After the second covey encounter with no birds in bag, I pleaded, “Guys, if you continue to hunt these birds in a gentlemanly fashion, we may never have enough birds for the quail meal that is on the dining menu for this evening.” This was the first time that these three gentlemen had hunted blue quail together, and though each were experienced quail hunters, both with blues and bobs, there was that natural tendency for each of them to not breach proper quail hunting etiquette that’s commonly held for bobwhites. The problem is that blue quail do not observe the finer gamebird principles as bobwhites; rather, they are more rogue and prone to run like members of a gang who are scattering from law dogs.
I then instructed them, “Okay, amigos, on this next covey, I want all three of you to dismount the truck as safely and quickly as possible, chamber a round, and take pursuit of the birds, not worrying about if the next guy is lagging behind. Be safe but be aggressive.” As we came to a screeching halt near a water trough, with some 30–40 birds scurrying through the creosote like they were on skateboards, my tres amigos launched from the crew cab F-250 as I spouted, “If you have to pot-shoot them on the ground like cottontail rabbits, then do so. Take no prisoners.” Over the next 15 minutes I heard no less than 15 shots, watching them wind through the brush and up the side of a rocky hill covered in lechaguila, with David almost taking a spill. When they returned, they were beaming from ear to ear with 7 beautiful birds in their bag. “I think we figured how we need to play this game together now,” were the words of Jim, as he was picking thorns out of his shin.
Scaled quail (Callipepla squamata) is the proper common name for these birds, more often referred to by hunters as blue quail, which is derived from a bit of a bluish grey hue that you see in their beautiful plumage, which also has a flecked or scaled pattern. They have a white tuft of feathers that spike up on the top of their head, and I’ve occasionally heard people refer to them as cotton tops. Here in Texas, you’ll find blues in the western areas of South Texas, all across the Trans-Pecos, and much of the Panhandle, especially the western two-thirds of this region. Blues are a bit larger than bobs, requiring a slightly heavier load to properly anchor them. They are known as runners, and since they tend to congregate in large coveys, sometimes 30–40 birds, it’s an impressive sight to see these larger groups of birds navigating their way so effortlessly through the scrubby brush and cactus, and when you have that many birds bust into the air, it can be a startling thunder of noise. You’ll find blues in both flat country, as well as steep rocky terrain. Blues are opportunistic in their feeding habits, consuming various seeds through the course of the year, greens when the rains provide weed growth, plant fruits from various plants including prickly pear, and insects when such arthropods are available. When prickly pear tunas are red and ripe, I’ve seen blue quail with purplish faces, so they obviously find prickly pear fruit to be highly attractive, as do many other wild critters.
Blue quail are classic “boom-bust” critters, in terms of how the numbers can erupt in a matter of a year or two, and how they can also melt down in a given year. Part of the key in boom years is Mother Nature providing adequate rainfall at critical times of the year, especially late winter through early summer, which not only yields suitable nesting cover, but also produces a buffet of quail foods.
So, what can the quail manager do to help create man-controlled needs for these birds? Provision of surface water is a great start. These dessert-type birds do metabolize a great deal of their moisture needs from the foods that they eat, but never under-estimate the importance of water for quail and other wildlife in arid regions. Earthen ponds that rely on rain-water runoff are great but are not as predictably reliable as water that is pumped up and piped into troughs. A key is making sure that birds have good access to these water sources via trough overflows or through platforms such as rocks or expanded metal ramps that allow birds and small mammals to an access perch.
Cattle grazing can be an asset or a liability for blue quail, with the key being grazing pressure that is not too excessive. Hoof action from cattle can help prevent soil capping, and moderate grazing of native grasses can add to the fitness of those plants, but scalping the landscape through intense grazing pressure over long periods of time can rob the habitat requirements for blue quail and other wildlife species. Sound grazing practices in these drier, more brittle ecosystems can be central to maintaining healthy, functional ecological productivity, including habitats required for blue quail. Stocking rate and timing/amount of stock deferment are the two main considerations to a sound grazing regime.
Unlike bobwhites, there are not many commercial hunting operations for blue quail, so finding an outfitter who offers blue quail hunts or finding a blue quail lease is not necessarily an easy quest. As mentioned earlier, the normal style of hunting for blues is generally much different than that employed by bobwhite hunters who are more accustomed to hunting over pointing dogs. As described earlier, hunting blues is often more of a chase on foot, but hunting from buggies is relatively popular as well. Though few outfitters offer packages that involve hunting blues with dogs, Ryan O’Shaughnessy, with West Texas Quail Outfitters, has carved out a niche of offering high-end packages with well-trained dogs that are bred for hunting blue quail. Named Orvis’s Outfitter of the Year in 2018, you can check out Ryan’s information at WestTexasQuailOutfitters.com. While discussing blue quail hunts, I’d be remiss not to mention that blue quail provide excellent table-fare, with my favorite recipe being one that I cook the breast meat in a cream of mushroom base with fresh mushrooms, garlic and onions, placed over brown rice, and I chicken-fry the legs as an appetizer; book a quail hunt and try it out. . . you won’t be disappointed!