Read the Small Game Forecast, by Species

Taking advantage of the myriad of opportunities to hunt small game will get you out to see some of Arizona’s most beautiful and remote landscapes!

Small game forecast by species and tips from R. Babb for hunting

2022 – 2023 Small Game Outlook

By Larisa Harding and Johnathan O’Dell
Arizona Game and Fish Department, Small Game Program


We anticipate that our high-country tree squirrels (Abert’s, Kaibab, and red squirrels) were able to benefit from monsoonal rains that arrived late last summer (in August) and went into winter in better body condition than they had during the previous years’ severe drought. With recent precipitation in the mountains and on the Kaibab Plateau, drought conditions have lessened some and habitats are producing a variety of mushrooms and seed cones the squirrels rely on, so we are hopeful that squirrel numbers may start to rebound. Red squirrels are already actively clipping cones to stash in middens for winter in the White Mountains, and observations by deer hunters last fall of Abert’s squirrels on the Kaibab Plateau are holding steady, so juveniles that were running around last summer are now hopefully rearing kits of their own. As always, where drought conditions have milder impacts on the landscape, you may find pockets where hunting is good, and squirrels are fun species to introduce new and novice hunters to the field.

small game hunt challenge

The Arizona Small Game Challenge continues for a fifth year! Arizona Game and Fish Department has teamed up with the Valley of the Sun Quail Forever Chapter (VOTSQF) to host the challenge, and VOTSQF has generously offered to match hunter registration fees dollar for dollar to enhance and improve small game species and their habitats in Arizona. Registration opened August 1 and is limited to 100 participants per year. Each person successfully completing one of the four challenges for the first time this year will receive a plaque and an engraving tab that marks the achievement, with additional space on the plaque for each of the remaining challenges. Those who have completed at least one challenge in years past will receive a commemorative tab for the challenge that is completed this year. Arizona Game and Fish Department manages a variety of small game species, including five only found in the Southwest—Montezuma (Mearns’) quail, Gambel’s quail, scaled quail, Abert’s squirrel, and the Kaibab Abert’s squirrel (a dark Abert’s subspecies). The Small Game Challenge was developed to encourage hunters to learn more about these and additional small game opportunities as they explore some of the most scenic country in our state. How to participate in the challenge


Cottontail and jackrabbits – Department surveys done each spring suggest that estimated desert cottontail numbers parallel estimated quail numbers from our desert quail call counts. With desert quail call counts this spring a little improved over last year, desert cottontail numbers are likely to also be low. Coupled with the drought of the past years, in spring 2020, cottontails and jackrabbits were exposed to a Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 2 (RHDV2), a highly fatal virus with origins in Eurasia. The virus affected lagomorphs (rabbits and jacks) differentially, as some areas in southeastern Arizona saw high rabbit mortality while other areas suffered less. Thanks to the drought and RHDV2, cottontails and jackrabbits are likely to be lower in number than they might be in a more normal year, but with the recent summer monsoons, they should be able to rebound so there might be lots of juvenile cottontails out and about this fall. Antelope jackrabbits are also likely to be observed in lower numbers this fall after RHDV2 went through southern Arizona, but they now have lush habitats and lots of hiding cover in southeastern Arizona, so we are hopeful their numbers will come back up. We recommend conservative harvesting of lagomorphs, particularly jackrabbits, to give them opportunity to capitalize on improved conditions for reproduction in hopes of seeing greater numbers on the landscape in the next few years.


Desert Quail, Gambel’s and Scaled – The Department uses spring breeding calls in Gambel’s quail to forecast what the fall hunt and harvest might look like. Our biologists start the breeding call count surveys usually in mid-late March and run a designated 20-mile route once every 2 weeks for at least 3 repetitions. If call numbers are still increasing on the 3rd run, we survey and count a 4th time to see if we’ve caught ‘the peak’ in calling activities. We have two long-term routes that have been surveyed down south near Oracle Junction/Oro Valley since ~1970s, and we’ve established a number of other routes across the state in the past ~5 years to build predictive trendlines. Given the call counts don’t actually tell us how many individual birds are calling, they serve as an index of population activity and not as an actual population estimate, but they do correlate nicely to reported harvest from our two check stations during opening weekend down near Oracle Junction.

This spring most numbers for Gambel’s quail were up from last year in calling activity, but that comes with the acknowledgment that last year’s numbers were terribly low. Down south at Oracle Junction, the average number of breeding calls were 2-5 times greater than last year’s average, so that’s promising that numbers are improved. Closer to Phoenix, call counts were double the average from last year, so we’re hopeful there should be birds in the desert this fall. Calling activity up in northwestern Arizona closer to Wikieup and the Kingman region suggested similar activity as last year.

We saw chicks on the ground as early as April (with one memorable covey with an adult pair and 35-40 chicks in it in north Phoenix!), and as late as early August, there were still chicks that looked to be only a week or so old running around. That suggests Gambel’s quail have been able to take advantage of some monsoonal moisture later for reproduction and their brooding period has extended into the late summer. There have been adult pairs running around without chicks, so it’s not clear whether they didn’t breed, had failed nests, or lost chicks to weather and predators (the roadrunners can have heavy impacts). Young chicks rely very heavily on insects that feed on fresh green annuals, so early broods may have struggled, while young birds searching for insects after our monsoons started may be doing well. Summer call count surveys for scaled quail suggest they will be difficult to locate and hunt because numbers appear to be very low this year. There will always be pockets of abundance, but it will be more challenging to discover those areas.

