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July 2012

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Quail Quandary

Will habitat disappear before we figure out how to save bobwhites?

By Steve Lightfoot

It was as iconic as bluebonnets or the Alamo, yet as common as pickup trucks and cedar. Time was you could hear the sound every spring, practically anywhere in Texas, and you’d know right away what it was.

“Bob-white … ah, bob-white.” Arguably, a melody purer than any even Bob Wills could create. Then over time, like some old country song, the sound faded until you heard it only in special places.

As I think of the past and all the pleasures we had. As I watch the mating of the dove. It was in the springtime that you said goodbye. I remember our faded love.”

Bobwhite quail are accustomed to moving on short notice. They bunch up in tight groups called coveys, and upon sensing danger, explode into flight in all directions. Except for those special places, quail just rent space short term. It’s not by choice — their homes get wrecked, the weather becomes unfavorable or the neighborhood goes bad thanks to unwanted guests, and it’s time to hit the road again.

But quail are resilient creatures that have survived a vagabond lifestyle and sometimes thrived in inhospitable environs. The only constant for bobwhites is that everything changes, especially the land and the weather, and those factors more than anything else dictate whether quail stay or pack up and leave.

People’s needs and their imprint on the landscape during the last century have had a lot to do with the plight of the bobwhite, the state’s most abundant quail species.

After World War I, for example, cotton was in high demand and vast areas of grassland prairie and brushland were cleared and converted to cotton fields. Further eradication of quail habitat can be attributed to overgrazing in response to skyrocketing beef prices.

Then came the Great Depression, which for quail became somewhat of a Great Revival. Intensive cotton production wasn’t profitable, and beef was a luxury, so most lands were allowed to return to pasture. The land evolved into suitable quail country once again, although not as good as it once was. Like most neighborhoods, deterioration was subtle and gradual over time. That old wild plum thicket the young ones used to hide under never quite grew back as thick as it once was.

Wildlife biologists saw the signs of a bobwhite problem in the habitat, but to hunters and landowners, evidence that something was going on with quail was more visceral.

That unmistakable melody — “ah, bobwhite” — that once echoed throughout the fields was growing fainter each spring. In a lot of places, the call of the bobwhite vanished entirely. The silence was frightening for people passionate about quail, and that fear turned to blame. Hunters blamed one another for overshooting and also pointed the finger at foxes, coyotes, snakes, house cats, hawks and armadillos as the likely culprits. They demanded action.

In response to the outcry, the Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission in 1938 created the Division of Wildlife Restoration, whose primary directive was to find answers to the quail problem.

Research into predator species revealed that practically anything will eat a quail given the opportunity, but other than serving as contributing factors to mortality, there was no single bobwhite archenemy.

“You had quail hunters saying, ‘We ought to have a bounty on foxes because they eat quail ... quail eggs,’” recollected the late Dan Lay in a 1997 taped interview. A renowned ecologist, Lay was hired in 1938 as one of the Game, Fish and Oyster Commission’s first Wildlife Restoration field biologists, stationed in his hometown of Beaumont. “I had to go make a study almost immediately of what foxes were eating. I was assigned to collect 50 fox stomachs in an area where there were lots of quail, and examine the stomachs and make a report. And it wasn’t any problem at all to trap 50 foxes. In about two weeks I had them, preserved them in formaldehyde. First rainy day I started going through them in my living room. I did all my office work at home, mostly at night, even inspecting those old fox stomachs in the house. My wife would have tears in her eyes from all the formaldehyde.”

Similar stomach content analyses were made on snakes, coyotes and other suspects. Predator controls were implemented to satisfy naysayers but proved unsuccessful in restoring quail. Wildlife biologists explained that some predation can be expected when quail populations are high, but it’s not a serious factor as long as there’s escape cover for bobwhite. Biologists contended that habitat was the driving force behind quail declines.

The concept of habitat restoration was certainly nothing new, even in the 1940s. Conservation visionaries such as Caesar Kleberg had been employing practices like brush management, native grass cultivation and water preservation on the King Ranch for decades. That didn’t stop researchers elsewhere from trying to reinvent the wheel.

Efforts to restore habitat through planting grew popular, using imported candidate species such as multiflora rose and bicolor lespedeza. Although these invasive shrubs and legumes showed early promise, they eventually caused more damage than good.

Ironically, at the same time planting experiments were failing, bobwhite recovery was taking place, almost as an afterthought. At the close of World War II, “pea farms” sprouted throughout the state as returning veterans sought places to take root. Those traditional farming practices created a patchwork quilt effect of ideal quail habitat.

