here to help them with that.”