Quail 2003: Dust Off Your Reloading Equipment
By Rory K. Aikens
Arizona Game and Fish Department
You’ll want to dust off your shotgun reloading equipment or buy shells in bulk again: biologists are expecting an average Gambel’s quail year in Arizona for the 2003-04 season.

After the dismal quail-hunting season Arizona just experienced, that is welcome news.

Mike Rabe, the small game supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, says this year it will be worth going afield after quail again. "The habitat green up this year was good, thanks to March rains. Seed and insect production has been very good. Quail reproduction appears to be responding accordingly," he says.

Rabe is predicting an average Gambel’s quail year. "I always tell people that an average season in Arizona means better quail hunting than any other state in the nation."

This is the middle of the nesting season. Some quail have already hatched at lower elevations. In other areas, Gambel’s quail are still actively on nests. "We could even see some quail on nests as late as July or August. I can’t say for sure whether quail will or won’t have double clutches of young. We do know that if a nest isn’t successful, quail can lay a second clutch of eggs if conditions are favorable."

Don’t expect a bumper crop of quail like in 1993. It generally takes back-to-back years of good winter-spring rains to produce such quail densities.

The on-the-ground reality now is that quail have been forced through a drought-caused bottleneck. "The prolonged drought has really been tough on quail habitat and subsequently the overall quail population. We are now at a core population of wary and tough survivor quail. Genetically speaking, that might be good news," says Rabe.

There is also another consideration: continued drought during the past decade has not only impacted quail numbers, but quail distribution as well.

Rabe explains that prime Gambel’s quail habitat is found in the upper Sonoran desert. During the wet decades of the late 1970s and ‘80s, quail distribution expanded and they were also plentiful in secondary or marginal habitats, such as the Verde Valley. Lots of hunters question why they aren’t there any more.

"Gambel’s quail are extremely adaptive. During the wet years with good habitat conditions, we were even seeing decent quail numbers in pinyon-juniper woodlands and chaparral habitats."

That distribution changed remarkably during the drier times this past decade.

"It’s likely that when times get tough, quail distribution shrinks back to prime habitats such as the Sonoran desert," he says. "When times get bad in Sonoran desert areas, quail distribution may shrink back to the riparian habitats or maybe even the nice, irrigated urban environments."

It takes awhile for quail to return to former habitat areas. Quail don’t migrate. They will disperse – especially if good food sources are available.

"It may take a few years of good winter-spring rainfall and the corresponding habitat improvements before quail eventually disperse back into many areas. Don’t be disappointed where they are not found anymore – go to where they can be found. Finding them this year shouldn’t be tough," Rabe said.

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