PRE-RELEASING QUAIL WITH DICK KEENAN
Martha H. Greenlee and David A. Webb ©
Do you ever think about training your dog on wild quail or imagine fifteen birds exploding from the cover as you walk in front of your dog on point? If you are lucky enough to have fifty or more acres to train on, you might want to consider a pre-release quail program. Pre-released birds are birds that are released into the environment a few weeks prior to being worked rather than planted birds that are put out and worked the same day. Pre-released birds require forethought, since they are usually placed in some kind of protective structure, which is open enough to allow them to come and go freely and where water and feed are available. These birds are left undisturbed for a couple of weeks to develop survival skills that include learning to eat native seeds and bugs and finding covers to protect them from predators. As they become proficient at these skills, they begin to mimic the behaviors of wild birds.
Dick Keenan has been successfully pre-releasing quail every fall at the Flying Feather Shooting Preserve in Guys Mills, PA, for 30 some years. A long time trainer, field trailer, and breeder, Dick observed a simple method of pre-releasing quail at the National Brittany Championships on the grounds near Paducah, KY, in the 1970’s. The late J. D. Boss, a Hall of Fame member, was the caretaker of the grounds, and on several mornings during the trial Dick helped J. D. look after the call birds that had been placed near pens that were used to pre-release quail. After returning home, Dick began his own pre-release program, which he has refined over the years.
Dick uses four 3 ft. x 5 ft. chain-link gates that he clamps together to form a 5 ft. x 5 ft. x 3 ft. high pen. Four metal or wood fence posts and 2 in. x 4 in. turkey wire also do the job.
“Use whatever you have available that the birds can walk through,” Dick says.
Dick points out that the location of the pen is important. He finds an out-of-the-way place that is near a tree line or hedgerow and clears the ground down to bare dirt before setting up the pen. He puts a bottle waterer and feeding trough inside the pen about 1 ft. from the fence. He fills the waterer with fresh water and puts a mixture of cracked corn and quail feed—the same kind of feed the birds have been eating—in the trough feeder. Next, he creates a natural shelter for the birds by sliding sticks and branches horizontally through the openings in the fence beginning at about 12 inches from the ground. He keeps the lower 10-12 inches open so the birds can easily move around inside the pen.
Once Dick has a natural looking shelter, he lays plastic across the top of the pile to keep the birds and feed dry and places more branches on top of the plastic to weight it down and hold it in-place. The final construction step is to put a wire panel over the top of the pen, which keeps the climbing predators—raccoons, skunks, and so forth—from getting to the birds. Dick emphasizes that the purpose of the pen is to give the birds time to develop their independence. Unlike Johnny houses and feeders that make the birds dependent, the pen provides temporary food and shelter while the birds learn survival skills. Once the birds learn how to survive, they leave the pen for habitat of their choosing.
Initially, the birds stay around the waterer and feeder and learn to hide under the branches in the pen. However, if they start exploring or if they are scattered by a predator, the pen may not be enough to encourage them to return. To coax them back Dick uses a call bird. Since quail live in coveys (small groups of birds), their natural instinct is to flock together. When quail are separated, they call to each other using a distinctive whistle that the other birds answer. As the birds call, they move towards each other. If the call bird does not move, he calls the other birds to him. A call bird can either be an electronic call bird* or a live bird. To use a live bird, Dick suggests building a small box out of hardware cloth with a metal or wooden top (to keep out the rain) and a door. Add water and feed to last at least a week and attach the box to a tree. Dick recommends putting a male call bird in the box.
Once the pen is complete and the call bird is in place, Dick loads quail into a chick crate (wooden box) that is about 8 inches high with a sliding door across the front.
“Release as many birds as you can afford to buy,” Dick says. “Whatever your pocket book can bear.”
For Dick this means anywhere from 25 to 50 birds. The more birds the better the results. If he puts 50 birds in a chick crate, they split into two or three smaller coveys once they are released. Dick buys birds that are at least 10 to 12 weeks old because they have their adult feathers and are old enough to call. Dick positions the crate against the fence, slides the door open, and leaves quietly. Dick emphasizes that the birds have to walk through the chain-link and across the feed to gain their freedom.
During the first week Dick does not disturb the birds. The feed and the call bird keep them near the pen. By the second week Dick removes the chick crate. He puts a fresh bird in the call box and adds water and feed as necessary for the call bird. The released birds are learning to eat seeds and bugs and to hide from predators. They return to the pen less and less, but the call bird keeps them in the area. By the third week the birds have left the pen for habitat of their choosing, and Dick removes the waterer and feeder. Now, he is ready to start working his dogs on these birds, but he is careful not to put too much pressure on them.
“One point and I’m out of there,” Dick cautions.
Dick continues to replace the call bird weekly until the water begins to freeze as winter approaches. With luck and some nearby cornfields Dick has maintained coveys into the winter months.
Dick believes that training dogs on pre-released birds is about as close as it gets to the real thing. Pre-released birds are more challenging for a dog to find than planted birds because they carry no human scent and no human tracks lead a dog to them. To find these birds a dog has to learn to hunt the covers that are natural places for wild quail to feed and hide. Dick also notes that pre-released birds are more challenging for the trainer, since the birds are harder to find and a lot spookier. If Dick decides to shoot a bird for one of his dogs, the birds sometimes explode from the cover so fast that they fly through the shotgun pattern—Dick’s polite way of saying he missed.
*Available from Quality Wildlife Services, Waynesboro, GA
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