AgriLife Extension quail experts anticipate big 2015 season, offer habitat tips
From seemingly teetering on the brink of extinction to roaring back with a vengeance, wild quail seem to have made a miraculous comeback across Texas, said one wildlife expert.
“The 2015-16 quail season is going to be the best we’ve seen since at least 2008 and in some areas even longer than that,” said Dr. Dale Rollins, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service coordinator for the statewide Reversing the Quail Decline Initiative. “It’s shaping up to be a good to great year depending on where you are.”
Rollins said the populations of both bobwhite and scaled or “blue” quail have benefited in most cases from the widespread and timely rains last fall that returned and continued through early summer. The relatively mild, wet winter also contributed to the quail boom, he said.
The rains helped quail on several fronts, Rollins said, including better nesting habitat and cover from predators. May and June provided perfect hatching conditions and set the stage.
“We’re seeing strong numbers in a lot of areas. Some of the best areas are parts of South Texas and from just northeast of San Angelo on up into the lower part of the Rolling Plains, roughly anywhere west of U.S. Highway 83.”
Rollins said blue quail, like bobwhites, have “come back with a vengeance,” with reports from the Permian Basin and Trans-Pecos region touting good quail numbers.
“So if the wheels don’t fall off — and anybody you’ll talk to adds that caveat — this should be a banner year,” he said.
Maintaining a healthy wild quail population hinges on the success of their annual production, because they are short-lived and have a high mortality rate, said Becky Ruzicka, AgriLife Extension wildlife associate.
“Without large numbers of new birds being added to the population each year it can quickly disappear,” she said. “The importance of prime nesting sites cannot be overstated as quality nesting cover is essential for quail to successfully hatch chicks, because it provides protection from predators and the elements.”
Ruzicka said in Texas, nesting cover is quite often the weakest habitat-related link on most properties.
“We discovered just how limiting proper nesting sites can be through data collected by cooperators in the 2014 Texas Quail Index,” she said. “The Texas Quail Index is a statewide AgriLife Extension program using private land managers, volunteers, AgriLife Extension agents and other agency personnel to collect data on both quail populations and current habitat conditions.”
She said the Texas Quail Index teams used formal habitat evaluations to assess quail habitat statewide and found the most commonly identified deficiency in quail habitat was nesting cover.
“Quality nesting habitat for quail are commonly bunchgrasses, such as little bluestem, that’s at least basketball-sized in diameter and three feet tall,” she said. “However, quail may use other nesting cover types such as prickly pear and yucca if they are available. Even in the presence of excellent bunchgrass nesting cover, quail may select prickly pear nesting locations. Nesting in prickly pear obviously offers more mechanical protection in the form of cactus spines, and thus may give the birds a slightly higher nest success rate compared to bunchgrass nests at the same locations.”
She said quality prickly pear nesting cover is a mature, dense patch typically the diameter of a hula hoop and at least three pads tall or about 18 inches high. When assessing yucca for nesting suitability, she advised looking for large clumps with dead growth at the base that’s big enough to conceal a nesting hen.
“To visualize what it takes to hide a nesting hen, use the toe of your boot,” Ruzicka said. “If you can hide the toe of your boot within the nesting cover in question, whether it is bunchgrass, prickly pear, or yucca, then most likely it will be suitable to conceal a quail’s nest.”
Ruzicka said managers should strive toward having at least 250 to 300 suitable nesting sites per acre to provide adequate nesting cover on their property.
To catch up on the latest in quail management, register for the Statewide Quail Symposium Sept. 16-18 in Abilene.