PEN-RAISED QUAIL FOR TRAINING BIRD DOGS
My Experiences
Frank Thompson

I never used pen raised birds previous to 1970. From the early '50s until then all my dogs were wild bird dogs. In my few unsuccessful forays to trials my dogs refused to point planted pen-raised birds. Around 1970 I started to run dogs in one course trials and started trying different approaches to managing pen-raised birds At that time I reviewed several variations of call backpens from various older dog training books. Robert Wehle's approach in Wing & Shot was particularly impressive. By and large, however, it has been my experience that callback pens of that ilk frequently result in birds too counterfeit and most dogs recognized that. One caveat...if you use birds from callback pens...never plant birds. Likewise in trials using penraised birds they should not be planted. In my opinion planted birds, with or without gloves, never produce a scent which results in the best game handling by dogs. My take is that the very unnatural odor is a consequence not of human odor but of the feathers not being arranged in the same manner as they would be if the bird had flown to its location.


callback box

Some time in that period of time The American Field published an article by John O'Neil with a new (at least new to me) approach to pen raised birds. I'm not sure if it was this, or his later publicized johnny houses, that he learned from Herman Smith who had taken it to Alabama from Virginia where he was educated in these matters by E. G. King of Orange, Va. At any rate this approach involves a covey free at all times to range wherever they so desire (feeder and water present) , get rained upon, and to eat whatever wild quail eat. Both of the latter are keys to having quail put out a scent like wild quail. The key to holding them to the area is the presence of a call back bird. Basically it is comprised of an area in which birds can come and go as they please with some predator inhibition via hog-wire through which predators are slowed down and quail can run fast. It is covered with pine boughs for weather protection with a plastic sheet. Believing that they need to be rained upon to stimulate preening I do not recommend the plastic sheeting. It is my belief that the preening gets the natural oils into the feathers which results in the natural odors. This system is the ancestor of the very successful The Covey Base Camp System for coveys which is widely used today. The key feature that separates The Covey Base Camp System from the O'Neil system is the use of an electronic caller instead of a live callback bird.

Later during the seventies John O'Neil wrote an article for The American Field describing the Johnny House concept. In the late seventies I gave that a try with three of them on 12 acres. I used a major modification of John's approach. John said the winters could sometimes get rough in Alabama, and the quail needed a roof on the johnny house to protect them from severe weather. My contention is that if the goal is to get as close to wild birds as possible, then they must not be protected. They must be exposed to the same weather to which the wild quail are exposed. For that reason I used only hardware cloth for the roof. Losses to weather conditions were minimal, if at all (the rare dead bird may have been to other causes). Another key element in natural scent is the feed used. This will be covered later.

When I moved to 42 acres I did not use johnny houses except for a lone one visible from my front window which was primarily for my entertainment in watching puppies. I picked up a couple of ideas from Ferrel Miller's training tape. A feature I wanted was to be able to move it around. Miller suggested johnny houses mounted on skids so that they could be dragged to different locations. In lieu of the skids I bought a very small metal trailer from WalMart upon which to build the johnny house. An additional feature I incorporated was to cover the wood bed with sheet metal so predators could not chew through the floor. Also, from the Miller tape, I learned to make it a two compartment house so that quail entered the small compartment but could not get into the main compartment unless I opened the inner door. This a precaution in case a predator found its way through the funnels it still could not get to the main body of the house. Also, since as previously mentioned, since this one was just for my fun in watching pups from window (not for the training of pups) I wasn't concerned about the birds producing maximum wild bird scent. For that reason I put a roof on it so it would last longer.


My johnny house (for quail)

Before we built and moved to our current 42 acres I maintained the system described above publicized in The Field by John O'Neil, that is, the system for a covey remaining free and a callback bird. Having to drive about a dozen miles to maintain the callback bird caused this approach to be less than the desideratum. I could usually maintain three coveys for most of the season. The major problem was predators getting my callback birds. I don't know which predators were involved, but they could kill birds through hardware cloth seven feet off the ground. The introduction of the electronic callback bird (foundation of the Anchor System) was a major positive step as far as callback birds were concerned. With them I could limit my driving to only when I worked dogs or weekly maintenance of coveys with feed & water.

