Bye bye, birdie: Weather, growth lead to decline in quail numbers

By Mike Belt -The Lawrence Journal-World

In the 1950s when Dennis Domer was a boy growing up in Nemaha County, he didn’t have to walk far from his house to hunt quail.

“In about a mile or so there would be eight covey of quail or more,” said Domer, a rural Lawrence resident. “I never even had a dog. I just walked them up.”

But by the 1970s, the landscape had changed.

“I couldn’t go back there to hunt anymore because it would be like going to the moon,” he said. “That was such a great quail area.”

Landscape changes due to urban sprawl, modern farming practices and adverse weather patterns are among the big factors that have taken a toll on quail, hunters and wild game, experts say.

Longtime quail hunters have grown used to the up and down quail populations in the past two decades. The population has declined since the 1980s, when rural Eudora resident Pete Casagrande started hunting.

“There has been a decline the last several years, and this year has been better, but it’s nothing like it was in the late 1980s,” Casagrande said.

The Kansas quail season began Nov. 11 and will end Jan. 21. Successful hunting has been sporadic, said Jim Pitman, small game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

“That’s not unusual, but overall I’ve heard more positive reports than negative,” Pitman said.

Drought deadly for quail

Hunters in eastern Kansas have probably had better luck than their counterparts in the drought-stricken West, Pitman said. The lack of rainfall in the West killed or stunted what ground undergrowth there was for the quail’s protection, he said. Sometimes called a bobwhite because of the sound of its signature call, the quail is a ground-nesting bird. Thus, lack of cover also makes it easier for coyotes, raccoons and other wild animals to prey on them, Pitman said.

Farmers are doing away with some of the quail’s habitat as they consolidate their ground into larger crop fields and clear hedgerows and grassland, Pitman said. At the same time, there has been an increase of trees and tree rows, which leads to more perches for predatory birds such as owls and hawks. As trees grow taller, they shade out grass and other cover quail need.

Many hunters also blame the increase in the state’s turkey population for the decline of quail. They say the much bigger turkeys will eat quail eggs and baby chicks.

“That’s a big fallacy. That’s coffee shop talk,” Pitman said. “You can fill up my office with all the studies and publications, and nobody has ever documented a turkey eating quail.”

There is a turkey-quail correlation, however, Pitman said. The increase in trees and woody terrain, while a detriment to quail, is a boon for turkeys, he said. Turkeys roost in the trees.

“If you have a lot of turkeys, that tells me you don’t have the habitat for quail,” he said.

Some hunters, including Earl Iversen of Lawrence, claim the state’s anti-drug effort has led to the eradication of wild hemp, which is a quail food source.

“Because of the war on drugs, anything that looks like marijuana is highly discouraged in Kansas and you can be fined for it, so it’s required to poison the hemp,” Iversen said.

But hemp is low on the quail’s food chain and low in nutritional value, Pitman said.

Battle for survival

Mike Oelschlaeger knows what kind of an uphill battle quail face to survive. He and his wife, Angela, have operated a quail farm near Linwood for four years. More than 1,400 quail are hatched there every 21 days. The birds are put out for people who pay to hunt. They also sell quail to hunters who are training their dogs.

“Since I’ve been raising quail, it is unbelievable that we even have quail,” Oelschlaeger said. “It’s so hard to keep them alive.”

As one example, Oelschlaeger said newly hatched baby quail need to be maintained at a 99 degree temperature during the first three weeks of their lives.

“How they survive out in the wild after it starts getting winter is beyond me,” Oelschlaeger said. “It is so difficult to keep them alive when it is so cold.”

Oelschlaeger also has heard the complaints hunters have about the increased difficulty of finding quail during most of the last several hunting seasons.

“There are a lot of possible reasons for it,” he said.

Even though the quail hunting has been better this year, Casagrande and other hunters said they still longed for the return of the productive seasons of old.

“Quail hunting used to be the sport of sport if you liked hunting with dogs,” Casagrande said. “That side of hunting is often ignored. It’s really not just shooting, it’s getting out there and watching those dogs do their thing.”


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