Gray hair might be a requirement for a first-hand account of this hunting memory: Back in the days when Louisiana had its fair share of wild quail, many an in-the-country Thanksgiving Days began with granddads, dads and their sons heading to the fields for a morning hunt.
Sometimes their wives and mothers were there, too. Remember, this is two or three generations ago, and the memory is most of the women gathered in the warmth of kitchens to stuff and bake or roast turkeys and prepare the fix-ins for a grand, later-in-the-day family feast, most times including uncles, aunts and cousins.
Thanksgiving Day was usually the best quail hunting time for families, because the season usually opened the weekend before the holiday. Or, at least, November's fourth Thursday provided cool-enough weather for hard-charging bird dogs, who were just as ready to go afield as their hunter owners. Because it was cool, there were enough moisture left on the vegetation to leave enough scent to fill any setter's or pointer's noses.
And was there ever a prettier picture than a dog on point for what was, back then, a covey?
Bobwhite quail coveys built during the nesting season, and surviving what was less of a threat of predation by foxes and bobcats — there weren’t many coyotes and predatory feral cats then — were the dogs' and hunters' targets, and the three generations reveled their early-morning walks behind prized pointers and setters. Even some spaniels got into the act.
And they usually came back with birds enough to extend Thanksgiving holiday meals into the weekend.
Not today: wild coveys are very few and very far between.
While there’s some evidence fire ants destroy nests — it’s simple deduction that tending parents will leave a nest under the threat of thousands of biting insects — and predator numbers are on the rise (mostly because of a marked decline in trapping), another and more vital explanation has surfaced during the past 30 some-odd years.
Ask any wildlife, migratory bird or fisheries biologist about the first ingredient to sustainable wildlife populations. The one-word answer is "habitat."
Land cleared and developed for the spread of suburbia, strip shops and those sprawling malls, and more aggressive farming objectives continually cut away at vital quail habitat. And the introduction of nonnative grasses, like bahia and bermuda, for pasturelands has reduced the native “bunch” grasses quail used for food and cover from winged and four-legged predators.
Today, essential quail habitat lost during the past three generations is difficult to reclaim, although some landowners and farmers — folks who still revel in hearing a bobwhite’s call — have gone back to leaving strips, some as wide as 90 feet, along fence rows and drainage runs to restore quail habitat.
The state’s move
Cody Cedatol is on a mission. The energetic Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ upland game biologist is always ready to talk about quail, a species dominating hours, days, weeks and months on the job.
Some 30 years ago, the LDWF gave him just the right spot to set up a pattern for landowners to copy to help restore quail numbers.
“Sandy Hollow was purchased in the mid-1980s specifically for quail and field trials,” Cedatol said.
Sandy Hollow is a 4,600-acre wildlife management area in the piney woods in Tangipahoa Parish.
“We’re been aggressive … moderate to heavy thinning in the pines and with prescribed burns, all to improve quail habitat there,” he said. “We burn every other year to improve the understory (vegetation on a forest floor), to help good, native grasses to grow and to improve brushy cover for quail.”
Cedatol said the restoration plans also include discing fallow fields for young-of-the-year broods to have nutritious food sources along with monitoring invasive species and, occasionally, spraying herbicides to control nonnative vegetation.
“It’s pretty simple. It’s not a complex recipe,” he said. “It’s years of work with improvements seen every year.
“It’s working. We’re hearing birds (on the WMA) during our spring-call counts,” Cedatol said. “We went through a period when (nearby) areas were cut over, and we went through a valley (call counts) in the early 2000s when we hit a low, but call counts have been rising every year since.
“Every acre at Sandy Hallow we can use for quail habitat is being used,” he said. “There’s so much land surrounding the WMA not being managed for quail, and, hopefully, we can acquire tracts in between the WMA lands in the years to come to improve (quail) populations.”
Cedatol said quail hunting is open on Sandy Hollow — “There’s still a low-density populations there,” he said — and there are sections of the WMA open for training bird dogs. Another bird-dog training season will run Feb. 1-28 next year. There are restrictions: only the WMA’s lands south of Interstates 10 are open, and trainers can use blank pistols only and must train on wild birds. The use of pen-raised birds is banned.
There’s more. Cedatol and others in the LDWF’s Wildlife Division are working on quail projects with U.S. Forest Service biologists on the Vernon Unit in the Kisatchie National Forest. A check with KNF’s regulations shows the Vernon area – the “dove field” – is open all year to training bird dogs except during the turkey season. You need a permit.
Cedatol is a small-game wildlife biologist/manager and can be reached by calling (225) 765-2361/email: email@example.com.