The big knock on hunting preserves with pen-raised birds is that the birds aren’t challenging and don’t mimic the explosive performance of those birds in the wild. For new shooters or dog training, this might not be a bad thing, but for shooters the caliber of Shooting Sportsman readers, pen-raised birds can be disappointing.
In no case is this truer than with quail. I often hear from experienced hunters in the South about how challenging it was to shoot wild quail back in the day. The coveys would explode as you approached, with birds flying so far on the flush that hunting singles was difficult. I compare that to some of my experiences being forced to kick up planted birds scurrying around my feet, only to have them “popcorn” up and out a mere 20 feet before settling down again.
Of course planted birds don’t always fly poorly, but many do. That’s one of the big advantages of using a second dog that can flush as well as retrieve. Even a pen-raised bird should get up and go when a little cocker or Lab comes calling.
But all pen-raised birds are not the same. This was brought home in spades on our recent SSM Readers & Writers shoot at Pine Hill Plantation, in Georgia. The quail were magnificent flyers. The best commercial plantation birds I’ve ever seen. For the most part they flew every bit as well as the quail I’ve seen on my limited wild-bird forays.
Why are some pen-raised birds better than others? I spoke to Doug Coe, owner of Pine Hills, at some length about this. Doug said that it boils down to genetics, habitat and hunting format.
Like any commercial preserve, Pine Hill adds birds to the existing coveys every year. One of the big differences is that the birds come from a breeder who produces bobwhite quail of a certain genetic strain. Apparently all bobwhites aren’t equal. That was news to me. Apparently there are significant differences in flight and survival genetics among quail in the same way that there are differences in physical abilities and hunting desire among dogs of the same breed.
I had assumed that quail breeders supply the same moist environment to encourage development of chicks’ oil glands so that they can fly on damp days, but when I learned of breeders’ abilities to make atmospheric alterations, this surprised me. Apparently some quail farms can change the atmospheric pressure on the quail to simulate high- and low-pressure weather in the field. The pressure changes prompt certain breeding, flight, feeding and covey behavior. As proof, we had more than five inches of rain one night at Pine Hill, and the birds flew magnificently the next morning.
Naturally, the land is managed for quail, so there is plenty of food. Habitat is regularly burned and food crops encouraged. The Cooper’s hawk is a major predator there, as is the red-tail, but that can’t be helped. Adapted birds have a higher survival rate from predators than freshly planted birds do.
Pine Hill’s hunting procedure also contributed to vigorous birds. We hunted covey flushes and seldom followed up singles. That’s because Pine Hill limits kills to three birds per covey. That leaves a nucleus of “experienced” quail to which other birds can be added as the season progresses. The more experienced birds teach the newer arrivals how to survive. When you shoot out a covey by taking all of the dispersed singles, you lose that.
There were plenty of coveys to flush. One of groups had 22 covey flushes in one morning. Although there were no set bag limits, the average take was 11 or 12 birds per day per gun. Considering the quality, that was certainly enough.
I’m sure that I don’t have the whole story on why Pine Hill’s birds were so much better than others I’ve seen, but the results speak for themselves. Someone is doing something right. I’m sure that Pine Hill’s approach is more expensive and more time consuming than other methods of stocking quail, but those birds were worth it. Our group of hunters was very experienced and, to a man, they all agreed that the birds were superlative.
There was definitely no need to quail at these quail. Well done, Pine Hill. Well done, indeed.
That’s it for now. Boots off. Beer open.