One of my greatest childhood memories was visiting my aunt’s dairy in north Texas and listening to the distinctive call of the bobwhite quail. A small creek lined with trees separated two of the fields where she grazed the cattle on a rotating basis. No need for improved grasses here; she “fed’em what God gave’em.” This practice created the ideal mixed-brush habitat where the quail thrived.
Fast forward 30 years . . .
Sitting with my aunt, I said, “I used to enjoy sitting here listening to the quail.” She replied with a sigh, “So did I.” We rarely hear or see quail now.
According to the Texas Quail Council, the number of bobwhite quail has dropped 5.6 percent per year since 1980, which equates to a 75 percent loss in bobwhite population throughout Texas.
What could be causing such a significant loss in such a short period of time? A single factor is rarely the reason for population decline, but the combination of habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and land management techniques is widely believed to be the culprits.
As landowners, what can we do to help turn the tide? First step: Create a suitable, diverse habitat.
It’s all about the habitat.
There are a variety of factors that need to be considered when improving habitat for quail and other wildlife. Every wildlife species requires a specific habitat structure. When managing for quail, think cover. Cover is important for the quail when they are nesting and foraging. To raise chicks, quail need large native bunchgrasses such as switch, gamma and little bluestem. Native tall grasses grow large enough to shade areas underneath creating open space for the chicks to forage while providing overhead coverage to shield them from the sharp eyes of predatory birds. These grasses also provide much-needed nesting material. As with most large plants, tall bunchgrasses must also be kept in balance. Too many bunchgrasses may take up too much useable space whereas too few will not give sufficient overhead coverage.
To visualize this concept, take a softball out to your field and toss it about 100 yards in front of you. Can you see it? Try it at 50 yards, then 20. If you can see the ball, it is likely a predator will see the quail.
Cover is important for many other types of wildlife. Species such as the short-eared owl, meadowlark and Texas horned lizard share the same habitat as bobwhites.
Diversity of plant life is also important. Quail and other wildlife need not only tall grasses but also woody cover. Typically, quail nest along the edges of habitat transition areas. The woody areas also need to be managed for the proper mix of open space and cover. Suitable brush cover should consist of woody species three feet – 10 feet high and occupy at least 100 sq. ft. of area. These loafing areas give the birds an area of protection from predators, provide shelter from inclement weather, and provide a roosting place.
Forbs, or non-grass plant species, are also vital to quail because adults are primarily leaf and seed eaters. Plants such as croton and partridge pea are preferred foods. Even the maligned ragweed is a great food source for wildlife. Forbs are also important to the chicks. Chicks are dependent on the nutrient-rich insects that feed on the broad-leaf plants.
With a proper mix of grasses, forbs, woody species and insects, quail and other wildlife will thrive. A side benefit is that a diverse forb mixture will attract pollinators, including bees, which incidentally have also experienced serious global declines over the past decades.
Unfortunately, creating prime habitat alone may not be enough to bring populations back to where they once were.
If you build it, will they come?
Habitat is important, but the connection between habitats is just as important. Isolated habitats are not conducive to sustaining wildlife populations. This is where wildlife corridors come in handy.
Wildlife corridors provide a highway for wildlife from other locations to repopulate areas that have been abandoned. These corridors can include creeks, rivers or drainages that connect isolated habitats. Cooperation between landowners to create contiguous habitats is key to the survival of this beloved bird and other wildlife. Several wildlife management associations exist in our area to facilitate such cooperation. With proper management of the land and corridors connecting them, fragmented landscapes can function as “wholes” again.
With landowners working together to create habitat and manage habitat, maybe we will hear the bobwhite call again just as they did all those years ago.
Editor’s Note: The Register is proud to offer information from the biologists at Texas Parks & Wildlife Department in both the wildlife and urban wildlife programs. For more information about wildlife programs in the area, call the TPWD District Wildlife Office in La Grange at 979-968-6591, contact the Urban Wildlife Program at 210-688-6447 or find your local biologist at tpwd.state.tx.us. (Click on “Wildlife” and then “Find a Wildlife Biologist.”)
by Kelly D. Norrid
Urban Wildlife Program
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department
Photos courtesy of TPWD