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Sep 2011 cover image hunting

Plight of the Bobwhite

Organizations work to restore quail habitat through boom and bust.

By Robert Perez and Steve Lightfoot

One of the most unmistakable heralds of spring is the male bobwhite quail. Its namesake mating call “bob, bob, bob-white” holds fond yet fading memories for many of us. Unfortunately, it’s a sound that has become increasingly rare across much of Texas as bobwhites have dramatically declined throughout their range. Bobwhites were once abundant across 35 states but remain in healthy numbers only in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

There’s no shortage of theories about the demise of bobwhites. Coffee shop conjecture includes a long list of natural predators and some not-so-natural culprits like wild turkey and roadrunners. Fire ants, feral hogs and hunters are also blamed, but the fundamental reason for declining bobwhite populations is loss of habitat. In fact, entire regions have been drastically altered by fire suppression, changes in agricultural practices, invasive plants and human population growth. These changes occurred slowly over the past century, resulting in a loss of the native prairies and savannas that quail and other grassland species depend on.

Fortunately, Texas is home to many conservation-minded organizations with programs targeting the restoration and conservation of quail. National recovery efforts are spearheaded by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, headquartered at the University of Tennessee. The initiative, which sets habitat and population goals for bobwhite, was created in 2002 and has recently been completely revised from a paper plan to a Web-based interactive tool designed to aid conservation planning and implementation all the way down to the local level.

Statewide and regional efforts include initiatives and programs through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, Texas AgriLife, Audubon Texas, the Nature Conservancy and sportsmen’s organizations like Quail Coalition, Quail Forever and the National Wild Turkey Federation.

With so many concerned groups, why haven’t bobwhites recovered? Just as habitats were not lost overnight, they can’t be restored overnight. In the eastern third or so of Texas, native habitats are often highly fragmented into parcels too small or too far removed from one another to support viable populations. But when neighbors work collectively through wildlife management associations, prairies and savannas can be restored to a level that can sustain bobwhites.

Success stories include the Wildlife Habitat Federation (http://whf-texas.org) and the Western Navarro Bobwhite Restoration Initiative (http://navarroquail.org). Models like these could be reproduced in other areas of the state if folks take the initiative and are willing to work together.

The Panhandle and South Texas regions hold the greatest densities of quail, but frequent drought limits reproductive success. There is a boom-or-bust nature to bobwhite populations that allows them to quickly take advantage of favorable environmental conditions. In these vast rangelands, quail conservation depends on proactive habitat management that plans for and mitigates the effects of drought by leaving enough residual ground cover. This approach lessens the “bust” and sets the stage for quicker recovery.

No matter which region of the state, the future of bobwhites relies on actions taken today by Texas land stewards. Many landowners may be willing to help old “bob” but are unsure how to proceed.

Thankfully, there is a wealth of information available on the habitat requirements and management of bobwhites and a long list of resource agencies and organizations that offer technical and financial assistance. A good starting point is the TPWD quail Web page listed below along with other helpful links.

Bobwhites are considered an “indicator species” whose decline is linked to the disappearance of prairie and savanna ecosystems and the species they support. As these systems are restored, we all reap the benefits of cleaner air and water and, of course, hearing that familiar springtime call.

Helpful Links:

• TPWD Quail Resource Page: www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/ wild/game_management/quail

• National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative: www.bringbackbobwhites.org

• Habitat Management Resources: www.hmrtexas.org

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