Upon moving here to our 42 acres in the late nineties I looked into the Davis System, which can be accessed through a link on http://www.fieldtrialpointers.net.  His setup involved many more quail than I needed and hence a much larger quail house. I decided that 150-200 quail would be totally adequate for me and proceeded to modify what he shows on his website and videotape. I also made major modifications for predator control.

My quail house is 8' X 16' and 6.5' (front) to 6 ' (back) tall. It is laid upon a concrete slab that size to prevent dig ins by predators. Framing is with 2X4 s and sides are covered with hardware cloth; roof is solid. There is door is on long front side for me and short door on rear long side for birds. An entrance cone is on each side of the four sides. Only other modification is that when required (very seldom) I have Electronic Callback device available.


Two views of my current quailhouse.  At center is solid door.  Other visible wood panels on inside are temporary panels which
gives three compartments for a pair of quail in each to nest.  During dog training season the panels are not there, and the quailhouse houses 150-200 birds.

Modifications for predator control: former property owner planned cottage on quail house site and had concrete footers foot or so wide and about 30 feet by 15 feet. I had chain link fence installed on top of that to prevent digging in. A hot wire is installed around the top of it and also three strands of hot wire are the outside of it at 1, 4 and 9 inches off the ground. A foot or so outside of that there is a perimeter of page wire (hog wire) not as predator inhibitor, but as a deterrent to my dogs when I am working them. I considered automatic night light outside bird house but opted against that because of possible influence on hormones on birds (triggering of breeding cycle & attendant behavior before it suited me). I do have a radio there set to come on automatically at dusk and cut off at daybreak. It is set on an allnight talkshow. Most predators don't want to come near human voices. I had a separate electric box set up there rather than going the battery route...well worth the $12 a month. These lines of defense have never been penetrated during the normal season (normal = dog training season). At the end of the season I partition the house into three compartments with a pair of birds in each. I block the return cones and other birds are not permitted to return. This normally occurs when the males start whistling bob-white and eggs start to appear. At first the remaining hens occasionally randomly deposit the eggs; every few days I put them in one place, and eventually they get with the program and deposit them in the nest. Last year on a couple of occasions blacksnakes (alias black chicken snakes, pilot blacksnakes, mountain blacksnakes, or black rat snakes) managed to find a small hole somewhere that was large enough for them to enter. The result was easy meals for the snakes. This year I hope I have rectified the problem.

Tips on Pen-Raised Quail Husbandry

(not from an expert...only from my experiences)

The most important factors that I have found to contribute to the raising of birds to be as close to wild birds in scent and behavior are:

1. Feed

The scent of birds is very heavily influenced by what the birds eat. Except in the most severe of winter conditions here in the southeast wild quail consume considerable quantities of animal protein (insects) and green plant matter. The former is very important during the first 12 weeks. Only in the absence of green plant material; and animal protein do quail rely on plant based proteins found in grains. Commercial gamebird rations do not meet these needs. Birds get by fine with the commercial rations but they are not the best ration for developing birds with the scent of wild birds. This state of affairs is very difficult, if not impossible to alleviate. I have heard of the addition of bloodmeal to ration helps, but I have not tried that. I recommend that one raise cricket's and meal worms and the like to supplement the commercial ration. Electric bug killers are an asset in this too. Dry dog feeds usually have some powdered remains of kibbles crushed in shipping and handling. When I open bags I dump them in a metal trash can; when the can is emptied of the food I get the powder at the bottom of the can to add to the quail feed as a source of animal protein.

2. Oil gland stimulation.

My belief is that it is preening which stimulates the oil gland on birds. I also believe that it is this oil gland which both waterproofs the birds' feathers and gives them the wild bird scent. For that reason is essential that the birds are forced to preen by being rained upon as frequently as wild birds. Some successful commercial bird operators install sprinklers in their flight pens for that purpose. As previously stated when I used johnny houses I left the tops open with only wire as the covering to make sure the birds were rained upon. My current bird house has a closed roof, but the problems cause by that are canceled out by what I describe in the next paragraph.

3. "Education" of the birds.

