Status and Conservation of Oregon’s Mountain Quail

Collapsing my tenkara rod, I reflected on the brilliant California golden trout I had just released back into the trickle of a mountain stream dropping from a series of high lakes in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The September sun shone golden and warm against my back as dappled light streamed through the forest canopy. That fish put a bow on one of the most memorable weeks of my fly-fishing career, traipsing through the scenic Sierra Nevada Range in search of a trout I had dreamed about for decades.

Descending from 10,000 feet, the trail meandered through various cover types including old-growth pine and small pockets of yellowing aspen. Approaching a unique knob around 8,500 feet was a minute stand of sagebrush, appearing entirely out of place and displaced from the lowland scrub and chapparal. The faint scuffling and whistling of a quail covey piqued my interest.

Climbing the knob, the covey scurried across the trail ahead and levitated above the sage, sailing elegantly into the safety of a nearby snarl. Mountain quail. That first encounter left me mesmerized and wishing to exchange my fly rod for a setter and double gun, and added another hunt to my bucket list. Researching mountain quail habitat and their distribution across the west, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of Oregon’s populations and conservation efforts.

Mountain quail are a North America native, distributed throughout the Oregon Cascades and California’s Sierra Nevada, with a sprinkling in Nevada, Mexico and Washington. Southeast Washington, eastern Oregon and western Idaho historically were home to mountain quail, but over time, their habitat and populations dwindled. In Oregon, mountain quail were once found in every county. Since about 1950, land use practices and fire suppression have contributed to their decline.

Photo Credit – US Fish and Wildlife Service

Mountain quail are the largest native quail in North America. They are uniquely monomorphic, meaning both sexes are virtually identical in size and appearance, each boasting their most peculiar feature, a black, needle-like “top knot” growing over an inch long from the top of the head.

Preferred habitat consists of dense brush, such as manzanita thickets, chapparal and scrub, in wooded foothills and mountains. Features like burns and clear-cuts are important for providing the appropriate balance of cover and food sources, and water within about one mile. Riparian habitats with an adjacent brushy, upland slope are favorable.

The mountain quail diet consists mainly of vegetation during spring and summer, seeds and berries during fall and winter. Insects are important for spring and summer brood rearing. Mountain quail also exhibit a robust reproductive strategy. Females lay seven to fifteen eggs in two separate nests within about 600 feet of each other. Both adults incubate clutches independently, males typically having greater hatch success.

In 1996, Oregon State University (OSU) began a study to compare life history characteristics between the larger, stable lower Cascades population, and that of a remnant population in Hells Canyon. Additionally, quail were translocated from the Cascades to Hells Canyon to compare life histories of the separate groups in the same habitat.

The OSU study results informed a sixteen-year follow-on translocation study to reintroduce mountain quail to historic eastern Oregon habitats. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) teamed up with OSU and the U.S. Forest Service beginning in 2001, translocating and radio-tracking birds in the Freemont, Deschutes and Malheur National Forests and the Steens Mountain Wilderness.

A total of 2,574 birds were translocated across years. Forty-five percent (1,156) were radio-tracked to obtain habitat selection, survival and nesting success information. Overall, nesting and brooding was successful across sites and years. Survival ranged from approximately sixteen percent to nearly sixty percent, depending upon year and release site. Survival rates and trends observed were similar to those of the Cascades population from which birds were translocated.

Photo Credit- US Fish and Wildlife Service

Concluding the study in 2017, it appears the translocation efforts were at least marginally successful. Mountain quail appear to be maintaining small populations where translocated and are considered an “occasional” species in Wallowa and Union Counties while the lower Cascades population remains strong. Detailed annual reports of the translocation study are available from ODFW online.

Oregon offers hunting opportunity with the eastern Oregon season running October 10th through January 31st this year, including California quail and overlapping the forest grouse season. The lower Cascades season opens September 1st.

Mountain quail are a peculiar and secretive species, and a treasure to the State of Oregon. There is something magical about their presence on the landscape. The memory of flushing a covey over manzanita or juniper scrub will remain etched in your cache of extraordinary upland experiences. Whether pursuing with dog and scatter gun or hiking stick and camera, the marvel of this distinctive native quail and their habitat that we are blessed to have on our public lands is reason enough to seek adventure in the high desert.

Restoring an Heirloom

I don’t know when dad purchased the gun or from whom or where, but one of its few outings captured on film was in 1977. My brother was a toddler and dad had hunted a gray squirrel on his parent’s farm in what used to be the middle-of-nowhere Appalachia.