But, a decade into active quail management and research, with three major state and federally funded initiatives in full swing in different parts of the state, the tide continued to turn against quail, and not just in Texas. In a 1949 report at the 14th North American Wildlife Conference, Phil Goodrum, who was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional biologist and former director of Texas’ Wildlife Restoration Division, was quoted: “Bobwhite have decreased over most of the range of this popular game species in spite of many projects designed to improve conditions for this bird. Reasons for the decline are changes in land use, clean farming, grazing and hunting pressure. Eleven states have been forced to reduce bags or to shorten seasons.”

Goodrum’s assessment may have been accurate for the times, but science has proved that hunting is not a factor in quail population trends and regulations can’t fix the problem. Throwing more birds at the problem doesn’t work, either.

Although nearly a dozen other states had tried and failed to resurrect bobwhite populations through restocking of pen-raised quail, Texas was determined to try. In the mid-1950s, quail hatchery operations got under way at the Gainesville School for Girls and the newly constructed State Quail Hatchery in Tyler. Several research projects and countless thousand bobwhites later, the quail stocking experiment was dead. Studies showed that few hatchery birds — those that figured out quickly how to forage in the wild — could survive and contribute. But, like pouring water into a leaky bucket, quail habitat was disappearing faster than researchers could put fresh birds on the ground.

Technological advances in agricultural and foresting practices made efficient and productive use of the land. The elements that created ideal quail habitat were being phased out.

Famed Texas quail biologist A.S. Jackson noted that bobwhites and their habitat are often “the result of indifference rather than purpose on the part of the land manager.” Usable quail habitat was accidental rather than deliberate. The concept of usable space continued to elude the quail community. Just because bobwhites gather in coveys doesn’t mean they live in tight spaces year-round. They require a variety of habitats and lots of space.

A single covey of quail could survive on a 20-acre plot consisting of the right mix of habitat. But a viable population of bobwhite — scientists quantify a minimum of 800 birds as sustainable — would require at least 4,000 acres of continuous usable habitat to support a bobwhite density of one bird per five acres.

Despite the long-term downward trend, Texas bobwhite numbers and those of sportsmen who pursued them were still robust. In 1960, 50 years after the epitaphs on quail began to appear, Texas boasted an estimated 321,000 quail hunters and the annual harvest was 98 million birds.

Fee-lease hunting for quail in Texas started in the 1930s and developed into a lucrative economy on many ranches during the last three decades as ardent sportsmen invested heavily for the privilege of pursuing what Aldo Leopold called “grand opera game.” Unfor­tunately, no investment was made to sustain bobwhites, so despite their popularity, numbers continued to decline at an alarming rate, about 5 percent a year. Hunting became self-regulating as premium prices for access to quail country or even country with the potential of producing bobwhites drove the average hunter out of the market.

By 2010, there were fewer than 50,000 quail hunters in Texas and the annual harvest was at a little more than a half-million birds. Even on ranches where quail habitat management practices were being implemented, coveys of birds were fewer and farther between. Something else was going on, and the quail community demanded answers.

There were smoking guns. Biologists could easily prove that red imported fire ants were killing our birds, but the ant wasn’t killing 5 percent of the state’s quail yearly. We turned to science for answers and began exploring idiopathic solutions. Could some unseen parasite or virus be the culprit? Researchers are currently collecting samples to find out what role disease, parasites and environmental contaminants may play in quail declines.

The answer could be coming too late as bobwhites are running out of options to relocate. All the good habitat spots are gone or out of reach.

Bobwhite loyalists speak of the “good old days” of quail and hunting in reverent voices, but in reality, the good old days were a mere snapshot in the chronology of a trending decline. Those days were better than now, but not as good as they once were. Return­ing quail to a bygone era is an unrealistic expectation. What is realistic, quail conservationists believe, is to focus on re-creating those special places — a focus area.

A focus area is generally larger than a county but smaller than an ecoregion, with a boundary determined by opportunity, habitat potential and landowner/ partner interest and participation. One example is the Wildlife Habitat Federation site in south-central Texas, with prairie grassland habitat restoration efforts ongoing since 2004. Other potential sites have been identified through the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture, a new multistate and federal bird habitat conservation initiative administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A recent survey of states within the bobwhite range reported an interest in enhancing population monitoring efforts at focus areas, both to measure the impacts of habitat manipulation and to develop models that can be reproduced in other areas with restoration potential. This is becoming the national model for bobwhite quail conservation.

“Bobwhites respond to habitat improvements when they occur at a scale that can support a viable population,” says Robert Perez, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department upland game bird program leader. “When neighbors work together along with partners, quail can begin to recover. We need to demonstrate and document success at the focus area scale and encourage more folks to help ‘old Bob.’”


Related stories

Plight of the Bobwhite

What's Up With Quail?

At Issue by Carter Smith: Quail Populations on the Decline


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