If Mother Nature has any favorite kids, the bobwhite quail isn’t one of them.
The little bird, the prize of upland game hunters, continues to suffer population declines. Drought gets much of the blame these days in Texas, and so does fragmented habitat.
Without grass, they’ve got nowhere to nest or hide.
So a lot of people hunting quail these days are shooting farm-raised birds. And, for the people who supply them, business is good.
In North Texas, Gerry Stearns, owner of the Santa Anna Hunting Area, said he has been raising quail for about 20 years. When he started, they cost about $2 to $2.50 apiece.
But these days, he charges about $6, which, he said, is higher than most others. The average price in Texas, he added, is $4.50 to $5.50 per bird.
“That’s for full grown and flight ready,” he said. “If they’re charging below $4.50, they’re probably going to lose money.
“I raise about 15,000 — not many. But I know some guys in South Texas who raise 50,000, even 100,000, and they got them sold before they’re hatched.”
The South Texas market, Stearns speculated, could be “close to 1 million” quail.
That market has been good to Jeff Schmidt of Mason.
He began raising quail to supply hunters on his family’s Schmidt Double T Ranches, which also provide hunts for turkey and trophy whitetails.
But now he has several contracts to supply other ranches.
“I’m at max capacity right now,” he said. “I can’t raise any more. I’m meeting the demand.”
Schmidt said he raises a hardy quail. But, if there is no cover on the ranches where the birds are released, their brief lifespans are shortened dramatically.
“We’re having to put out more than we normally would to make the hunt,” Schmidt said. “You have to have cover for them. If not, the last time you see them is when you put them out.
“Just about everything Mother Nature has out there is a predator to a quail — everything from a fox to a coon to a snake and now even hogs.
“I don’t know how they live in the real world. I give them everything they want and I still lose 10 to 15 percent of my birds.”
But with such a ready market, neither Stearns nor Schmidt believes it’s easy money.
They stay busy cleaning, feeding, watering, treating diseases and fending off predators.
Although the open areas are covered with net-like covers, hawks still try to swoop in and pull the flushed quail through the holes in the mesh.
“It’s just like running a dairy,” Schmidt said. “I get basically two weeks off.”
Stearns said quail farming is not a good way to retire.
“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “If someone is maybe retiring from oh, say, a dairy, it’s probably a holiday. But if they’re retiring from an office … not so much.”
Stearns said the trouble is worth it, however, to help keep people hunting.
“I supply because it’s a tradition I totally believe in,” he explained. “I just think hunting is such a hoot.
“I like shotguns and taking the dogs out and having them point the birds. You learn such self-control; it gives you confidence about yourself.
“I think it’s very important for us to keep that culture alive.”