Early birds…and no worms

Posted February 28, 2013 at 9:59 am


During the fall and into the winter, deer-hunters, turkey hunters and rabbit hunters reported seeing more quail than usual. The other day I took an afternoon walk through the woods, and flushed a covey of 12 to 14 bobwhites about 100 yards from my house. It is difficult to count quail on the rise, but I followed them and flushed them again, and I am certain there were more than a dozen.

Two years ago I fed ancestors of that same covey during a period of snow, and there were only nine of them. At that time it was the largest number we had fed in 10 years. Nothing is harder on quail than a thick covering of ice or heavy snow of four or five inches which lasts several days.

There is a lot of talk about how you should help a covey survive, and there is nothing wrong with feeding them, as long as the food is scattered close to heavy cover and spread in different areas. If you feed quail in one spot for very long, cats and hawks and foxes will figure it out and start looking for them in that regular feeding place.

As I readied my camera and walked slowly to the little cedar thicket where they had flown, two woodcock flushed beside me, one of them twittering away as woodcock do. They are here much too early, but it seems that year after year they are staying here as late as early December, then coming back in February. They shouldn’t be here for another month at least, but there they were. Woodcock migrate south, then return and nest on my place every year. They are birds known to eat grubs and earthworms, and right now the worms are deep in cold, frozen soil. How in the world do they survive when we have the kind of sleet and ice covering the ground that we had last week. Woodcock are a “sort of” dark-meated game birds, certainly good to eat if you have enough of them.

There are a lot of upland bird hunters who think they are better eating than any other game bird. They are not nearly the challenge that quail or pheasant are, but they hold very well before a bird-dog and though mostly found in thickets and woods they do not fly very fast. But they are elusive when in heavy cover.

I have killed woodcock while hunting quail, but never went out just to hunt them except in Canada one year when we found more woodcock and snipe than grouse. One year in early November while hunting quail not far from the Kansas-Missouri border, I flushed about 20 woodcock along a creek bottom and didn’t fire a shot. It was just too easy. But old time bird-dog men who hunted woodcock decades back talked about flushing them in heavy cover and not thinking they were so easy at all.

On several occasions while hunting mushrooms in late April or early May, I have found a brood of woodcock chicks scurrying into cover behind a hen. On my place, mostly large timber, there is a small grassy opening where the soil is deep and damp. A couple of times I have seen woodcock there, late in the day, going through the mating ritual which is fascinating to watch. With the hen on the ground, the male flies up very high into the air, going in a spiral about 10 or 15 feet wide, twittering away, then dropping straight down beside her and giving his impression of a strutting ruffed grouse. The flight may be repeated several times, every five or 10 minutes until darkness sets in.

If you know what to look for, you can find evidence of woodcock in the large ‘white-washing’ of leaves on the forest floor created by their droppings.

Out of that dozen or so bobwhites I flushed, I would hope there are a couple or three successful nestings and some dry days during which the chicks can survive. After they hatch, for a 10- or 15-day period. Little quail can’t survive heavy rain.

But what limits their numbers more than anything, I believe, is egg eaters like skunks, armadillos and raccoons, and predators like house cats and hawks. I can tell you this, if you are a landowner who wants to have some quail, it is important to have food and cover close together, and thickets of cedar are of tremendous value.

As I watched that covey break forth for a second time, they soared into another little grove of cedar trees, with some grassy cover and brush beneath the trees. Standing cedar, (juniper) trees give shelter from strong winds, ice and driving snow. Those little blue berries on individual trees are an emergency food for all kinds of birds and small mammals when winter is its harshest. Any landowner who clears thickets of cedar hurts wildlife much more than he knows.

I saw a couple of killdeers this week. They were running along a small road through a field and I was amazed to see them here this early. They are a beautiful ground-nesting bird which seems to like to run more than they like to fly. I wondered what made them migrate back with so much snow and ice in this area. We so often think that wild creatures can sense things in the changing weather and seasons that we do not. If so, it doesn’t apply much to killdeers.

For all those who sent cards and messages concerning the passing of Uncle Norten, thanks to all of you for remembering his family in your prayers and thanks to all of you who sent me get well cards and messages when I was in the hospital a few weeks back. I was there for 10 days, the first time I was ever in the hospital. It is a tough place to be when you don’t really feel bad, and because of it, I didn’t get to go on the big rabbit hunt friends and I always plan as the season ends.

I came down with something called ‘shingles’, an awful, burning, painful rash that can affect all of us who had chicken pox as kids. The outbreak can occur anywhere on your body, but always just on one side. It never affects both sides. Mine was on my neck and scalp. I got some medicine for it, and they told me it can hurt for weeks, even months. As tough as I am, I figured I could handle the hurting, as long as it didn’t keep me from casting a lure and paddling a boat.

But I started running a high temperature, and my daughter, the doctor, told me I was going to the emergency room in the middle of the night. I told her I wasn’t. Lori stopped listening to me when she was about 13, and so I wound up in the hospital, where they determined that I had a touch of viral meningitis brought on by the shingles next to my spine.

I spent 10 days in what used to be St. John’s hospital with little tubes going into my body and nurses waking me up all hours of the night to see if I was asleep. Actually they were almost always doing something, and I am so very thankful to all those wonderful nurses and nurses’ aids, and everyone else who tried to help me and make me well. There are angels amongst us just like folks say.

But mostly I wanted to tell you readers about that because you can prevent the misery I have gone through by getting a shingles vaccination. If you don’t get it, you are crazy… like I was by saying, “I’ll get one someday”. Shingles is awful enough, but it cripples, blinds and kills people. Get a shot… please.

Read all about our big March 23 outdoorsman’s swap meet and my Sunday morning outdoor radio program on my website, www.larrydablemontoutdoors.blogspot.com. Write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. or e-mail me at lightninridge@windstream.com.

quail in snow 3 cb .tif

QUAIL IN SNOW – It’s OK to feed quail during bad weather, but change the location frequently and make it near heavy cover.