Are Bobwhites Becoming More Wary?

Aug 15, 2022

By Justin Rectenwald | Project Collaborators: Albany Quail Project, Livingston Place, Central Florida Rangeland Quail Program, Tall Timbers, Ichauway, Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch, originally published in the Summer 2022 edition of Quail Call. 

In 1931, Herbert Stoddard posed the question, “Are bobwhites becoming more wary?” in his classic book The Bobwhite Quail. He described how veteran quail hunters of that era with 30 or 40 years’ experience agreed that birds were getting more educated and more difficult to kill. He expounded on the fact that the birds had become quite unruly as they were becoming hard to mark down and shoot singles after the initial covey rise.

Stoddard further explained that on grounds that were becoming “heavily stocked” (at >1 bird per acre), that it was a new experience “to see the majority of coveys habitually flush out of shooting distance.” Even then, Stoddard asked, “How far will the process of education be carried?” The words written by Stoddard nearly 100 years ago sound eerily similar those we hear today. Unfortunately, this process of education has not seemed to slow down.

To address this question, the Albany Quail Project began a study nearly 30 years ago on several Albany area plantations that lasted for eight hunting seasons, and was aimed at understanding how radio-tagged coveys were interacting with the hunting party. The general consensus was that the hunting party only saw about half of the coveys that were available (most of which were pointed), and the other half that were not seen mostly held tight to avoid being detected.

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. Both of these factors have likely played a large part in explaining why the birds have been much wilder and 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.

We restarted our covey-hunter interaction study this past season on several sites across the bobwhite range, including the primary study site of the Albany Quail Project, Livingston Place, Escape Ranch, Tall Timbers, Ichauway, and the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch in Texas. Our aim is to see how bobwhite behave compared to the original study in the 1990s, and to see how this varies between study sites.

We believe that the way coveys interact with hunters will vary between sites based on a variety of factors: bird density, age structure, cover conditions, and hunting style. 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.

Beginning last fall, our staff of biologists and technicians rode along with the hunting parties on these six properties and tracked radio-tagged coveys to record what percentage are seen and how they are evading detection. 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 is 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.

About the Author
Justin Rectenwald
Justin is the biologist at the Tall Timbers Albany Quail Project. His focus is conducting management-oriented quail research, providing extension services across the Albany region, and maintaining the AQP’s long-term datasets.
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