The State Of Our State's Quail

The State Of Our State's Quail

Will Oklahoma quail hunters ever see the glory days again? Here are some answers. (November 2009)

I can see a MasterCard commercial of the very near future:

  • Shotgun: $650
  • Bird Dog and Training: $1,000
  • License Fees, Gas, etc.: $300
  • Actually finding a bobwhite quail: PRICELESS

As a lifelong Oklahoma bird hunter, it pains me to see how quail populations have dwindled in our state in recent years. Virtually all of the quail hunters I know have been singing the blues for the past few seasons, especially in 2007, but the hunting in 2008 wasn't much better.

Eastern Oklahoma bird hunting is almost history, with a few notable exceptions on large private land holdings where birds and habitat are intensively managed.

Western Oklahoma, which for the past decade or so has probably had the best remaining bobwhite hunting in the nation, has had some tough times since the new century began.

Quail and other ground-nesting birds have been plagued by either too much or too little rain during breeding and nesting seasons. Nests either wash away in local floods or are exposed to predation because drought limits vegetative cover. And there isn't a thing the Wildlife Department can do about those conditions.

There are those hunters who advocate shorter seasons, lower bag limits and other changes to limit the harvest. But the department has surveyed hunters in the past and found that, while hunters complain about declining bird numbers, only a minority wants to impose shorter seasons or smaller limits.

So all us bird hunters must play the hand that Mother Nature has dealt us.

John Hendrix, a private-lands wildlife habitat consultant for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Tulsa, says both the erratic rainfall patterns of recent years and the declining amount of native grasses are the two biggest problems with quail recruitment in Oklahoma. Hendrix did the same sort of work for the state Wildlife Department for several years before joining the federal agency. He also is a lifelong outdoorsman and an Osage County native.

Besides the negative impact of rainfall patterns in the past few years, Hendrix said, the conversion of thousands of acres of land to "improved" livestock grazing pastures with Bermuda and fescue grasses, as opposed to native grasses, has taken a heavy toll on quality quail habitat.

"In the eastern half of the state, that's the biggest problem with quail habitat," Hendrix said.

Many landowners express concern over the declining numbers of quail and have good intentions of "taking care of my quail," as they put it. But the economics of ranching outweigh the concern for quail, and merely placing a feeder or two for "the house covey" isn't enough to keep quail populations thriving.

Tulsa bird hunter Mark Randell is one of those guys who hunt two or three days a week throughout quail season. But even though he lives in Tulsa, he travels to Western Oklahoma to do his hunting. In northeastern Oklahoma, he says, "You're just wasting your time."

He's not the only one to feel that way. "Back in the '60s and '70s, there were lots of places in this part of the state that had birds," said Randell, "but they're pretty much gone now. That's why so many guys in this area have just given it up. It's just not worth going out. If you want to have a good day of bird hunting, you need to go out west," said Randell, who is an officer in the Green Country chapter of Quail Forever.

But, he added, "I think we may actually have a good quail season out west this year. Hunting was better last year than the year before."

More moisture, after several years of drought, may help produce more birds for the 2009 season, he said.

Wet, dreary weather during the nesting season isn't good for quail recruitment, says Hendrix. "You can have good habitat, but if the rain comes at the wrong time, your habitat still won't produce birds up to its potential."

Oklahoma quail tend to start nesting in mid-May. In May of this year, in northeastern Oklahoma, there was rain nearly every day for the first half of the month, some of it heavy enough to cause flooding.

There were considerable springtime rains in northwestern Oklahoma also, but they appeared to taper off as prime nesting time neared.

At this writing, it's too early to see the results of the 2009 August and October "roadside quail counts" the Wildlife Department uses to gauge quail population trends. But the 2008 data shows a general downward trend throughout most of the state.

Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation Upland Game Biologist Doug Schoeling said last fall was "the 19th year of roadside surveys and the statewide index decreased 61 percent from the previous 18-year average." Statewide, the 2008 counts decreased 20 percent from the 2007 numbers, which were near record-setting lows.

Schoeling noted that heavier summer rains in 2007 and 2008, after several years of drought, might have reduced the number of quail seen because vegetation was more dense and widespread. And some hunters, like Randell, did find modest improvements in certain areas last fall. But still the population trends are sharply downward.

It isn't a sudden trend. Although there have been ups and downs, quail and quail hunting is declining.

On the Wildlife Department's Web site is another chart that shows quail harvests and the number of hunters participating in quail hunting year by year from 1986 to 2005.

Harvests have declined from nearly 3.5 million birds during the 1993 season to only about a half-million birds in the 2002 season, with little improvement since then.

Perhaps even more telling is the decline in quail hunters, from the late 1980s through recently, the number of quail hunters has dropped from around 120,000 to about 40,000.

As Hendrix pointed out, the loss of native grasses, many of which are "bunch" grasses that provide good nesting cover for quail, is a primary contributor to the dwindling number of quail, especially in eastern counties.

And it is difficult, if not impossible, to improve habitat on small land holdings, Hendrix said. A landowner or leaseholder with 80 or 120 acres can work diligently to nurture his birds, but if surrounding landowners don't do the same, the results are likely to be disappointing.

Such small efforts may slow the decline and protect small numbers of birds, but probably won't result in population increases to levels we had in "the good ol' days," Hendrix said.

And even though the Wildlife Department manages about 1.6 million acres of public hunting land, that's still only a tiny amount of rural land in Oklahoma.

A few years ago, the Wildlife Department launched the Oklahoma Quail Initiative. It is an effort to educate landowners about how to care for quail.

"More than 95 percent of the state's land is privately owned, and those landowners aren't going to spend $100 an acre to convert their CRP, pastures and wheat fields back into native rangeland without some kind of monetary incentive," said Alan Peoples, wildlife chief for the department. "Realistically, you can't hope to address quail habitat without focusing on the private landowner, and that's going to take incentive payments."

Peoples said that a recent study commissioned by the directors of state fish and wildlife agencies in the southeastern U.S. determined that to stabilize quail populations at levels seen in 1980, hundreds of millions of dollars would need to be spent on private lands habitat assistance programs. In Oklahoma, for example, the study suggests that spending $234 million to enhance several million acres of land, much of it CRP, could conceivably result in an estimated 204,000 new coveys.

"We've got about a million acres of CRP, primarily in Western Oklahoma, and much of it is poor quail habitat," Peoples said. "Folks hear 'CRP' and they think, good quail hunting. The problem is that much of Oklahoma's CRP was planted to Old World Bluestem and other non-native grasses."

Now, with all of this dismal information at hand, do you still want to go quail hunting?

Why not?

The Wildlife Department has contended for decades that weather and habitat, not hunting pressure, are the causes of quail declines.

And even if we are harvesting fewer birds these days, a half-million bird harvest is still enough to provide many enjoyable days for hunters.

And, after all, a full game bag isn't the only measure of an enjoyable hunt. I've had some great days following my dog when I only bagged three or four birds, but got some exercise, enjoyed the fresh air and scenery, and came home with a smile on my face.

So dust off the shotgun, turn out the dogs, and give it a try this fall.

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