The Herrington and Richardson Topper Model 158 (H&R) was the shotgun built for everyone. An ordinary, functional firearm built for the budget-minded. Overly simplistic yet wholly reliable described the H&R firearms line from 1871 to 1986 under the parent company.

Dad’s H&R saw its last hunt somewhere around 1992 when a zealous child acting crafty with a gray squirrel failed to properly lock the action. I secured provisions for Brunswick stew and learned a frightening lesson in the process. The top-break action blew open, ejecting the casing and busting the gun’s forearm. Miraculously, I did not suffer the same consequence. As a pre-teen, I had little use for a busted gun or the ability or knowledge to repair it. I left it to rust in an attic for nearly thirty years.

Pre-restoration, rusted and forgotten. What’s pictured here comes with the Burchwood Casey kit (save for the gun).

Returning home in 2020, I finally decided to grab the old H&R from the attic and haul it back to Waitsburg. Given their basic style and seemingly low-grade stocks, H&R firearms don’t carry much monetary value. Given the gun was useless otherwise, I decided to try my hand at a home restoration job, finding my first experience to be as terrifying as expected.

Ordering a Burchwood Casey complete re-bluing kit, I went to work one afternoon in the shop, thinking the directions were straightforward and simplistic. I learned quickly, however, that our hot, dry summer climate play a major role in the complexity of the endeavor, so much so that I basically enjoyed doing the job twice.

The first crucial step was stripping the rust and bluing from the barrel and action. Using a kit-provided swab and applying the rust and blue removal chemical was easy, as was using steel wool to gently rub off rust and debris. The kerfuffle came when the stripping chemical began drying into a sticky paste on the barrel in the 90-degree heat.

Using the supplied degreaser, I quickly removed the gunk from the barrel, performing a second and third coat of rust and blue remover in some cases, quickly working the steel wool and sand paper to remove everything, then promptly cleaning.

Lesson 1: Perform your firearm restoration in a climate-controlled area.

Disassembled and ready for a makover.

During the rust/blue removal step, the directions say to clean the metal until it shines, taking great care in the process. Simple enough. The problem occurs where interpretations of “shine” may vary. My cleaning job resulted in what appeared to be a rust-free, lustrous surface, yet later during the bluing step, I learned otherwise.

Lesson 2: Sand and polish the metal at least twice again once you think you have it “shiny” using the rust removal chemical and degreasing thoroughly when finished. You want as near a mirror finish as possible.

Degreasing is another critical step as bluing will not work with unclean metal. Grease and oil prevent the bluing chemical from contacting the metal surface, creating a blotchy appearance. Be sure to use latex or nitrile gloves during the process as fingerprints can show plainly from skin oils. As with the rust and blue removal, once you think the parts are clean, degrease at least twice again, scrubbing diligently. Sanding tough areas when removing rust and bluing can help tremendously, the gun action being the most difficult area.

Sound fun so far? The above steps are simply tedious. Bluing is utter madness. Bluing is a clear chemical that reacts with the steel, darkening it to the rich, almost black finish most guns bear. The directions say to apply quickly, and thoroughly, with an optimal 30- to 45-second soak and no longer than 60 seconds. This could not be stressed enough, which led me to believe the gun would self-destruct at 61 seconds. I decided to blue the H&R barrel in three sections, similar to what the direction recommended.

Lesson 3: Blue the barrel one or two inches at a time. By the time I had the area evenly coated, the starting point had been sitting for 20 seconds, leaving an uneven soak time before washing in cold water and breaking the chemical reaction.

Although it would have been excruciatingly slow, wiping a single blue streak around the barrel at a time would have been far better in the long-run for creating an even finish and would have required about the same amount of time. Thankfully, the finished darkened as it “cured” over 24-hours.

Lesson 4: Coating many small areas is preferable over fewer large areas providing a better finish.  

Makeover complete, awaiting reassembly.

With the metals finally finished, I turned to the stock. The original wood was light and wide-grained with an orangish tint when finished. The replacement forearm was beautiful walnut. How to match them up?

Once sanded clean, I used “special walnut 224” stain from the hardware store for the stock, matching with the new forearm as close as possible. Wiping on two light coats with a rag, I then applied teak oil to both stock and forearm. Finally, a light wipe of clear furniture urethane gave gloss and superior weather protection that looked good to me.

Lesson 5: I am a better carpenter than metalsmith.

Overall, I was pleased with the outcome. The barrel finish could be better and the process simpler, knowing what I know now, but the result was far better than the prior condition. And, I suppose learning a new skill requires starting somewhere.

