Bobwhite Quail Management | Where the Rubber Meets the Road
By: Justin Bryan
The world of quail, especially bobwhite quail, is a curious one. Just about the time we think we have them figured out, we learn we still have a few more questions. Therefore, much of the time we are left scratching our heads and continuing to inquire about the “life and times” of this little game bird we suffer with, in a love/hate relationship.
Data from TPWD suggests that from the early 80’s till the late 90’s, bobwhite populations in Texas declined from 20 million to 5 million birds. Further information from the Breeding Bird Survey shows a similar story line where breeding numbers declined at an annual rate of 5.6% from 1980-2002. None of this is/was great information for those of us that love to hear these birds calling from the pasture in the spring and hunt them in the fall.
The drought that began in late 2010 and continued through much of 2013 had most of us in the quail realm fairly worried about the stability of their populations throughout Texas. During this time period, throughout much of the state, they appeared to be almost nonexistent. And without the ability to control the dry, hot La Niña weather conditions that had taken hold there was little we could do for them.
In 2013 the drought conditions began to break in portions of the state as an El Niño pattern, of cooler and wetter than normal springs and summer began to take hold. In 2014, we continued with this pattern and experienced better climatic conditions for quail and some populations began to show signs of life and rebound. Fortunately, the ideal weather conditions of the preceding year persisted through 2015 throughout much of the state and these little buggers once again experienced high nest success rates thus producing a subsequent explosion in total numbers.
As we sit now in 2016, we were once again fortunate to have cool and wet conditions endure through almost mid-June. And as long as you have not been living under a rock in the last few months you have heard quail calling in great numbers throughout the pasture lands across Texas. How great it is to hear.
So this begs the question, “What happened?”. The best climatic conditions for quail to thrive in are those that provide for cool and wet spring and summer months. These circumstances allow for an explosion of important warm-season grasses and forb growth which are vital to producing cover and nesting habitat for quail. When these conditions develop, quail will continue to nest and renest, thus the “boom” in populations. Now I have to say that with a caveat.
The qualifier here is that the rangeland these quail are on have to provide the nesting cover that they require. I don’t know that I have yet to read a research article that stated food or water was ever a limiting factor for quail. I do know, I have read a plethora of articles where lack of proper nesting and loafing cover, more than likely, played a major role in the success or failure of a population.
In other words, if one is a quail enthusiast, the rangeland goal should be to create 100% of the best quail habitat possible:
- 10%-20% brush canopy cover,
- preferably a good mosaic of mix brushed species for loafing cover every 100’ such as lotebush, agarito, wild plum, acacia species, elbow bush, four-wing saltbush, etc.
- an abundance and diversity of tall (>18”) forbs and warm-season grasses such as sunflower, ragweed, Illinois bundleflower, little bluestem, large tobosa, big bluestem, indian grass, robust sideoats grama, etc. and
- at least 250 nesting sites per acre such as prickly pear, yucca, and robust warm-season grasses.
Thus ensuring, they have usable “quail” space throughout the entire property. Most importantly, a land manager has to monitor the range management practices, especially grazing, to ensure those forbs and warm-season grasses exist not only in average to above average rainfall years but most importantly during drought conditions…that is where the rubber meets the road.