BUTLER COUNTY — There are few places in the world Tom Devlin hasn’t seen.
But the sight of about two-dozen birds flushing beside a pasture trail was enough to stop the successful businessman’s conversation mid-sentence and bring a smile of pride to his face.
“How’s that for great timing?” said Devlin, who had been talking about quail management for the past hour. “That was a really big covey... a lot of our coveys are really big, this year.”
That covey was amid a 5,000-acre spread he owns northeast of Leon, of which about 1,500 acres are heavily managed for his beloved bobwhites. Around another 3,000 acres are similarly managed on sizable ranches near Howard and Piedmont. He estimates most of his lands have twice as many quail as last season.
“I think we’re getting on the right track,” said Devlin, who has been trying to bolster quail populations on his lands for about 20 years. “This year we found 15 coveys in one day. I know we’ve been seeing a lot more birds than most people.”
Managing for habitat
Devlin’s interest in quail hunting began about the time he began buying ranches in the mid-1980s.
“My first 10 years of hunting were fabulous,” Devlin said. “Things really started getting tough after that.”
There are few things he hasn’t tried to rebuild quail populations. Some were his ideas, others came from picking the minds of experts.
Devlin said he failed with releasing birds, either as pen-reared adults or quail raised within the food/water and temperature controlled confines of a surrogator out on the prairie.
That left him with belief that improving natural habitat was the key.
Through time, he’s spent time on ranches that annually burned from horizon to horizon, then were intensively grazed. The fire destroyed nearly all habitat, including the forbs on which young quail find needed insects and seeds and brush needed for protection. Heavy grazing left the birds with little food or cover.
Devlin said the other extreme — ungrazed, never-burned pastures - can quickly become too dense for run-loving quail to navigate easily, so he’s using burning and grazing in moderation.
“We needed cattle to thin the grass,” he said on a pre-hunt interview at a cafe in Leon. “We’ll put cattle on most of our pastures in March, but only about one-third the stocking rate most people use. That still leaves quite a bit of cover.”
Ideally, Devlin would like to use a rotational program so parts of pastures are burned about every third year, leaving plenty of potential nesting, brood-rearing and escape cover untouched. His land managers disk fire breaks around wild plum and sumac thickets and other needed covers to protect them from the fires.
His crews also have attacked most woodlands, where sizable trees shade out areas that were once brushy quail cover 20 years ago. From their chainsaws has come some of the gnarliest, thickest and most important cover on Devlin’s quail properties.
After the lunch, Devlin and hunting buddy Dick Price met land managers Jim Roebuck and Nathan Sexton at the nearby ranch. After pausing to watch the big covey that flushed on the way in, three dogs were put on the ground and the party began walking long stretches of narrow jungle.
As they went, Roebuck showed where trees had been sawed, sometimes completely through and others just enough to bend the top to the ground. Often the latter continued to live and grow more dense. Some species of trees, like locusts and Osage orange, responded to the cutting by sending prickly shoots up through the ground from their root systems.
With nearly every old treeline, fenceline and woodland edge so coiffed, Roebuck estimates there are up to eight miles of feed routes per 1,000 acres of such prickly habitat on the quail properties. They make sure the linear fortresses offer birds more than just cover.
Meals of milo
Into the miles of thorns, the land managers regularly broadcast literal tons of milo. Because it’s spread over such an area, Devlin said predators have no quail concentration on which to prey, such as around food plots and feeders.
“We’ve been feeding basically all-year around, but it’s especially important in the late winter and early spring when there’s not much food left out there,” said Devlin, who annually spends more on quail food than the cost of many African safaris. “We want those hens to be as strong and healthy as possible when they start nesting and raising chicks.”
Devlin said a southern quail biologist told him brood sizes could increase 30 to 50 percent if the hens are in the best shape possible. To remove as many nest-robbing predators as possible, the quail properties are heavily trapped for raccoons, opossums and skunks.
He acknowledges his financial successes make it much easier for him to do his wildlife management projects than might be possible for a farmer or rancher trying to earn their living from the land where they’d like to see more quail. But Devlin is hoping word will spread of what seems to be working on his lands, and that some landowners will employ at least some of his tactics.
In the meantime, he’s not done trying to make things even better.
“I just love wildlife and I want my grandkids to be able to hunt and fish,” he said. “My sons already love to hunt.”
But no matter how much they like to hunt, Devlin normally only quail hunts each area about once per season. Blessed with plenty of land that still allows him about 20 quail hunts with family and close friends. Price was one such friend, hence the recent trip near Leon.
Though he dislikes releasing quail, Devlin’s staff released some pheasants and chukars to ensure a lot of shooting and dog work. Still, in about four hours of walking, with three or four close-working dogs, they also moved four coveys of quail. Two of the groups were downright huge, with 20 or more birds per batch.
“This is the last we’ll hunt this place this year,” Devlin said as he walked from an area where two big coveys were scattered. “Those birds are home free.”
And on Devlin’s ranches, those birds’ homes keep getting better and better.