Our hunter check station data collected during the opening weekend of desert quail season in October 2021 showed a very low proportion of the harvest was juvenile birds (about 9-11%). Such a low number of juveniles in the harvest just harkens back to how bad environmental conditions have been the past few years with extreme heat and scant precipitation falling during the time that Gambel’s quail are breeding and raising chicks. We expect desert quail numbers may still be lower across the state this fall than they were in 2018 and 2019 (the last years we had really good winter rains), but there are areas in Arizona where birds are more plentiful.

montezuma (mearns’)

As for Montezuma (or Mearns’) quail in southern Arizona, they’ve had a rough time with extended drought conditions the last few years. Low monsoon moisture seemed to be on tap again this summer, but rain finally came in July and has been falling in southeastern Arizona, so this may be a better year for Mearns’ quail. Mearns’ quail rely heavily on monsoon moisture for breeding and brood-rearing activities and also on adult carry-over from the previous winter. We’re finally getting some strong monsoon patterns and precipitation in the key time for Montezuma quail, so we are hopeful that their reproductive activity is higher and bird numbers will improve. Our voluntary hunter submissions to wing barrels last winter (December 2021–February 2022) suggested that hunters averaged ~2 Mearns’ quail per day of hunting effort. We expect numbers may be higher this winter, but we still need a few consecutive summers with good precipitation to really boost Mearns’ numbers. We expect there should be a good crop of young birds on the landscape this fall, but it will take more than one season for Montezuma quail numbers to rebound. Try hunting areas that see lower hunter visitation this year and you’ll likely see success.

Check out Johnathan O’Dell’s video: How to clean quail

dusky (blue) grouse

The Department would like to better survey blue grouse hunter participation and success. To do this, we are asking grouse hunters to provide an address or email to the Small Game Program so that they can be surveyed directly after the end of the season. This may be done by sending an email to or through regular mail to the Department’s main office: attention Terrestrial Branch. If you’re hunting early season archery elk in areas where we might have dusky grouse, you may receive a questionnaire asking you to report grouse observations. Please take a moment to fill in that survey to help us gather information on some of our dusky grouse populations.

Grouse habitat in Arizona has been significantly impacted by the extended drought. Hunter reports last year suggested that there was very little warm season growth in forbaceous plants and a lack of soft mast other than scattered rose hips on the Kaibab Plateau, and with precipitation patterns and timing this summer very similar to last year, we expect habitats are just now starting to green up there. Still, the Kaibab remains the most likely area of the state to find dusky grouse. Habitats have also been drier for grouse on the San Francisco Peaks and in the White Mountains, but recent rains are likely helping to produce a flush of ‘green-up’ in the plants grouse seek. Hunters searching areas above 8500 feet in a mix of aspen and fir containing any soft mast, like wild raspberry and vetch will have greater success in locating grouse. Hunting in September usually provides more opportunity before birds move to higher elevations into dense fir stands.


The Department would like to better survey chukar hunter participation and success. To do this, we are asking chukar hunters to provide an address or email to the Small Game Program so that they can be surveyed directly after the end of the season. This may be done by sending an email to or through regular mail to the Department’s main office: attention Terrestrial Branch.

Dry conditions on the Kaibab may have dampened cheatgrass expansion on the Arizona Strip and likely reduced chukar reproduction and recruitment. While benefitting our native wildlife, less cheatgrass out there may confine chukars to those areas with green or ripe cheatgrass. Look for birds on ridgelines and near water; be ready to shoot before they disappear over the edge into steep canyon country!


Late monsoon storms in southeastern Arizona are starting to entice white-winged doves to migrate south already. BUT, as long as we don’t get lots of storms just before September 1st, opening day promises to be action-packed! We’ve seen lots and lots of doves in the desert all winter and spring, and flights of doves are increasing in number and frequency. We expect this to be a banner year for dove hunting in Arizona! Get out and harvest your limit while you enjoy challenging wing-shooting and make lots of memories with family and friends! Dove hunting is an easy way to start hunting because it requires very little equipment; a shotgun, ammo, maybe a dove vest and a bucket are all that is required. Don’t forget to take lots of water to stay hydrated; hunting the early season can be VERY warm in our deserts!

White-winged doves should all migrate out of Arizona prior to the late season opener, but there will still be lots of mourning doves around and fewer hunters, so if you don’t get out in the early season, you’ve not missed your chance to harvest a limit or two of mourning doves! (And Eurasian collared doves can be harvested year-round with no limit and taste just as great as our native doves!)


Waterfowl breeding populations at northern latitudes on the continent continue to be healthy and higher than long-term numbers. Cold weather to the north typically pushes ducks south to Arizona around Thanksgiving, and hunters should expect a good season. If our monsoon moisture continues to fall, dirt tanks and wetlands should all house ducks this winter. Lots of rain has already fallen in southeastern Arizona and the mountains of eastern Arizona, and we’re hoping for more to help with reservoir and river levels. Puddle ducks are generally plentiful in shallow water habitats found in Arizona throughout the season, but diving ducks usually show up later in the winter at our big, deep water lakes. Wintering geese are under hunted in Arizona outside of the national wildlife refuges. Stay versatile in how and where you hunt and you should be able to fill your bag in what promises to be a good year for waterfowl hunting.

Small game hunting tips

By Randall D. Babb

Read the tips

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