A Good Case of the Blues

c347ebb3-a2d4-4121-b28e-eb5440e16037 By Chad Love
 
The change is subtle, so it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking. Heading west across the mixed-grass prairie of the southern plains, the taller, lusher plant life begins to give way to the shorter, tougher, meaner vegetation of true shortgrass country.
 
And then, suddenly, somewhere out past the 100th Meridian, a tipping point is reached and the sky seemingly unfolds into a giant, white-hot canvas, the landscape gapes wide-open and empty before you, and intrinsically, instinctively, you know that you’ve just passed through some sort of bird-hunting portal from one world to the next; out of the bucolic, garden-state uplands of “back east” and into the realm of Things That Hurt When You Touch Them.
 
Congratulations. You’ve reached scaled quail country. Hope you brought good boots. And Band-Aids. And your preferred coping mechanism – liquid or otherwise – because you’re gonna need all three.
 

One Crazy Bird

 
  “By human standards, scaled quail are likely insane”
- Tom Huggler, Quail Hunting in America
 
That quote from Tom Huggler’s classic book pretty much sums up all you need to know about the scaled quail, at least from an anthropomorphic standpoint. The scaled quail, or blue, cottontop, or scalie, depending upon your regional patois, is – to quote the song lyric – the damned blue-collar tweeker of the quail world.
 
He’s nervous, twitchy, maniacal, downright squirrely. If the ruffed grouse is a king and the bobwhite is a gentleman, the scaled quail is the crazy-eyed, switchblade-wielding greaser straight out of an S.E. Hinton novel.
 
He will make your dogs re-evaluate their fundamental purpose in life while simultaneously forcing you to run a half-mile through plant life designed solely to rend, tear, and perforate in the vain hopes of a point, only to either flush wildly out of range or simply disappear, seemingly melting into the ground while you stumble and gasp for just enough breath to hurl invective into the empty, implacable sky.
 
He will take your carefully-laid, beautifully-orchestrated plan, ball it up into his tiny little feather-covered fist, and then punch you right in the mouth with it. He’s that kind of bird.
 
The truth is, if you’re going to hunt scaled quail, humiliation is integral to the experience. That’s also, of course, why it’s so damn addictive. Easy, cooperative birds are just that: easy, cooperative, and, well … kinda boring. And those are three adjectives you’ll never, ever hear a dedicated scaled quail hunter utter about their favorite quarry.
 
Shawn Wayment and Edgar Castillo are two such dedicated blues chasers.
 
Wayment (#birddogdoc), a veterinarian who lives in Colorado, co-writes the popular Upland Ways blog and is a self-described scaled quail specialist who hunts blues almost exclusively all over the Southwest.
 
Castillo is a Kansas City-area police officer and popular Instagrammer (#huntbirdz) who hunts scaled quail in southwest Kansas. Between them they’ve chased enough blues to learn a thing or two.
   
So if you want to try your hand at being utterly abused – physically and mentally – by a five-ounce bird with a brain the size of black-eyed pea and the deviousness of a Game of Thrones character, read on and take your punishment, because here are some tips from two scaled quail veterans that just may improve the odds in your quest to beat that bad case of the blues.
 

Diversify

 
“Typical scaled quail habitat is characterized by relatively flat and open country interspersed with rolling hills with low-growing grasses,” explains Castillo. “Look for terrain with a scattering of shrubs, yucca plants and cholla cactuses, all of which provide blues with cover and shade. Excellent places to hunt include dilapidated homesteads, corrals that have been abandoned, crumpled windmills, and stock tanks. Old farm machinery and implements with tumbleweeds are good places to start hunting too.”
 

Go Cropless

“Scaled quail rarely use standing crops,” says Wayment. “I have found a covey here and there around milo but when I checked their crop contents there was not a single milo seed in them. One of the areas I hunt here in Colorado plants milo to attract the birds but again I’ve never seen a single milo seed in their crops. Scaled quail eat western ragweed, cholla cactus seeds, buffalo burr seeds, wild sunflower seeds and tumbleweed seeds. Having a general idea of what the birds are feeding on will help you find birds.”
 

