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Hunting pen-raised birds

For many of us, the privilege of hunting wild quail is a rare event. Every few years, we may be fortunate enough to receive an invitation from a friend or a business associate to hunt his private land, chock full of coveys that rarely see humans. In the meantime, we must be content with hunting at game preserves or on private land where pen-raised birds have been released.

The term "pen-raised birds" causes many a purist to turn up his nose in disdain. It's kind of like preaching the virtues of jonboats to someone who never takes to the water in anything less than a Donzi. All I can offer in response is that I hope each and every purist has the good fortune to hunt wild quail as often as I hunt pen-raised birds. I'll admit right up front that pen-raised stock don't explode on a covey rise like wild birds, and in many situations you don't have that element of uncertainty when approaching a dog on point; are there two birds in here or twenty? But those facts aside, I just cannot see denying myself the beauty of being in the field or forest, or the near-sinful pleasure of watching dogs work, or the pounding of my heart as a covey takes to the air, simply because the birds were born in a protected environment. And by the way, I've had a whole hell of a lot of fun in jonboats, too.

Now that I've established that I am an advocate of pen-raised birds and in the process have provided a spark for debate, let me push that issue aside and talk about getting the most out of released quail. I've broken the article down into three sections: Buying Birds, which covers a few things to look for when you seek a breeder; Releasing Birds, which offers a few tips on how to place the birds so that they are still there when you come back to hunt them; and Early Season Release, which brushes the topic of "stocking" a piece of land with birds several months before the season opens.

Buying Birds

Though you're not likely to find most breeders listed in the local yellow pages, there are a surprising number in operation. If you have trouble finding one, ask around at the store where you buy hunting supplies or at a sporting clays course. A really good place to find out about quail breeders is from dog trainers. Don't be ashamed to ask where they get birds and why they go to that particular breeder.

Once you've located a breeder or two, drop by and visit the operations. In most cases, you'll see more chicken wire than stainless steel, but rest assured that this is the norm. A couple of things to look for:

Flight pens - Operations that have flight pens generally produce birds that fly a little better. The pens are long and narrow, providing the birds ample room to exercise their wings. More importantly, these pens allow a person to enter one end and scare the birds to the opposite end, doing what some believe is "training" the birds to flush instead of run.

Darkened rooms - Rooms with very little light have an effect similar to flight pens. They keep the birds skittish and afraid of animals that don't look like quail. Unlike flight pens, however, they don't condition the birds to fly away quickly.

Mature birds - Quail are considered physically mature at 16 weeks of age. As you get well into hunting season, you may find breeders selling birds as young as 12 weeks. Obviously, a bird that is not physically mature will not fly as well as one whose muscles and bones have developed to their potential. Be careful of this, especially in the last month of your season.

Ground-pounders - You all know the kind of bird I'm talking about. The one that just won't fly even if you catapult him off of an aircraft carrier. I've talked to a number of breeders who say this behavior is hereditary, and will likely afflict a group of birds rather than a lone runner. If you get a bad batch, make sure you tell your breeder and make a mental note to ask specifically for different birds the next time.

Releasing Birds

Placing only one covey in the field at a time not only eats up your hunting hours, it also mixes too much of the work with the play. If the land is available, I prefer to set all of the coveys out prior to the hunt, which precipitates another set of challenges.

Unless you're into liberating birds, you'd probably prefer the quail to be in roughly the same spot when you return with your dogs. Gleaned from guides and from personal experience, here are a few tips to make sure they don't stray:

Build a nest - Take some of the surrounding grass and weeds and form it into a circular nest on the ground. Ten inches to a foot in diameter is plenty for a covey of five birds. When using this method, I've rarely had birds bust when I released them, and they tend to hold a little better for the dogs, too.

Get them dizzy - Whether in a bag or in a cage, it's a good idea to swing the birds in a circle at arm's length immediately before releasing them. A dozen times is a good rule of thumb. If you're only putting out one covey at a time, however, half that many should be enough. Drop them into the nest as soon as you finish spinning them and move quickly away.

Give them a reason to stay - If you're not building nests for them, one method I've had a great deal of success with is spreading a handful or two of wheat on ground just before I release them. They won't stay packed tightly together, but if there's food available, they will stick around and eat rather than wandering the property. Spin them a couple of times before you put them down.

Early Season Release

Much has been written, and much research is still underway regarding the viability of releasing pen-raised birds onto a piece of land well in advance of the hunting season. The school of thought behind this is that the birds will behave more like wild quail if they've had to survive for a few months in the outdoors. Non-believers in this method preach a litany of evils including poor survival rates and damage to existing coveys of wild quail.

I've had first-hand experience in early season release, and I've read nearly everything I can get my hands on regarding its virtues and vices. Still, no clear-cut answer exists. I'll do my best to relay what I know to be true.

Survival rates
From my one experience with early release, I believe survival rates of up to 60% are possible. We turned loose three coveys averaging 25 birds each. By the start of hunting season, roughly three months later, three coveys still existed, averaging 15 birds each. Studies I've read typically report a 25% to 50% survival rate, and these are no doubt much more scientific than my "walk through the woods and eyeball how many birds flush" technique.

Limiting factors
Each piece of land has an "ideal" number of quail that it is capable of supporting. If you put out more quail than the land can support, predators and lack of food will soon correct your math for you. If you put out fewer quail than the land is capable of supporting, mother nature will make certain that in a few years, the number will increase until that ideal state is achieved. Positive conservation techniques such as prescribed burning and creating hedgerows usually increase the number of quail that a plot of land can sustain.

Covey support systems
If birds are placed in the wild as part of an early release program, they will need to be fed until they learn to find food on their own. Wheat is a good grain to cast about the property for two reasons: it's cheap and the deer and turkey won't eat it before the quail do. Every couple of days for the first month, spread about half a gallon of seed in the area where each covey was released and make sure you don't spread it in the same place every time.

Anchor Covey Release SystemAn alternative to this is one of the commercially made systems that feed and water quail automatically. Quality Wildlife manufactures one of these, the Anchor Covey Release System, pictured at right. The device is concealed with brush and provides a sheltered location for quail to feed while substantially reducing the covey tender's number of trips into the field.

Fast and furious, that's a synopsis of techniques that will help you get the most out of store-bought birds. I'm certain that many of you have gleaned additional tidbits from personal experience, and I'd be glad to update this article as suggestions arrive. Send them here and I'll put you in the spotlight.

Yes, when it comes to the challenge of shooting one, pen-raised birds are a far cry from wild quail. But for those of us lacking the resources to hunt wild birds, they allow us to enjoy being in the field, working our dogs, swinging a shotgun, and they taste darn good, too.

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