Quail Country: Hunting and Bobwhite Population Dynamics

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Recognizing how the hunting season can impact future quail numbers

Story and photo by Dr. Dwayne Elmore

Quail hunters often assume that hunting and harvest of bobwhite has negligible effects on populations and is compensatory. Compensatory harvest means that no matter how many birds are harvested, it does not affect how many birds are in the fall population the following year. Obviously, this cannot be true when taken to extreme levels. 

For example, if a population has only two birds, and you harvest one of them, that population is doomed unless rescued by outside birds (immigration). For the quail hunter and quail manager, the relevant question is whether it is likely that bobwhite harvest can be high enough to cause a population reduction (additive harvest) in the fall population. 

That turns out to be a tough question to answer and we need to know some things about the context to properly answer it.

Bobwhite can increase in abundance quickly when the habitat and weather are suitable. They do this through a complicated reproductive system that includes male and female incubation, frequent renesting, large clutch size, long nesting season, and multiple paternity (polygamy).

While bobwhite do have very high reproduction potential, this only happens when conditions are appropriate (boom years). Additionally, bobwhite are short-lived and populations can crash quickly when reproduction is low (bust years). We have known for many years that harvest can be additive and far exceed annual production on heavily hunted areas (public and private). So, how do these areas continue to support quail?

Often the answer is due to high levels of immigration from surrounding areas. Some portion of a bobwhite population disperse each year, especially in good years when numbers are high. This dispersal is important for bobwhite to colonize new areas and to ensure good genetic flow between populations. 

So assuming an area is surrounded by large areas of good bobwhite habitat with low harvest, isolated pockets of high harvest may be possible. However, as habitat becomes fragmented, harvest becomes riskier to population persistence. Unfortunately, many areas have only scattered and isolated bobwhite habitat and are especially at risk of additive harvest. 

While total harvest is of most concern, timing of harvest should also be considered. Data from western Oklahoma indicates that only about 20 percent of the bobwhite alive in November are likely to survive until April, whereas nearly 80 percent of the bobwhite alive in February will likely survive until April and be potential breeding stock. 

Therefore, harvesting bobwhite late in the hunting season has a much higher likelihood of being additive. Not only is harvest more likely additive as the season progresses, but bobwhite are typically at their lowest body condition during this time so the indirect effects of hunting may also be an issue. Flushing and chasing bobwhite is energetically expensive and can increase the risk of them being captured by predators or dying from starvation and exposure.

So what does this mean for a quail hunter? 

First, hunters should recognize that harvest can be high enough to cause next year’s fall bobwhite population to be lower. In extreme cases, additive harvest may cause local bobwhite populations to disappear. Areas that have small amounts of bobwhite habitat, low population numbers, heavy late-season hunting, and are surrounded by non-habitat are at a much greater risk of overharvest. 

None of this implies that we should not hunt bobwhite, but it does suggest that we should consider landscape context, bobwhite population size, percent of the population that is harvested, connectivity to other bobwhite habitat, and timing of hunting. 

Land managers should be conservative with total harvest, account for crippling losses, and monitor bobwhite populations on their property. A biologist can assist you with these considerations. Finally, we need to manage for more and larger areas of bobwhite habitat that are more resilient to hunting, predation, and weather variation.
 

Dwayne Elmore is a professor, Wildlife Extension Specialist, and Bollenbach Chair in Wildlife Biology at Oklahoma State University. His primary focus is on upland gamebird management and research.

This story originally appeared in the 2021 Fall Issue of the Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Quail Forever member today!