Find Bare Ground

 
“There has to be bare ground,” says Wayment. “When I find weedy, short prairie grass, bare ground and dense cholla stands all in the same field, I know I’ll find scaled quail. Scaled quail love to see and run away from predators. One of my best spots in Colorado has all of the above and in the center is a prairie dog colony with absolutely no vegetation. I find the birds right on the edge. Scaled quail are commonly found on edges just like bobwhites.”
 

Key on Structure

 
Scaled quail love structure,” Wayment says. “Being able to recognize structures that attract scaled quail will get you into more birds. Structure can be man-made piles of junk, retired farm machinery, or abandoned cars. Almost every scaled quail diehard knows this, but here in Colorado the most important structure for the scaled quail I chase is dense cholla cactus stands. I’ve gotten to recognize what dense cholla stands look like from Google Earth or X Maps, and have found this an excellent way to scout for new quail coverts."
 
Castillo agrees that structure is a key component of finding blues. “Scaled quail gravitate towards any kind of structure they can find on the grasslands. Birds utilize these structures for protection from predators as well as the elements. Look for frameworks that are made up of dead trees and logs, or quail huts that have been erected throughout the grasslands for both blues and bobs. Guzzlers also abound the prairie, scattered about to help provide water for wildlife. A guzzler is a corrugated tin roof built about two feet off of the ground. They are built at an angle so rain water or dew can run off into a catch-trough underneath the roof in the shade. A good tactic to use when hunting structures is to walk in circles around them, widening your search area with each pass.”
 

Let the Dogs Work

 
“This tip right here has put more birds in the bag than anything else,” says Wayment. “My dogs are cover dogs, or grouse and woodcock trial dogs. I let them cover the ground and realize that coveys of scaled quail run better than pheasants or wild chukars. I allow my dogs to bust the covey up and it’s my job to watch and pay close attention at all times to where the dogs are. I watch the covey go down and head the dogs right towards where they landed. The birds sit 'bobwhite' tight once they hit the ground. Go slow and allow your dogs to find the singles. It’s a riot."
 
"I may work an area in circles, spending up to an hour looking for the covey, and I almost always get pointed singles," adds Wayment. "The birds may run but they’ll hold at an edge. I usually take a couple pointed birds then go on to find another covey.”
 

Keep ‘Em Healthy

 
“Boot your dogs in cholla country – it’s brutal,” warns Wayment. “I use motorcycle inner tubes and there’s a video on YouTube that demonstrates how to make them. Always watch where your dog is. Scaled quail singles can flush really low and I’ve seen dogs get shot. Porcupines can also be out on the shortgrass prairie. I’ve seen rattlesnakes in December and January on both the Colorado and Kansas shortgrass prairie, and in New Mexico in February. Know where the nearest vet clinic is.”
 

Develop a Weather Eye

 
“Scaled quail numbers are dependent on the amount of rains that fall throughout the year,” says Castillo. “So bird hunters who are venturing to check scaled quail off their Grand Slam list must pay close attention to weather patterns for the area. Talking to area biologists is beneficial in determining a bad or good year to hunt blues."
 
In addition to rain, Wayment says a little snow on the ground is a surefire way to pinpoint birds: “Look for sign! I look for fresh tracks in the sand/dirt, roost piles and feathers. Hunting scaled quail after a little snow on the ground is like hunting pheasants in the snow.  I call in sick when the snow hits the prairie.”
 

Lace Up Those Boots

 
It’s a cliché, but like most clichés, it’s also true: If you want to kill more birds, you’ve got to get away from the crowds. “Boot leather kills scaled quail just like prairie grouse,” says Wayment. “The farther away from the road, the more likely you’ll find birds.”
 
Scaled quail are also notorious runners, so being in shape yourself is an important component of success on blues. “Hunters need to be prepared for the vastness of the landscape and be physically fit and capable to walk and on occasion to move quickly if birds are located,” says Castillo. “Carry plenty of water for man and beast. Take careful consideration of the variety of plants that can and will stick, poke, and prod you and your dog.”
 
Chad Love is editor of Quail Forever Journal, and thinking hard about whether or not he wants a good case of the blues this fall.