No matter which of the systems described here it is essential that birds spend as much time as possible outside their housing. This serves three functions. (1) It provides them opportunity to feed on the same types of food that wild birds use..particularly insects and green plant material. (2) It forces them to be exposed to rain and snow which stimulates preening and the development of wild bird scent. (3) They learn to fly well. Except when I am away my birds are released on a daily basis. I like to wait until a few hours after daylight because it is at daybreak and shortly thereafter when I have observed the greatest predation by Cooper's Hawks. Puppies can do more to get them acting like wild birds than anything I've tried. Pups teach the birds that they must fly or die (get caught). Although you may feel that the loss to Cooper's Hawks is awful their impact on the bird behavior is worse. On more than one occasion I have seen my birds escape the hawks. Proper cover greatly facilitates this. The huge negative impact on their behavior is that they unlearned what they learned from the pups; they learn if they fly they die...results...running birds are hard to flush. Albeit not the purpose of this article I must add that the benefits to the pups is huge. Since taking this approach my pups learn to hunt, point, and hold birds for flush by 3 months of age. There is a huge payoff for this later. Also there is a minor penalty in that because of their hunt (as opposed to run) they don't do much placing in early puppy stakes where many pups run to hear the breeze flap in their ears. My pups are bred to run and later on in the pup competition their genes come through, and few can keep up with them (but they still do some hunting too). By and large only those who are really derbies masquerading as pups (as is the norm in SE GA) beat them.

Concluding Remarks

There is no clear cut answer as to which system is the best. The answer lies in your situation and goals. For me, on 42 acres with surrounding properties unsuitable for either quail or dog training the Dale Davis Bob White Quail System (http://www.quailprogramvideo.com/) is the best. For significantly smaller acreage surrounded with unsuitable land the johnny house is probably the best. If the surrounding land is suitable the Davis system (smaller scale) may be the best. For large acreage The Covey Base Camp System (descendent of the O'Neil System) (http://www.qualitywildlife.com) or the Surrogate Propagation System are probably the best (http://www.quailrestoration.com ) . The latter is not discussed here but if you go to their web page there is a wealth of information. Greg Koch has research to show that 12 weeks is way too late to release birds for restocking. David Runyon on an Alabama tract (Uphapee Plantation) has experimented releasing quail starting at 12 weeks old and has moved downward to 6 weeks; his experience supports the findings of Greg Koch. I have not tried what Gerald Moore wrote about a few years ago in The Field involving getting a male bird to adopt and raise hatchlings. He has achieved promising results. His system also can be traced back to E. G. King.

My disappointing conclusion for my setting is that to build a perfect environment and have a self-sustaining population of quail (albeit small) is close to impossible. If the 42 acres were elsewhere the result might be different. Even with the perfect cover and abundant feed they still wander beyond here...sometimes to die, sometimes to return, sometimes to stay gone & reproduce elsewhere. Even with that I hope for some resident reproducing adults. I even have that at rare times. My Achilles Heel is a creek running through the middle of my property. Deep woods are beyond the entrance and exit. The creek serves as an interstate highway for predators...most frequently traveled by 'possums and 'coons. The surrounding properties are also breeding grounds for feral cats. A recent article in a publication reported that on a 4,000 acre plantation in south Georgia professional predator control experts frequently caught 1,000 predators per year. To match my predator score on a per acre basis they would have to catch 6,000 per year! My point is that with large enough acreage it is more reasonable to expect, with a good predator control operation, to keep them away from the central part of the land if a band of land on the perimeter is very heavily trapped. I can trap, trap, and trap, and they keep on coming. The major damage to my potential wild bird population is done at the beginning of the life cycle - eggs and chicks under one month of age. EVERYTHING, even deer will eat quail eggs if they find them. A destroyed nest is a destroyed potential covey. The major player at that stage, I believe, are the snakes, followed by raccoons and opossums. Once hatched many chicks fall prey to feral cats and hawks. My guess is that they are the main players for the first month. By the end of that time escape behaviors have been learned and a lower proportion of them are subject to predation...particularly if they have access to protective cover.

In light of the above, in my situation, my goal is to have new penraised birds every year cycle through my system which results in birds as close to wild smelling and acting as possible.

Dale Davis said the users of his system would end up with the best bird dogs that they had ever owned.  I use his system (modified) and have the best bird dogs I have owned (had them over a half century).  With all due respect I must say that his system is a major contribution to this, but there are other factors too.  They include genetics, environment and luck.  Since they are not the purpose of these remarks I will leave them to a followup set of remarks at a later time.