Shell’s Covert Blog — Quail Harvest: Regulation Versus Education

‘…with so few quail hunters, they simply are not having a negative effect at a statewide level.’

Our agency is currently implementing our biennial hunting regulations review and amendment process. We have been taking public comments for three months. The initial online commenting period closed November 30. More comment periods will follow as regulations are proposed. As a project leader, one of my duties is to lead discussions with our small game committee on public comments and ascertain whether any small game seasons or regulations need modification. We take this process seriously and all public comments are presented to the committee. As a member of the public it is important for you to note that having your comments heard does not mean all comments or suggestions will lead to the changes requested.

Much of our small game committee discussions revolve around whether the quail season and bag limits need adjusting. To be frank, we get very few comments on quail seasons. But we agonize over this issue as dedicated staff wanting to do what is right. I have stated many times that biologists generally believe quail hunting has not been the cause of the quail decline. And quail hunter numbers are at historic lows. We had almost 145,000 quail hunters in the early 1970s and we are now down to less than 9,000. Most of those are incidental quail hunters, meaning they do not pursue quail purposefully, but generally encounter them while hunting other species.

In spite of our very best efforts over the last decades, outside of pockets where quail numbers have increased or remained strong, and off properties where landowners have done significant quail management, Virginia’s quail population continues to decline (as well as those in most states). This leads some to question why we continue to allow statewide quail hunting with a bag limit of six per day. On the surface it seems easy. Simply close the quail season until numbers rebound when environmental factors and increased habitat line up to support recovery. But it is not that simple. One major thing to note right away – dozens of species of songbirds and insects that use similar habitats to bobwhite quail are also declining … and they are not hunted at all.

I have already mentioned that with so few quail hunters, they simply are not having a negative effect at a statewide level. Further quail hunting tends to be self-regulatory in some ways – meaning when quail numbers are low, hunters stop pursuing them. It costs a good bit of money and takes a great deal of time to be a bird hunter. Very few people are willing to purchase a bird dog, all the associated equipment and put in the time to become a “real bird hunter” when quail populations are poor.  However, there are places in Virginia where quail are at “huntable” numbers, and hunters still do well. I wonder who will champion quail when the quail hunters are gone? As a colleague of mine said to me “Quail will never be ‘every man’s’ bird.” I can only think that closing the quail season would hasten the extinction of our remaining quail hunters.

I proposed a few potential changes this year early on and offered them to some of our avid quail hunters for feedback. One such idea was the possibility of limiting the number of female or hen quail harvested. This should increase the number of females able to contribute to nesting in the spring and summer. Limiting female harvest has been done effectively with mallards, pheasants, turkeys and whitetail deer. But the females of those species are readily identifiable, and while there are a few quail hunters who can distinguish between male and female bobwhites on the wing, most cannot.

Feedback was negative on this idea. It was pointed out that it may be hard to enforce and that a person could violate the law accidentally. For example, if we said the quail bag limit was reduced to three per day west of the Blue Ridge with no more than one female allowed, a person shooting at a flushing covey could kill two hens without knowing it and be in violation. The same thing could occur east of the Blue Ridge if we left the bag limit at six but allowed no more than two hens and three hens were killed on a covey rise.

My take on all this is that perhaps we ought to consider education before regulation. I propose a set of “Bird hunter best management practices” or BHBMPs. These may include a self-imposed limit on the number of females harvested. For instance, if you find a nice covey of quail, kill two and they are both hens, how about considering moving on and not pursuing the singles and risking killing even more of the females. You could also consider that if you kill more than 3 or 4 quail out of a covey, you might want to leave that covey un-hunted the rest of the winter.

Further, as the law requires in many mid-western states, the pursuit of upland gamebirds should end at sunset. We could make that a law here, but in reality it comes down to an honor system and I’d like to think most bird hunters already adhere to this practice. No bird hunter that calls him or herself sporting can make that claim if they are still shooting quail near dark. The coveys need time to regroup and form a roosting disk before the night cold sets in.

Lastly, I’d say in the back of every bird hunter’s mind, they should value every quail, grouse and woodcock as much as they value turkeys, ducks and deer. Why would anyone consider a quail less valuable than a turkey? Is the size of the quarry the determining factor in how we should judge our success in the hunting endeavor?

Before I make a few comments about quail hunting on public lands, I want to point out that all private landowners have the ability and the right to limit or prohibit quail harvest on their lands. And while as a whole quail hunting is not causing the quail decline, local quail populations, particularly on small properties, can be reduced or eliminated if over hunted. Private landowners should consider determining the number of quail they believe they have before the season starts and limiting harvest to no more the 20% – 25% of that. This takes effort and would require hunters of their land to report their kill.

As an example, suppose you believe you have four coveys of quail on your land, each about 15 birds going into the fall season. You would close the quail hunting on your land when 12 – 15 or so quail had been harvested.

Concerning public lands, our department is going to begin making an attempt at getting a better idea of the quail harvest on lands we own. We want to provide opportunity, but also want to insure our policies are not hindering quail recovery on your public lands. Quail hunting on public lands may be having no negative impact at all, or it may be limiting recovery – we simply do not know. And we hope our quail hunters will support us in our efforts to make a fair assessment and modify our approach to public lands quail hunting if it is determined changes need to be made. I hope you all have a wonderful Holiday Season with your friends and family, and your bird dogs. Just remember with family or with bird dogs, it is the quality of the time you spend that is most important.

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