Hunting Valley Quail is Not Easy With a Falcon

by Joe Atkinson

Published in American Falconry 2011

Tinkerbelle 031

Valley quail are smallish game birds, just slightly smaller than a Hungarian partridge. They are very common in the western states. Their preferred habitat is places with lots of cover, berry brambles and any place that is generally inaccessible to all other living things. They are never far from thick cover and when they do venture out into the open valley quail are the masters of knowing exactly where and how to get back into cover. Here in Eastern Oregon where I live, valley quail are everywhere. They have adapted to using the sage brush that is the dominate vegetation growing out here in the high desert as their cover. This affords them the opportunity to forage farther out into the less covered areas than they normally would. However, with only the very slightest hint that any winged predator is lurking about, they bolt back to deeper cover and disappear. They are nearly impossible to sneak up on as they always have a sentinel on the lookout for any approaching danger. This single lookout quail can be an indication of a flocks location; he is never far from his main group. Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Goshawks are the valley quail’s main avian predators, but any of the numerous raptors we have here in the Pacific Northwest will gladly go after valley quail. I have seen Red tailed Hawks catch them and even the American Kestrel, which I wrongly assumed was too small to tackle quarry that much heavier and stronger.

One afternoon I witnessed a pair of kestrels stooping at the base of a fence post numerous times. One would dive down to the ground, hover for a moment, then land on the post. Then the mate would do the same. They were clearly trying to foot something at the base of the old cedar post. My curiosity got the best of me and I went over to investigate and there at the bottom of the post were four valley quail, all huddled up in the grass, hiding. On another occasion I was out hawking and flushed a large flock of valley quail, one hundred or more birds. They flew in a group up the side of a hill and dropped over the other side. I went over the hill in their direction and looked down to see a single large cottonwood tree that was in winter hibernation, having dropped all its leaves. Sitting off to one side of the tree was a large female North American Goshawk, she was stunning. She sat there with one foot tucked up and her tail still moving from her most recent tail shake. She did not pay me much notice, all her attention was focused on the quail below. I sat down and sent in the dogs to flush for her. As you can imagine the quail were quite upset with the sudden arrival of four legged ground predators in addition to the winged predator waiting over their heads. The escape options were few. The area they were hiding in was flanked on both sides by steep hills so flying up the side to escape was not a good idea; the Goshawk would catch one easily. The only viable escape route was left or right to either side of the cottonwood tree. Looking at the scene I would have thought it was a sure thing that a quail was going to be caught by the Goshawk.  The dogs went in and the action exploded. Quail were flying everywhere. It looked like mass confusion but wasn’t really. What I saw was a well orchestrated effort to confuse the dogs and avoid the Goshawk. It was clear that the quail were far less worried about the dogs than the Goshawk, running around just out of reach of my dogs. They seemed to know that  the Goshawk was not going to come too close to the dogs so they used the canines as shields. Then one single quail would make a break up the side of the hill causing the Goshawk to go after it. Upon seeing the Goshawk it would do a U–turn and go straight back to the cover under the tree, passing a dog. Each time the Goshawk would fly after the single quail, bunches of quail would be bailing out the other end, off to safety.  Now I don’t know how much of this was actually planned out but I do know I have witnessed it enough times to know it is not an accident. Oh, to finish the story….. the Goshawk grew tired of the game and flew off looking for other, easier things to hunt.

Valley quail are fast fliers over a short distance, not long range flyers. In fact, if given the choice, they would really rather run and running is what makes them so difficult to catch with a trained hawk. So how does one go about having any chance at all to catch one of these little fire balls?  I have hunted them with Cooper’s Hawks and, contrary to belief, a trained Cooper’s Hawk does not have the speed to out fly a valley quail off the fist. What the Cooper’s Hawk does have is the ability to fly into dense cover and catch the quail in there; Sharp-shinned Hawks do the same. Both these two raptors are ambush hunters, they like the surprise attack, and in the case of the Cooper’s, if given any sort of angle, like being above the quail in a tree, they are very effective. The Goshawk, however, does have the speed to fly quail down rather easily. However, the quail’s total knowledge of its surroundings comes into play. They will not give themselves up to a race with a Goshawk.

Flying valley quail with a falcon that waits on would seem impossible because the quail do not show themselves long enough to give even the fastest falcon a shot. And for the rest of the world that is true. But for me and Vegas, my English pointer, and my female perlin, Tinkerbelle, valley quail had better think twice, as it’s go time! To fly valley quail with any falcon requires one that waits on dead overhead, anything else is a waste of time. The falcon must be in position and must be paying complete attention or it has no chance. Tinkerbelle was flown for years in California at snipe and other small birds and for her to be successful she needed to be right over me and my dogs because she would have one chance. So, over the seasons, Tinkerbelle perfected her flight style on some of the most difficult quarry one could hunt. She became very good at waiting on at 500 feet, sometimes more, making her a lethal killer.