Regardless, the H&R heirloom found its way back into action, plucking a plump collared dove on its first outing as a reborn small game scattergun. A bird I doubt my dad had ever even heard of.

Back in Action!

Upland Pursuits – Dove Decoys Enhance the Hunt

Published in the East Oregonian, August 18th 2021

My decoy spread, offset slightly to my left, lit up like little gray beacons as the morning sun cast its golden glow. A light breeze kicked up, spurred by the sunrays piercing the cool air of early fall. Aside from the emerald foliage of the occasional tree, the Palouse was decorated in the usual varied tones of beige, canary, and bronze.

A pair of Mojo decoys set in a pea field as part of a larger spread

Camo-clad, sitting along a forgotten fencerow, I waited for the first flight to descend upon the grain field and gathering of imposter fowl. A robust doe whitetail with her speckled fawn leisurely fed from a grassy draw bottom. Suddenly, movement to my right revealed a few gray birds swooping in, head-on to the decoys. With a smooth swing of grandpa’s old pump gun, the morning hunt was underway.

Pop quiz – what am I hunting? Okay, you read the title and know it’s doves, but that scene could easily play out for waterfowl with a tweak to the decoy setup and a little water in the picture. No waterfowl hunter would dream of sheltering in a layout blind without a few decoys out front, but decoys for doves?

Pass-shooting doves is an American sporting tradition and the mourning dove is the most widespread and abundant game bird in North America. Every year hunters harvest more than 20 million birds nationwide. A typical hunt might be characterized by old five-gallon buckets for seats placed in the shade of a tree alongside or separating grain fields and water sources.

Tucked in the shadows, friends and family enjoy quiet small talk as early autumn heat wavers up from the parched landscape. No fancy gear or even camo required. Action can be fast and furious, but also slow when birds are sparse or keeping their distance. That’s where decoys enter the scene.

Handmade wooden decoys are an effective option as well

Doves tend to follow trees or obvious terrain features when moving among food and water sources. At these sources, doves perch on exposed tree branches or anything else with overhead visibility to survey for predators before descending to feed or drink. Decoys can be set to attract doves to a location advantageous to the hunter, influencing their flight path and encouraging more birds to fly within shooting distance. With a few simple considerations, your decoy spread can do more than keep you company on the hunt.

Identifying your shooting position is the foundation of setting decoying. Decoys should be placed 10-20 yards from your shooting position to ensure the shooter remains hidden from approaching birds. Offset the decoys from your shooting position at about 10 o’clock for the right-handed shooter, and two o’clock for the left-handed shooter. The goal is to encourage crossing shots rather than lure the birds in head-on to the shooter.

Next to location, setting visible decoys is crucial. Tree cover can be sparse in the shrub-steppe and harvested fields.  A wire or T-shaped bar about 10-feet high to elevate decoys can easily be constructed at home with PVC, pipe or rebar. A few decoys sitting side-by-side mimics doves perching on a powerline, which typically attracts others. If hunting your own land or an area where you can set up something semi-permanent, the T-bar or wire span can be left and used year after year. Options with more mobility, like telescopic T-bars for easy packing into public land, can be found online.

A Mojo decoy clipped to a black locust branch of a homemade tree perch

Another option is to make an actual tree perch that can be cut and pruned to an ideal structure for decoy attachment, and placed near food, water, and even gravel sources. Doves will also use them naturally, which may provide an advantage.

When placing decoys on the ground, set them 20-30 feet from the elevated decoys and pair them up with a few feet between pairs, generally facing into the wind. Dove pairs often travel together, and pairing decoys on the ground gives the spread a more natural appearance. This does not mean placing each pair perfectly side-by-side, but set in relative proximity to one another to give the decoys the look of feeding together.

Non-mobile (static) decoys work well on their own, but another option is to include a spinning-wing decoy to animate your spread. Doves approach an animated, spinning-wing decoy head-on most often, which can aid in setting up that text-book crossing shot. Later in the season as doves become wary, the additional movement of the spinning-wing decoy is more convincing to the cynical eye of our most frequently hunted bird species.  When you get right down to it, mourning doves offer one of the most versatile wingshooting opportunities of all upland birds, and decoying doves can be done simply, with minimal gear. If you have never used decoys, doves offer an easy, affordable opportunity to get started. Static decoys are easy to find and can lure birds even without being elevated. Whether trying something new or simply honing your decoying skills this fall, setting decoys for doves can enhance your wingshooting experience.

A brace of America’s most popular game bird, taken over a decoy spread