What promises to be Missouri's best quail season in several years has gotten off to a slow start on account of weather. However, hunters in areas with increased quail numbers say the wait is likely to be worthwhile.
Quail season opens Nov. 1 in Missouri, and this year that date fell on a Saturday. Normally, that would bring crowds of hunters to public areas. Unseasonably warm weather and rain in some areas reduced turnout for the opener. However, many of those who ventured out during the first week of the season were rewarded for their efforts.
Mitch Miller, Northwest Region wildlife supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said weather conditions were terrible for hunting in his area. Nov. 1 was hot and dry, and rain fell for several days after that.
Nevertheless, he estimated 200 hunters flocked to Bilby Ranch Conservation Area (CA) in Atchison County on opening day and bagged about 100 quail. He said Nodaway Valley CA in Holt and Nodaway counties also hosted a large number of hunters. One man reported bagging five bobwhites and two pheasants, an excellent day by almost any public-land quail hunter's standards.
Miller said farmers are in a good position to notice quail population trends due to the hundreds of hours they spend driving combines in the fall. He said farmers in northwest Missouri have reported seeing more big coveys of quail this year than they have in many years.
Bill Chapin of Kearney sat out opening day, but he got up early the following Wednesday for a two-hour hunt at a conservation area before going to work. He flushed two large coveys of quail and several pheasants. His bag for the mini-hunt was four quail and two pheasants.
"I was very impressed to find so many birds so easily after the pounding that public areas get on opening day. I could have stayed with those two coveys and shot a limit of eight quail really easily, but I like to just take a couple of birds from each covey and move on."
Mike Jones, the Conservation Department's wildlife regional supervisor in northeastern Missouri, said the improvement in quail numbers is spotty in his area. Most hunters report seeing more quail than in the past two years, and where they are used to seeing one covey, they now are finding two or three. Jones and his co-workers have seen more quail on conservation areas all summer.
Conservation Department Wildlife Management Biologist Brad Jump said an unusually snowy winter has depressed quail numbers in southwest Missouri. Some parts of the region got as much as 50 inches of snow last year.
"We had over three inches of snow on the ground at Bois D'Arc Conservation Area from Dec. 4 through Feb. 25," he said. "We had very poor quail production in 2003, and quail population estimates are low right now. It's similar to 2001, when we had an extremely hard winter."
These experiences reflect improved population estimates issued by the Conservation Department. Each August, conservation agents drive established routes along back roads throughout the state and report the number of quail sighted. This year, they reported seeing 11 percent more quail statewide than last year.
The increase wasn't evenly distributed around the state, however. The Northwestern Prairie, Northeastern Riverbreaks, Western Prairie, Bootheel and Northern and Eastern Ozark border regions all posted significant gains, while the Northern Riverbreaks declined slightly. The Western Ozark Border remained stable, while the Ozark Plateau saw a significant decline in bobwhite quail counted.
"These numbers are what we call indices," said Conservation Department Resource Scientist Tom Dailey, who specializes in quail. "They give us a general idea of how quail are doing from year to year. The figures aren't censuses -- actual counts of all the birds in the state -- but they allow us to track quail progress over the long term."
Weather probably is the biggest factor contributing to the recovery, according to Dailey. He said two years of reasonably dry, warm springs have favored quail reproduction.
"Quail are extremely vulnerable right after they hatch," said Conservation Department Upland Wildlife Coordinator Elsa Gallagher. "When we get cold, rainy weather in June it takes a heavy toll on hatchlings. This year we had excellent conditions for quail chicks to survive, and we are seeing the results in the quality of hunting."
Gallagher said hunters also could be seeing the effects of quail habitat restoration work on conservation areas and private land. However, she said it is still too early to attribute statewide quail recovery to the Conservation Department's landscape-scale habitat efforts.
Quail are quick to exploit favorable habitat changes. These include:
* Widening weedy, brushy borders between fields and forests.
* Creating forest openings.
* Disking, prescribed burning and planting food plots, particularly on Conservation Reserve Program land.
* Building strategically placed brush piles near food sources.
* Diversifying pastures with legumes.
Landowners who make such changes can see the number of quail on their property double in a single year. Hunters who visit conservation areas where such practices are in place also reap quail bonanzas. But implementing those same changes across wide expanses of Missouri will take time.
"We are glad to get help from the weather," said Gallagher, "and good management on little islands of conservation land is a step in the right direction. Ultimately, though, quail recovery will depend on changing land management over broad expanses of private land."
For information about workshops and other educational resources to help with quail management, visit a Conservation Department office near you or call 573/751-4115.