If you see a quail near Harrison, it may well be an escapee.
Eight years ago, Scott and Cheryl Walker bought two of the game birds to raise on their property south of Harrison. Since then, they’ve formed the St. Joe Quail Co., selling quail to hunting preserves, ranchers and dog clubs.
“We expect to raise 25,000 this year,” Scott Walker said. “We don’t take a vacation very often.”
Due to a variety of mishaps, however, the Walkers say they inadvertently have seeded the woods and ridges around Harrison with thousands of the birds.
“We’ve had a lot of live-and-learn experiences,” Scott Walker chuckled, opening the door to a plywood building.
Inside, orange heat lamps hung in the room, thick with the smell of straw.
On the floor were 2,800 baby quail, peeping and scurrying into the corners like a herd of winged mice. Walker bent down and scooped up a 2-week-old quail, about the size and weight of a golf ball.
“When you raise 5,000 at once, you don’t get attached to them,” he said. “Besides, they all look the same.”
After six months of eating “Purina Turkey Starter” food, the quail will be mature, weighing about a pound.
According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, quail hunting is becoming more popular in Idaho, with the annual kill rising from 39,000 in 1987 to 117,000 in 1993. The quail population is doing well, thanks largely to mild winters and dry springs, said regional conservation officer Steve Agte.
The Walkers buy the baby birds from farms in Pennsylvania and Arkansas. They raise them year-round, trucking the full-grown birds to release sites in Lewiston, Spokane and southern Idaho. Birds are $4 each, or $3.50 apiece for 100 or more.
The key to a successful quail farm, however, seems to be making sure the birds don’t escape. The Walkers figure that some 6,000 quail have flapped, scooted and scuttled away from them since they started business.
The first Great Escape occurred two years ago when heavy snow fell on one of the quail pens. The snow weighed down the netting until it broke, giving the birds an escape route. Roughly 1,500 birds sailed off into the night.
“They just left,” said Scott Walker.
Then there was the incident of Oct. 12, 1994.
Driving a truckload of birds to a southern Idaho customer, Cheryl Walker fell asleep and crashed the couple’s truck into a tree near Harvard, Idaho.
She walked away from the crash - and so did 2,500 birds, scurrying out of their broken crates.
“We released about $7,000 worth of birds,” sighed Scott Walker. “From what I hear, there was really good hunting down there.”
Later that fall, a windstorm hit the couple’s property and knocked a tree down onto a pen. About 2,000 quail fled outside and disappeared into the hills.
“With that loss, it kind of hurt,” Scott Walker said.
Occasionally, he’ll see quail along the back roads near his home. Although it’s illegal to trap them, he’s pretty sure he knows where those quail came from.
“They seem to be doing real fine,” he said.
There have been other problems as well. A skunk burrowed into a birdhouse once and ate a bird. That wasn’t such a big problem - the problem was that the remaining quail sauntered out the tunnel the skunk had left behind.
Since then, the couple have taken preventive measures.
They lined the birdhouse floors with wire to prevent skunks or weasels from digging in. They’ve reinforced the walls of the bird buildings.
They’ve cut down nearby trees. And they’re careful to knock loose snow that collects on the mesh over the pens.
“This year’s going to be different,” vowed Scott Walker. “They aren’t going to get away anymore.”