Project Investigators: Kyle Magdziuk, Justin Rectenwald, Alex Jackson, Clay Sisson, Bill Palmer, and James Martin, originally published in the 2022 edition of Quail Call.
Tall Timbers recently conducted a survey to determine the “industry standard” for dog training regimes on managed properties in the Albany and Red Hills regions. We recognize the importance of dog training to the success of quail hunting operations as one respondent from the survey emphasized by stating, “Quality quail hunts require quality bird dogs, which requires quality dog work.” We agree!
However, the consequences of dog work on quail demographics have not yet been adequately quantified; this lack of clarity may be causing undue restrictions on training. This survey has improved our understanding of the level and timing of the training being conducted and considerations taken to limit its effect on bobwhite behavior and demographics.
Using these results as a guide, we aim to produce practical and reliable information, so that land managers can implement this essential component of the quail hunting tradition, and maximize the use of the property with complete confidence. The survey was generously completed by the dog-handler and/or land manager on 34 properties: 21 from the Albany region and 13 from the Red Hills, covering approximately 196,740 and 80,100 acres, respectively. Across all properties, respondents reported training 0-12 (6 on average) new or young dogs each year.
The average years of experience for respondents was approximately 29 years, one of them being a fourth-generation dog-handler! In addition to asking general questions about each property, we asked each property specifically about its pre, during, and post hunting season dog training regimes.
These responses revealed some variation in dog training practices. We break it down for you by season as follows. One of the busiest times of the season for land managers is right before the start of hunting season; this busy season is no different for the dog-handlers.
Virtually every property that responded indicated they worked dogs during this time period. Most properties started training between October 10 and 15 (Figure 1). The start dates were dependent on weather, with many properties specifying they waited to start training until nighttime temperatures did not exceed 50° or until after the first frost. Pre-season training averaged 3 days per week, with 68% of respondents indicating they used all the property’s half-day hunt courses for training purposes. Most (65–70%) of the respondents indicated they trained no more than twice on any course prior to the season (Figure 2, left of vertical dotted line).
Many respondents reported they used the pre-season to locate coveys, however many also suggested that this is not the highest of priorities. Generally, pre-season training is used to prepare and condition the dogs for the upcoming hunting season (Figure 3).
During the hunting season, dog training is practiced by 26 of the 34 survey respondents. Similar to the pre-season, 65- 70% of properties trained no more than twice on any course during the hunting season (Figure 2, left of the vertical dotted line). Interestingly, almost all of these properties trained dogs on hunt courses that were very recently hunted. A lot of the respondents indicated that they like to keep these courses on a rotating schedule of about 10-14 days, and avoided training on courses that are scheduled to be hunted soon. This makes sense as it maximizes the amount of time in between hunts in order to keep courses “fresh.” Practically all (97%) of the survey respondents indicated they used the post-season to train dogs.
By and large, this period is used to start preparing younger or new dogs for the following hunting season. Post-season training averaged 3 days per week, with most (65%) properties designating all hunt courses on the property for training purposes, which helps to reduce the pressure on any single course. Unlike pre and during season training, however, approximately 65% of respondents used a hunt course more than twice for post-season training purposes, with the average being 3 (Figure 2, right of the vertical dotted line).
So when does training cease on these properties? Many properties specified they quit when they began seeing an increase in the amount of breeding pairs, but much like the pre-season it mostly depended on the weather (Figure 3).
Most of the cessation dates during post-season training were between April 10 and April 15, but some properties trained all the way to the end of April (Figure 1).
Due to the highest intensity of training during this time period, and the potential to impact survival and/or reproductive output, our initial research focused on post-season training. We took these survey results into careful consideration when we developed the methods for our field studies. In Albany, we are in the second year of field work using 4 total hunt courses where 2 of them are being used for post-season training purposes 3 times each (the industry standard) in year 1 and in the second year, the treatments are reversed. The encounter rates during trials, survival, and reproduction of all radio-collared birds in those hunt courses are being monitored. From 140 interactions during 2 seasons, our preliminary observations indicate low encounter rates with only 40% resulting in flushes, 20% being passed by, and 40% never being encountered at all.
Using the results from the survey, we started a field experiment this past spring to simulate the potential implications of post-season dog work. We took a sub-set of all radio-collared hens on Tall Timbers and Livingston Place and assigned them to 3 experimental groups: control, moderate, and intensive. The hens in the control group received no pressure from dogs, while hens in the moderate and intensive groups were pressured with dogs at the average (3) and maximum (6) frequency that a hunt course would be used during post-season training. We used the cooler morning hours (preferred by managers, Figure 3), to intentionally disturb these hens to the point where an evasive response was elicited, such as run or flush.
Given the low encounter rates determined in Albany, by design these methods are on the extreme side of disturbance to see if a physiological response can be elicited. If there isn’t, then that shows the “industry standard” in dog training practices are indeed sustainable! Beginning on March 8, we spent 33 days, recorded 323 total contacts, and monitored the survival of 154 total birds between Tall Timbers and Livingston Place.
All disturbances finished between April 18 (a few days after average cessation), and April 28 (a few days before the latest date a property will train). We accomplished 3 rounds of fecal collection, a noninvasive technique to analyze stress hormones.
These samples will be used to measure differences in chronic stress levels, since elevated stress levels have been shown to affect reproduction and the survival of offspring in other avian species. Currently, we monitor nesting behavior and collect a single egg from the clutch of any female bird used during post-season training simulations. The eggs will be used to analyze any differences in maternal stress concentrations within the egg yolks.
We greatly appreciate and thank all of the properties that took the time to participate in this survey. Please stay tuned as we will report more detailed results, including our findings on survival and reproduction as they become available.
This article was published in the 2022 edition of Quail Call.