Go West for Quail

Go West for Quail

West of the D/FW Metroplex, that is. You won't be disappointed when you hunt that area this year, because the season is shaping up great!

By John Thompson

Stockbrokers would have called it a protracted bear market (not unlike the one we have been through). Texas quail hunters called it a lot of things, - none of them positive. Decades of poor quail production had left the hunters disgusted to the point of putting dogs, trailers and even shotguns up for sale.

There just didn't seem to be an end to the downward spiral of our quail populations. Now and again there were enough bright spots to keep the hunters feeding their dogs and cleaning out their runs, but the joy was fading fast.

Reasons for the decline were flying like blood at a Mike Tyson boxing match. Many pointed to the fire ant as the culprit. The ants were an easy target to hate, as were predators such as raccoons, skunks and hawks. Everyone was pretty disgusted with the whole mess. And then something happened early last summer.

It rained.

It not only rained, but it also rained at the right time in about the right amount. Some insects began to hatch out in the pastures just as some little cotton-ball quail were coming off the nest. Nature began that wonderful symphony of timing when things finally began to come together. And though it wasn't expected early in the year because of dry weather, 2002 became a pretty decent hunting year for quail in the rolling prairie counties of northwest Texas.

And the hunters rejoiced. The corners of their mouths turned up for the first time in a long time, and even those crazy bird dogs couldn't spoil their enthusiasm.

Photo by Michael Skinner

According to Robert Perez, quail project leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, it just took three factors to begin that change: cover, a breeding population of quail, and rain. Since the first two of those have been in place in most years, the main new factor was rain at the right time.

Throughout the Rolling Plains region that lies west and north of the Dallas/Fort Worth area, there have been boom-and-bust cycles forever. What grated on the nerves of quail hunters, however, was the lengthy downward trend they'd been seeing with Mr. Bob. In 2000, the populations began to spike upward because of timely rains. That made hunters wonder if the birds would continue to rebound, or if that was just another short flush of growth. The climb in numbers was steady through 2001, however, and more growth finally made an impact on the hunting success in 2002.

Perez says the big factor with quail being able to restock an area quickly is their ability to nest almost anytime during the spring and summer when the conditions are right. Prior to the late rains last year, and this year, conditions didn't look that bright. "Unlike other ground-nesting birds - such as turkeys, which have a small window of nesting opportunity - quail have the ability to start nesting whenever the conditions are good," he said.

Last year and this year, early nesting was not productive, but late rains brought on some excellent renesting chances, and the quail took full advantage of the opportunity.

In addition to supplying moisture and humidity the eggs need to hatch, rains also must be there for another reason. When those little cotton-ball hatchlings hit the ground, they need bugs. The biologist says the moisture also kicks off another hatch, and this one is the essential insect hatch that is critical to the survival of those young chicks.

The blue plate special for those new chicks serves up the various sizes of grasshoppers, and this year's late rains produced a bumper crop. Though not everyone is thrilled with having lots of grasshoppers eating everything in sight, the young quail just love to stop off at McHopper's for a meal.

Our quail program leader also mentioned another important aspect of quail success, and that is the proper cover. Years of drought and overgrazing have greatly depleted the good bunch grasses that are key to quail survival. Perez agrees with others who have likened coastal fields to a biological desert. "They aren't good for anything except cows and horses," he said. "What the quail need are the native bunch grasses and lots of weeds."

And, of course, the weeds and grasses aren't going to be that strong without some timely rains.

While talking with Perez, I couldn't help bringing up the predator question. Many hunters and landowners put a lot of blame for our decreased quail numbers on predators such as skunks, raccoons, hawks and foxes. Lots of animals like to munch on the tasty birds and their eggs, so it is natural to blame the animals that spend a lot more time hunting them than we get to.

"What most people don't realize," he said, "is that the prey control the numbers of predators, not the other way around. If there aren't sufficient numbers of quail around, the predators will turn to something else like mice or rabbits, which are more plentiful."

He feels predators are not an issue with the numbers of birds in large open areas. On the other hand, when the birds are forced into more confined spaces because of habitat restrictions, predators can hurt them, because the birds don't have much choice in places to live. If the only cover they have is along a fencerow, they are more at risk than if they are free to live in the 200-acre pasture beyond the fencerow.

Think about the times you've hunted in such a situation where the birds would flush from a fenceline, sail 100 yards and pitch right back to the fence. That makes it a lot easier for you, the hunter, than it does when they sail out across a big field and spread out. The same thing works for the predators, and they know how to take advantage of the situation.

Perez and his staff are going to be working in conjunction with other quail interest organizations such as Quail Unlimited to form a Joint Venture. They want to see if they can do for quail what other groups like Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation have done for their respective interests. Quail Unlimited is also the lead agency of the newly formed Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative.

There seems little doubt there is a large need among landowners, hunting outfitters, state agencies and the hunters to work together to bring about all the change possible. Interested parties can contact Quail Unlimited for more information. (They are easy to reach via e-mail at www.qu.org.) This group alone spent almost $2 million last year on quail projects such as habitat improvement and planting more th

an 2 million pounds of seed.

Other QU projects included prescribed burns and they sponsored 46 landowner/farmer events attended by 3,100 people. They are on the move and need the support of anyone interested in quail.

Let's say you have now renewed your interest in quail hunting. The weather has cooled off nicely, and you own or have access to a dog you strongly suspect will know the difference between a bobwhite and a cottontail.

At this stage you're going to need a place to hunt. Because Streaker, your highly trained pointer, edged you out of your only family ties with hunting land when he killed Aunt Ellie's pet cat, you are looking at leasing some property. Or at taking advantage of some of the thousands of acres of public land available through such opportunities as the $40 Annual Public Hunting Permit available from the TPWD. Early indications showed the Matador Wildlife Management Area was slated for a fine season this year. Another good bet is the LBJ National Grasslands located outside Decatur. This federal area is open to the public, and hunters who take the time to learn the area find the hunting can be exceptional.

This is not the time to be selling your dog trailer, or even old Streaker (unless you can get $20 cash for him); this is the time to be hitting the roads after Mr. Bob. All indications are pointing to a big upswing in quail stocks. Mr. Bob is making a comeback.



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