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"Efficiency of Pointing Dogs in Locating Bobwhite Quail Coveys"

by D. Clay Sisson, H. Lee Stribling and Dan W. Speake
Auburn University Dept. of Zoology/Wildlife Science

Interactions between hunters, their dogs and bobwhite coveys have long been of interest to bird-hunting sportsmen. Pointing dog efficiency and reasons behind "false" or unproductive pointing is especially important to managers, landowners, and quail hunters.

The Albany Area Quail Management Project has always focused on providing reliable and practical information on bobwhite quail management and hunting. In 1992, we began monitoring the efficiency of pointing dogs in locating radio-tagged bobwhite coveys on two large, private hunting plantations in southwest Georgia. Over these five hunting seasons, we have had the distinct privilege of monitoring 169 hunts involving 254 separate radio-tagged coveys.

Additionally, our field staff has monitored 838 "encounters" between radio-tagged coveys and hunters. Our objectives were threefold: to determine the percentage of bobwhite coveys located by pointing dogs; reasons for coveys going undetected; and what causes "false" or unproductive pointing.

The hunts we monitored were conducted in true south Georgia plantation style which consists of a fresh brace of dogs kept on the ground by both a dog handler and a scout on horseback. The owners and guests follow on horseback or in a hunting wagon drawn by a matching pair of mules.

Several hundred acres of pine woods and fields are covered in morning or afternoon hunt with most of the shooting aimed at covey rises. One or two of our field men followed on horseback carrying radio telemetry receivers and monitoring the behavior and/or reaction of radio-tagged coveys to the approaching hunting party. Each time a radio-tagged covey was "encountered", a record was made of whether the covey was seen or not seen by the hunters.

Coveys seen were subcategorized as pointed and shot, pointed but wild flushed before they could be shot, or wild flushed without being pointed. Coveys not seen were subcategorized as wild flushes, passed and missed due to running, passed and held, pointed but ran, or pointed and held unflushed.

Click here to open a window showing this data in table form (Table 1). If your browser doesn't support JavaScript, click here. You may leave this window open as you read the article and bring it to the front when you need to reference the data.

Forty seven percent of all encounters resulted in coveys not seen. Twenty four percent of these were either simply passed by or missed by the dogs and the hunters. Often a covey will hold tight and let the hunting party pass, literally within feet of where they are hiding. These are usually coveys that were not out feeding and therefore haven't spread much scent.

Another technique coveys used, especially after they had been educated a couple of times by lead shot, was to run away from the approaching hunting party or a pointing dog. This occurred in 17% of all covey encounters and became more prevalent as the season progressed.

Unseen wild flushes accounted for another 7% of all encounters and increased in frequency later in the season. Several coveys were notorious for this and would simply pick up and fly off unseen when they heard the hunters approaching. The dogs would sometimes become "birdy" and sometimes point although the birds were long gone.

In 2% of all covey encounters, coveys were pointed but missed because they refused to move. Even a good attempt at flushing wouldn't work unless they were about to be trampled.

Table 2 provides insights into the causes of "false" or unproductive pointing.

In 107 of the 392 encounters with radio-tagged birds in which no covey was seen, there was an unproductive point. In sixty two percent of these encounters, a flushing attempt was made when the dogs pointed but the birds had already run away.

Table 2 (here for no JavaScript) actually underestimates the frequency of this occurrence. Many coveys were recorded as "seen" after two or three unproductive points due to running. Coveys running 100 yards or more are common. At least one incident was recorded in which a whole covey ran 500 yards before they were eventually seen flushing wild.

Thirty percent of unproductive points were a result of wild flushes not seen by any of the hunting party. The remaining 15% were "pointed" coveys in which the flushing attempts did not work. Of all the encounters with radio-tagged coveys, 12% involded a "false" point.

Reasons for the "unproductive" points range from unseen wild flushes to birds running away from pointing dogs or simply refusing to move. The bottom line is that innocent bird dogs are often chastised for "false pointing" on what could very likely have been birds or good bird scent.

The percentage of radio-tagged coveys seen varied daily (53% daily, ranging from 0-100%) but was fairly consistent annually (53%, ranging from 40-63%). The interaction of several factors certainly determines the efficiency of pointing dogs in locating bobwhite coveys. Some of these variables include the effects of weather on feeding patterns and scenting conditions. Also, the conditions of ground cover and hunting pressure can change covey behavior and therefore affect dog performance.

Another factor is diversity among individual dogs' abilities and/or desire to hunt. This apparently averages out over a hunting season as evidence by the fairly consistent annual detection rate. The exact reason why some hunts are better than others still remains a mystery, which only increases its appeal.

Suggestions for hunters

Overall, bobwhite coveys showed a remarkable ability to evade hunting parties with some coveys doing this better than others. Individual coveys develop their own personalites during the hunting season. By paying close attention to this behavior, hunters can bag a few of these birds instead of proclaiming "they did it to us again!"

Simply changing your normal pattern or avenue of approach may be enough to interfere with a covey's escape plans. Also, keep in mind that coveys frequently run. When your dogs become birdy, stay close behind them and reach all points as quickly as possible. Trust your dogs! Good dogs usually point for a reason.

When coveys are holding and refuse to move, try to flush out the birds and then relocate your dogs. Often coveys are flushed at second, third or even fourth locations before they are eventually caught. Try to think like a quail. If your experience with this covey doesn't clue you in on where and how they like to escape, take a good look around. Look for heavy cover nearby that they might head for if you suspect they flew off or ran away.

Single birds can be even more elusive. As a covey scatters, single birds hit the ground running so that when you locate where you "saw them go down" the birds are long gone. Another common behavior of single birds is to site tight or "screw in" as a hunting partner and biologist friend from Oklahoma likes to say.

These "screwed in" birds are extremely difficult to locate and to move. It's much harder for a dog to smell a single bird than a dozen. Many hunters believe that the flight of a bird causes a "wingwashing" effect that removes much of its scent. Often, only the threat of being stepped on will prompt singles to fly, increasing the chance of being shot to 100% instead of 1 in 12.

Singles shooting can be the most productive and best part of the hunt. Try spending a little extra time when you reach a location where you marked "downed" birds. Don't let your dogs trail or become birdy and you may eventually get one or two pointed birds or even "kick up" a few to shoot.

Survival instincts are strong in all animals and behaviors are constantly modified to insure perpetuation of the species. Wild bobwhites' survival instincts are as sharp as any critters' considering the intense year-round pressure they endure. Don't take it personally when they elude your most valiant bagging attempts. They're just trying to insure a good population for next season.

Sportsmen can hunt wild bobwhite quail more efficiently simply by understanding the bird's behavior, the pointing dog's efficiency and the causes of unproductive points. The AAQMP is currently investigating the effects of weather on feeding patterns and scenting conditions to provide additional information to help sportsmen in their pursuit of The Prince of Game Birds.

For more information, contact the Albany Area Quail Management Project at (912) 734-3039.

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