Finding valley quail in huntable places is difficult but not impossible on our ranch. With the land cleared of fences and the fields planted in crops the quail find good foraging along the edges of the hay fields. With these areas left to grow natural, the cover and food are plenty and quail find these spots irresistible. But even out in relatively open, manageable cover, valley quail are very crafty. They will use any and all bits of cover that are large enough to hide in to their total advantage. I recall a flight where a large covey of quail was found out in the wide open with no obvious cover to hide in, or so I thought. With Vegas on point the flush was made and Tinkerbelle struck one down, rolling it on the ground, leaving a trail of feathers. The quail ran right into a shoe size tuft of tall grass. The reflush was made, down came my falcon, another trail of feathers and down into another shoe size bunch of grass went the quail. This continued in a steady progression, placing the quail, with each short flight, that much closer to the big cover and safety. I walked out of the field with full knowledge that Vegas, Tinkerbelle and I had all been played by Mr. Valley Quail who knew exactly what he was doing.
One footnote: Now I know what you’re thinking….. if Tinkerbelle would have simply come in and bound to the quail she would have had him. Ah, but you see, Mr. Quail was flying at ground level and not many falcons will bind to something flying at ground level. They tend to want to strike, driving their quarry into the ground. Tinkerbelle has learned that binding produces better results but not on this day.

Valley quail tend to keep to the same timetable every day. If you see them out feeding, say at five o’clock, you can count on them to be there the next day. But unlike other small game birds, Huns, for example, that will keep the same routine regardless of what happens, valley quail will figure it out and change their schedule. If you hunt them at five each day they will stop showing up at five. They will adjust and come earlier or later. Many times I have gone out in the afternoon looking for quail in my normal spots at the usual time only to find nothing. But while doing work on the ranch I will discover them out at completely different times; same group, same feeding area, they had adjusted. So the cat and mouse game goes on. Me trying to find them in flyable situations and the quail changing up their feeding schedule makes for some interesting days in the field.

Hunting journal:

Wt. 14oz
Weather: 23’, wind NE at 4 mph, clear blue sky

I had been noticing large groups of quail moving further and further out into a cut corn field at the far end of the ranch. The canal road that cuts through the field offers cover on both sides with tall, thin looking grasses growing, just enough to give the group a feeling of safety. Four o’clock seemed to be the time they had picked to venture out looking for grains, so at three forty-five I loaded up Vegas and had Tinkerbelle on my fist ready to go. One thing is for sure, if you do not have your falcon on your fist, all ready, you will not get a flight on valley quail. I drove to the start of the canal road and parked. Using my binoculars I looked down the road, scanning for quail. Typically valley quail will group up at the very edge of the heavy cover, taking time to look to see that all is clear, then start venturing out into the open. For ten minutes I saw nothing. Then at one minute past four, there on the road, the first quail appeared, hesitant at first but then running across the dirt road into the shorter cover at the edge of the corn field. Very quickly the first quail was followed by two, then three, then four more quail, until dozens had moved across the road, foraging out into the corn field. I waited, holding back my urge to release Tinkerbelle. This is the pivotal moment — how much time to give the group. I want to give them enough time to go as far out into the field as possible but experience has taught me that the farther they go the jumpier they become. Anything could send them back to deep cover at any second. I scanned the field for other raptors, mainly Marsh Hawks. With the sudden appearance of a Marsh Hawk the quail will all be gone.

It’s go time! I reached for the french snap that is attached to the grommet on Tinkerbelle’s small leg cuff. Only her hood keeps her on my fist. I step out of my truck and strike the braces on her hood and remove it from her head. Holding  her up high she looks around, takes stock of the fields and, in a flash, she is gone and I wait. Watching the area where the quail are I am hoping they don’t move, feeling that keeping still is their best option. Tinkerbelle had mounted up nicely and was directly over the field, cruising at 300 feet. I unloaded Vegas and started my approach to the quail. Vegas was picking up scent and as we moved closer she wanted to lock up but I kept her moving forward. I released Vegas and she ran up ahead thirty feet and then locked on point. I looked up to check on my falcon and she was dead overhead, holding in a tight circle. She would have one shot as, nearly every time, the entire group goes at once. It’s rare that any hang back.  I told Vegas to hold, letting Tinkerbelle come around, and then sent Vegas in for the flush. Shooting forward, Vegas ran straight into the middle of the group; valley quail exploded in all directions, veering around both sides of me. I could hear Tinkerbelle stooping fast. I last saw her drawing out the merlin in her, doing a flashing wing-over, and then the peregrine half  took over and I heard the sizzle. I had lost sight of her. All I heard was the sound of speed. I watched as half a dozen quail, the last to leave, built speed and accelerated out away from Vegas. My eyes picked up my small falcon coming in with blinding speed, her wings taking only short quick bursts as she had all the speed she would need. As I watched, time slowed down. Even after all these years my mind still finds it hard to believe that she could be going that fast. For reasons known only to Tinkerbelle she has selected her quail, the one she wants. The sound is unmistakable…..whack, and then a trail of feathers and my falcon banks away from the accelerating group of valley quail, now one fewer. She landed close to the edge of the dirt road and Vegas trotted by to have a look as I picked up my little falcon. As she was busy plucking her quail, the Marsh Hawk made an appearance, hoping for one last quail that might have stayed back, but they are all gone and the hawk moves off.

Good hawking!