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Why do coveys hold?

Pssst....wanna know a sure-fire, can't miss, guaranteed way to find wild quail? Go deer hunting. No kidding, walk through the woods with a rifle and without dogs and they will be there every time, right in your path and close enough to touch. This has happened to me time and time again in the very same woods that I traipse at other times of the year hoping to find just a few wild birds. Which leads me to question if the birds are always there, or just there during deer hunts.

It's a ridiculous question, of course. Quail do not hop a train to the coast during their season, but somtimes they seem more prevalent when you aren't hunting them than when you are. This could simply be an illusion sketched on your mind by itself, but I think there is a more plausible explanation.

The other day while I was deer hunting (no joke), I walked to the top of a hill that had been clear cut in the center. Like a well driller with a dowsing rod, I hoped that some unknown force would lead me toward a freezer full of venison. After about two or three minutes on the hilltop I gave up dowsing and returned the same way in which I arrived, only to flush three quail at the edge of the clearing. On the way in, I walked no more than four feet from these birds and had no clue of their presence. But when I turned and walked in their direction, they flushed before I was any closer than thirty feet.

Not having seen a deer all afternoon, I welcomed the diversion and began to consider why these birds at first held, only to flush later, when I was much further away. If I were a quail, I thought, what would make me take wing? The answer is easy enough- only imminent danger would spur me to evasive action. More specifically, the perceived level of threat would determine whether I sat or flew.

I compare the situation of the quail to that of me as a child playing hide and seek. Not only did the person who was "it" have to find me, he also had to tag me before I became "it". More than once I sat behind a bush or up in a tree and watched the hunter pass me by, completely unaware of my presence. Had he seen me and moved toward me, I would have run like a scalded dog, but why expend all of that energy and risk being tagged when I could sit still and not get tagged with much less effort? Now I was starting to think like a quail.

But this still doesn't explain why I could pass so close to the quail on the way into the clearing and flush them from such long range less than a minute later. I can offer only one explanation, and it goes back to the perceived level of threat. As I inspected the brush from where the birds flushed, I noted that they had been at the base of a stand of weeds, weeds that were rather thick and about waist high on me. They couldn't see me coming into the clearing. They could probably hear me, but by the time they made visual contact, I was moving away from them, no longer an immediate threat. When I turned, however, I was in full view and moving directly toward them, a significant threat.

But why do you see more birds when you're not hunting specifically for them than when you are? Again I fall back on perceived threat. Quail may have minds that are much less developed than our own, but they are nevertheless capable of processing a number of pieces of information very quickly to arrive at a decision. They take into account proximity of hunter and dog, the direction of travel of both, the safety of the cover immediately around them, and even whether or not an escape on foot is a better option.

When you are deer hunting or simply walking through a field or forest, quail generally have less warning of your approach. The reason for this is that with dogs scampering around out in front of you, the birds are alerted much sooner to the possibility of predators in the area. This doesn't guarantee a flush- remember in the hide and seek game how you can sit in a bush while "it" stands over you or even looks directly into the bush without seeing you- but rather it gives the birds more time and more information to evaluate the threat. The flush, if it comes, is less of a reflex and more of calculated reaction.

I feel certain there is more to this than I have presented, and I welcome any comments you may have, either from other sources or from personal experience. E-mail me and I'll append this article from time to time. Experiences such as mine tend to support some of the research being done by the Albany Area Quail Management Study. Trust your dogs and look a little harder the next time they go on point. Kick throught the brush a little more, and when all else fails, turn around and go back the way you came.


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