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Out of Bounds

Postseason Blues

If there were quail in Dillon I doubt they would have survived the night, much less winter

By Rob Breeding

My dog is angry with me. She’s figured out hunting season, for us at least, is over.

It’s over for everyone up north, though there are a few weeks left in some states, such as ours on the Great Plains. When we returned from holidays spent down south, however, we were welcomed home with below-zero temperatures. 

It was a balmy 12 degrees today and that’s too cold for bird hunting. It’s dangerous for dogs as their drive is so strong they’ll ignore threats of frostbite. And the frigid, dry air doesn’t hold scent. In these conditions we might stumble on a pheasant or two, but it sounds more deadly than fun.

There’s a more important reason to give the birds a rest these last few weekends of the season. It takes everything upland birds can muster to just survive the cold this time of year.

You may have seen photos of quail on the coldest nights, huddling in circles with their tail ends meeting in the center. They do this to share body heat and the tactic is most efficient in coveys of eight or nine birds. Fewer birds mean less body heat to share, so when an Arctic air mass descends on the lower 48, birds die.

I was in California hunting quail earlier this month and one of our group said he didn’t shoot quail in small coveys late in the season. It’s a noble gesture but for desert quail, an unnecessary one. It just doesn’t get that cold down south. 

For instance, a few days into the New Year in Southern California, we attended a high school soccer match (they play in the winter to avoid fall and spring heat). It was a night match and the locals were complaining about the bitter cold.

The low that night was 45 degrees. 

I once covered a high school football playoff game in Dillon, Montana, that by some cruel twist was played on a Friday night. I think it was -10 at kickoff. The playing surface was dirt mixed with a then scattering of grass. How much grass was unclear since it was also the color of dirt. 

If there were quail in Dillon I doubt they would have survived the night, much less winter.

Another advantage for desert quail is that they gather in large groups made up of multiple coveys. I once flushed a late-season covey of Gambel’s quail in Arizona that contained maybe 100 birds. 

In spring those big groups make it easy for quail to pair up for nesting.

This means desert quail will do alright, even if you’re thinning coveys the last weekend of the season. But that doesn’t work with bobwhite quail, which stay in small family groups through the winter. A covey of just four or five birds will have a tough time surviving a Great Plains winter if this cold lasts too long.

Montana game birds are hardier. In winter forest grouse burrow into snow banks forming sheltering dens or migrate to higher elevations, dining on spruce needles.

Pheasants don’t form adorable survival rings that way quail do, but they need protection from the cold. Shelter belts, for instance, can be 5 degrees warmer than adjacent grassland. 

Surprisingly, wind can also be an asset if the birds have refuge to shield them from its ravages. Wind’s benefit is that it clears snow so birds can find food.

If snow and ice are so thick pheasant can’t feed, they still may survive for as long as two weeks off fat reserves and even muscle tissue, but that only goes so far. Once they whither to 60% of their body weight, they’re unlikely to survive.

None of this makes sense to my English setter, however. She’s still trying to figure out why we left a land where overnight lows of 45 is a sign of the apocalypse, for this frozen hellscape.

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