Hunting With the Quail Doctor

Even in one of its last strongholds on the rolling plains of northwest Texas, the bobwhite quail fights a battle against habitat loss. Quail populations decline an estimated 3% a year and Dr. Dale Rollins makes it his life's work to sound the alarm. Rollins, an Extension wildlife specialist for Texas A&M University and a finalist in Field & Stream's 2008 Heroes of Conservation program, works with landowners to improve habitat. He's run "Bobwhite Brigade" youth camps since 1993, and for the last two years he has been able to study birds on the new 4700 acre Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch (RPQRR) near Roby, Texas. Recently, I got to tour the ranch.Phil Bourjaily
This straggler from the first covey we found flew straight up and landed in a tree, so I shot it with a camera instead of a gun. "The first thing my bobwhite brigade cadets do is dissect a quail to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird," says Rollins. "The song goes 'and this bird you cannot change.'" I tell them, we can't change the bird, so we have to change the habitat to suit it."Phil Bourjaily
The best quail habitat has clumps of upright woody cover "close enough you can throw a softball from one to the next," says Rollins, here looking over a patch of prime quail real estate. Heavy grazing, brush clearing and cotton farming are the biggest threats to quail on the rolling plains.Phil Bourjaily
Pride of the RPQRR fleet, the Dune Buggy started out life as a VW bus. It goes over anything and gives a surprisingly smooth ride. Most quail rigs have dog boxes on top, but Rollin's dogs get to sit in the top seat and keep an eye on the action.Phil Bourjaily
Here's a detail of the buggy's decoration. The quail is self-explanatory. Texas A&M has been Rollins' employer for 20 years.
The girls, clockwise from top, Deuce, Annie, Babe and Ellie. Deuce and Babe are bird-finding wizards in their prime. Annie, at 11, doesn't run much but comes down off the buggy to back and retrieve. Young Ellie is the trainee.Phil Bourjaily
Rollins brought his 30-30 in case we spotted a feral hog (we didn't). Rooting hogs destroy quail habitat. We did see a couple of coyotes but Rollins didn't shoot them. "When you have coyotes you have lower numbers of foxes and raccoons that are much harder on the quail," he says.Phil Bourjaily
Rollins brought his 30-30 in case we spotted a feral hog (we didn't). Rooting hogs destroy quail habitat. We did see a couple of coyotes but Rollins didn't shoot them. "When you have coyotes you have lower numbers of foxes and raccoons that are much harder on the quail," he says.Phil Bourjaily
When you hunt bobwhites in open country, you see textbook dogwork. One setter has this covey pointed, the two behind have frozen to honor the point. Walking down a line of stock-still bird dogs with your heart fluttering, knowing there's covey somewhere in front of the last dog's nose is about as classically perfect as bird hunting gets.Phil Bourjaily
A radio-collared cow watches us roll by. Rollins monitors the grazing patterns of the ranch's small herd of cattle to test the effectiveness of "patch burning." Small controlled burns of quail cover create green shoots that attract cattle. By rotating these small burns, ranchers can concentrate grazing activity to preserve quail-friendly habitat diversity instead of uniformly grazed range.Phil Bourjaily
We took a break from hunting to see how most quail are "bagged" at the ranch: with a pillowcase, not a shotgun. Here, Rollins and grad student Kurt Huffman empty the contents of a quail trap. The birds will spend the night back at the ranch where they will be weighed, aged, sexed and banded before being released at the same spot the next day.Phil Bourjaily
Late in the day, Deuce honors a point from the top seat of the buggy. How cool is that?Phil Bourjaily
It wouldn't be Texas without barbecue. After the first day's hunt, Rollins pulled a brisket out of the smoker and got it ready for dinner. Not surprisingly, I ate way too much of it.Phil Bourjaily
The next morning, Huffman empties a bag of quail in front of a fascinated audience of setters. This year Rollins and company trapped and banded over 400 birds and put telemetry collars on 96 more.Phil Bourjaily
The next morning, Huffman empties a bag of quail in front of a fascinated audience of setters. This year Rollins and company trapped and banded over 400 birds and put telemetry collars on 96 more.Phil Bourjaily
Besides smaller clumps of cover, quail need houses, too. This large lote bush gives birds overhead protection from hawks, yet it's open enough at ground level so the quail can spot approaching four-legged predators.Phil Bourjaily
How many birds in this picture? I count fourteen but there might be more. The trick to shooting a covey rise is to pick a bird before you move the gun. The advanced trick is to pick one quickly enough that you have time to find another and double. According to Rollins, even with more than one shooter, taking two birds from a covey is a good par to try for.Phil Bourjaily
The dogs take a water break. Even in December, temperatures were up in the 60s, and hard-working dogs have to cool down. Quail hunting is hot work, especially if a dog is finding 25 coveys in a full day of hunting.Phil Bourjaily
One of two banded bobwhites I shot on the hunt. Every bird I killed was aged, sexed, weighed, and the band data from those two recorded. Back home, I checked the breasts very scientifically for firmness by filling them cream cheese and jalapenos, wrapping them with bacon and broiling them. In a separate study, I floured the legs and thighs and fried them in bacon grease.Phil Bourjaily
Ellie with the breeze in her ears; Annie's in the background. Rollins' dogs love to ride in the buggy almost as much as they love to hunt, prompting one visiting hunter to comment: "I want to come back as one of Dale Rollins' bird dogs."Phil Bourjaily
Annie brings Rollins a quail. At eleven, she is still the best retriever he has ever owned. Whenever she fetches a bird, Rollins tells her: "I'll miss you some day." In three days of hunting we lost only one cripple, a wing-tipped bird that escaped down a rat hole.Phil Bourjaily
The last morning of my hunt, Rollins' assistant Lloyd LaCoste brought daughters Brittany and Lauren along to ride up top with the dogs. Here he shows them how to age a quail.Phil Bourjaily
We found eight coveys in an hour the morning I left, including one covey of blue quail. That means every six minutes I was getting out of the buggy and loading the gun. Here's me and the dogs after the hunt.Phil Bourjaily
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