America’s Great Game Bird

Of our native game birds, only the ruffed grouse, or possibly the valley/California quail, rival the bobwhite in status

By Rob Breeding

I hunted northern bobwhite quail for the first time last month. I’ve long been a quail fanatic, but never chased the species many consider the archetype of this family of birds.

Of our native game birds, only the ruffed grouse, or possibly the valley/California quail, rival the bobwhite in status. Why becomes clear once you hunt bobwhite. The birds hold well for pointing dogs yet remain tough to shoot on the wing, prefer some pretty civil country that’s decent to hunt, and are delicious to eat.

I hunted the birds in Oklahoma, a state I never planned to even visit. I was in Austin, Texas, visiting an old friend, however, and after the visit I’d intended to hunt bobwhite somewhere around Lubbock. Yet something about hunting in Texas didn’t sit right.

For starters, bobwhite reports for the state weren’t encouraging. Though weather patterns, i.e. decent rainfall in recent years, suggested populations should be good, biologists weren’t recording the numbers they expected in their spring call counts. Hunters weren’t finding birds either.

The collapse of bobwhite quail in what had once been the species stronghold, the Deep South, has been widely studied and seems well understood — habitat loss due primarily to changing agricultural and forestry practices. Texas, however, remained something of a stronghold for the bird. The vast rolling plains in the panhandle south to the Mexican border have harbored strong populations for decades.

Not since 2010, however, when the weather suggested they should be plentiful.

It’s important to note that other than habitat loss, biologists have long considered weather to be the primary limiting factor for quail. In years of drought, populations crash. Sprinkle some water on the country and the birds are everywhere. The little buggers reproduce quickly when conditions are right.

There are times when land use such as overgrazing can harm the birds, but other factors such as over-hunting, predators or disease aren’t considered threats to healthy populations.

New research has biologists changing their tune in Texas. Bobwhite there seem to be plagued by a parasite, eyeworms, which are devastating quail populations. The birds pick up the pest when they eat insects, which are intermediate hosts. The small white worms gather at the back of the bird’s eye — one report said it was equivalent to a worm the size and length of a toothpick behind a human eye, and there can be 30-40 in a single bird.

The eyeworm feeds on the quail’s blood in the sinus cavity, weakening and killing the birds. The parasite also makes the birds more vulnerable to predators. A bobwhite driven to distraction scratching at its irritated eyes is an easy mark for a Cooper’s hawk.

So there was that, and also the matter of almost no public land in Texas. No public land means you have to pay to play in that state, and the rate for a day’s guided hunt was about $700 per gun. Even if that hadn’t been a little steep for my wallet, I prefer to hunt on land I own — along with the rest of you — rather than on someone else’s property.

I’m not opposed to hunters paying access fees, so long as they’re not also paying for canned hunts. I just prefer public-land hunting when it’s possible.

As it turned out, the eyeworm plague hadn’t yet spread to adjoining Oklahoma. And right on the border with Texas, just 30 miles or so north of Interstate 40, is the Black Kettle National Grassland. Black Kettle just happened to be thick with birds, and access is open to anyone with the gumption to drive there.

I did, and in two days I might have moved 500 birds. A decent shot would have killed a couple of 10-bird limits. I was just happy to get my first bobwhite, and the seven more that followed, making for a fine meal.

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