Do-It-Yourself Bird Dogs for Quail Hunting

Dog owners can purchase and release pen-raised quail for dog training.

There are plenty of opportunities in Georgia for quail hunters to hit the fields with a dog — especially if you want to hunt with someone else’s dog shooting someone else’s birds. It’s another kind of quail hunter that’s getting scarce, the fellow who owns and feeds his bird dogs himself and keeps them in shape for the season. With wild quail numbers in the basement lately, few people have been lucky enough to have enough quail hunting available to make it worthwhile to keep a dog.

A new state law that goes into effect on July 1 is aimed at encouraging more folks to stay in the quail-hunting tradition by keeping their dogs and staying involved in quail. The law makes it legal for any licensed hunter to purchase and release pen-raised quail from a commercial breeder for purposes of dog training. Previously, you had to hold a private or commercial shooting-preserve license to be able to release and shoot pen-raised quail, but that is no longer true. Under those shooting-preserve licenses, there was a limited season for releasing and shooting quail, and now there is none. Any individual may release and shoot pen-raised quail, any time of year, to train their dogs.
This opens the world of pen-raised quail to anyone who needs to train a bird dog or polish one up for the coming season. To help folks like this get started, GON looked into who raises and sells quail, how to pick a producer to buy from, and other issues.

First of all, however, it would be wise for us to emphasize aspects of the new law, like the fact that it specifically names “dog training” as the object of the activity. This law is not intended to encourage recreational quail shoots. Dog training must be involved. Also, the law is not meant to aid someone in stocking quail on their land. Introducing pen-raised quail to land where wild quail already live can be risky in many ways, particularly where disease is concerned, which is why the new law also authorizes dog trainers to shoot the released quail year-round. DNR would like to know that dog trainers recapture, kill or account in some way for every quail turned out. Even though survival of a pen-reared quail in the wild is unlikely, it’s enough of a risk that dog trainers should make every effort to collect all released quail at the end of the day.

That said, let’s get into the details of how you can take advantage of this new law.

The first step is finding a licensed commercial quail breeder near you. There are 47 licensed breeders in Georgia.

“The first thing I would do would be to find a reputable producer and not just assume that all quail are created equal, because they are certainly not,” said Clay Sisson. Clay is the project coordinator for Auburn University’s Albany Area Quail Management Project in Baker County. Though much of the project’s focus is on wild quail, Clay has also spent a lot of time working around pen-raised birds in his research.

“I would be real leery of buying birds from anybody who hasn’t been in that business for a while,” said Clay. “I look for reputation instead of trying to go look at somebody’s birds and trying to tell by what they look like whether they are any good or not. Ask the folks at shooting preserves or properties who have been dealing with pen-raised bird producers. If the breeder is not willing to give you some references, that’s not a good sign.”

The best breeders, Clay said, raise their quail in outdoor flight pens once they are four to six weeks of age. The pens are usually screened with black cloth or plastic to keep the quail isolated from human contact and activity. Also, the pens usually have some sort of natural cover planted or placed in the pen, such as millet or Egyptian wheat or other cover to mimic outdoor conditions.

“The birds that are raised in flight pens like this tend to do better in the field, act more like quail, than ones that are raised, say, in a chicken-house type environment,” said Clay.

Even with a reputable breeder located, it is a good idea to eyeball the quail you buy and make sure they look healthy. The quail should be plump, clean and slick-looking, Clay said, and they should have all their tail feathers. Missing tail or back feathers is a sign of overcrowding, although in birds younger than 12 weeks it can be a result of molting.

“Missing tail feathers is more commonly a sign of overcrowding because they don’t molt all their tail-feathers at one time,” said Clay. “It’s a gradual thing. Most of the time you’re going to buy 12-week or older birds, and they should be fully feathered at 12 weeks.”

Depending on the type of dog training you intend to do, all of this information might be moot. For example, there are all types of equipment that help you manipulate the training scenarios for your dog, like an automatic bird launcher. You place the quail in the launcher, then when you return with your dog and it points, you push a button on the remote control in your pocket and the quail goes into orbit. In this situation, all you need is a quail that smells like a quail. Another example is puppy training.

“If you’re just trying to get a puppy excited about quail, you can stick the quail out there and let the puppy go out there and chase them around,” said Clay.

For training that simulates more aspects of quail hunting, though, it’s a good idea for the dog to go through the real thing, from the flight of the quail, the guns going off, to retrieving the dead bird. This is when healthy, active, flight-conditioned birds are best.

When placing birds for a training simulation, most experts look for a clump of cover adjacent to some open ground, and they try to place the birds in the cover so that the dog won’t immediately see the birds on its approach. Birds can be placed in large groups, but spreading them out in pairs increases the number of encounters the dog gets to go through. They should be spread a good distance apart, enough room that the dog can complete the process of flushing, recovering or hunting up missed birds without bumping into the new batch.

Most managers also try to disorient the quail prior to placing them on the ground, usually by putting the bird’s head under its wing and spinning it around, or spinning it in a sack. This tends to make the quail hold tighter to the cover when placed and more likely to be right where you left it when you return with the dog.

The new state law allows hunters to shoot the released quail with shotguns, which simulates the entire hunt and produces supper at the same time. However, you can save money on birds by re-using them. The average price for a pen-raised, flight-conditioned quail in good shape is around $2.75 to $3 apiece.

“What a lot of professional trainers use is a ‘johnny house’ or re-call pen, which lets you use the birds over and over again,” said Clay. “It’s a small pen that you can let eight or 12 birds out of and they can scatter out, you work the dog on them, and then there are other birds in the pen to call them back. There is a funnel entrance so they can go back in the pen. You kind of train the birds to train the dog, if you know what I mean. You can use the same birds again, and that’s the most economical way to do it.”

The re-call pens usually have both food and water in them, which also encourages the birds to return. We found photos and descriptions of different styles of johnny houses at www.uplandbirddog.com.

“With just a put-and-take release, these birds don’t have much of a chance of surviving anyway, so if you don’t either harvest them or have a situation where they can be called back in to a pen to be used again, they’re really going to waste. If you’re going to buy them and use them, you might as well have a quail supper out of it.”

Pen-raised quail can be beneficial for brushing up a trained dog before the season, working on backing or steadying to wing shooting with a younger dog, or initiating a puppy, but Clay warned against overusing them.

“You can get some work done with released birds, but most of the dogs are going to be hunting wild birds and you can mess one up if you overdo the released birds,” said Clay. “They need to learn some other things about how to hunt, and how to point birds without getting too close, and released birds don’t give them that.”

Unless you get lucky, don’t expect to run out after reading this story and buy quail for a day of dog training. The change in the law has caught most of the commercial quail breeders off guard. We spoke to Kenneth Stone, owner of Bullard Creek Quail Farm in Hazlehurst, and he said he, like most breeders, won’t have any flight-conditioned quail ready until at least mid-September. The season for releasing birds on licensed preserves normally starts in October, so there has never been any need to have birds ready to go year-round, said Kenneth.

The good news is that now is a good time to locate your nearest breeder and find out if you need to place an order ahead of time. Kenneth said that he keeps enough quail on hand during the season that he could sell a few birds “over the counter” without pre-ordering, but many breeders only produce enough birds to meet orders they have received from their regular customers. If you need to order your quail early, do it now.

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