Sadly, there has been a generation, maybe two, in Texas that has grown up without experiencing the exhilaration of a wild quail covey rise.
Quail hunting in Texas was once third behind white-tailed deer and dove in the number of hunters, but the 2004-05 season was the last time an estimated 100,000 quail hunters took to the field in a season. That number spiraled down to just 21,000 in 2012-13 and continues to sputter.
The problem is a consistent quail population year after year to get hunters invested in the sport. The birds disappeared years ago in East Texas as small landowners quit farming crops and even more when timber companies abandoned the use of fire to reduce under-storage.
In the rest of the state, the disappearance is a bigger mystery. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s annual bobwhite quail surveys going back to 1978, numbers were strong in traditional areas such as the Cross Timbers, Rolling Plains, South Texas and Gulf Prairies up until about 20 years ago. Then the tumble began and there have been more dismal years than good. After a promising wet start this year, the summer heat resulted in another bust population statewide.
The disappearance of bobwhite quail is not a Texas-specific problem. The numbers are on the decline throughout the south and much of the remainder of the country where bobwhites are found.
TPWD ties the decline in the state to the lack of timely rainfall and warmer summer temperatures, along with the degradation of habitat. Other studies tie it to disease, the most commonly cited being eye worms.
“One of the major drivers of quail populations in Texas is climate,” said Dr. Kelly Reyna, assistant professor and director of Wildlife and Sustainable Agriculture at Texas A&M-Commerce. “In non-drought years with good spring rain, our populations boom. In hot drought years, our populations bust. We know it doesn’t rain quail, so some factor of drought must drive populations.”
Reyna has been studying quail in Texas for 20 years and has recently led research on the impact of heat and quail production, and is beginning a project to see if other native North American species might fare better here.
“My team and I simulated drought and non-drought temperatures in the pre-incubation period — the laying period where the hen is not sitting on eggs and eggs are exposed to environmental temperatures,” Reyna said.
Quail have a first hatch in May in Texas. It is subsequent hatches during summer months that can result in boom or bust years for hunters. Those are the months Reyna is concerned about the impact of heat on eggs.
“This happens in June and July, mainly, when it can get hot,” he explained. “When subjected to these drought temperatures for as little as four days, hatching success was reduced by 50 percent as compared to simulated non-drought conditions. Additionally, the juveniles that were produced have lower mass and altered hatching synchrony, likely contributing to a more rapid demise in the wild.”
Reyna has also begun what some may see as a radical project by bringing 250 wild California or valley quail to study how they respond to conditions in Texas.
Reyna explained the reason to look at valley quail.
“The primary goal of my quail research laboratory is to develop knowledge that leads to sustainable wild quail populations. Bobwhite quail have been declining at a rate of more than 3 percent per year since we have been recording them. They have declined more than 80 percent since the 1960s. Despite the incredible amounts of knowledge generated annually on how to sustain bobwhite populations, they continue to decline.”
He said the importance of getting quail back in the air in Texas is to get hunters back afield generating conservation dollars and thus helping sustain the birds over time.
“The results of the valley quail project could tell us if translocating valley quail to Texas is a viable contingency plan,” Reyna said. “We have to first determine if we can make it work and so far, after year 1, the results are good, but we need more research.”
Although called California quail by some, valley quail are found naturally from Baja California north into Canada.
“Of the seven native quail species, valley quail are the only species with an increasing population,” Reyna said. “All of the others are decreasing or, in the case of the masked bobwhite, endangered. Additionally, valley quail have been successfully introduced to many states, as well as New Zealand, Argentina, and British Columbia.”
The diversity of locations the birds are found in shows they can adapt well to both climate and food sources. As part of the research, the TAMU-Commerce team is also doing similar research on heat stress to valley quail eggs that was done with bobwhite eggs.
“Some significant biological advantages that the California valley quail possess are that they roost in trees rather than on the ground which reduces predation, and their diet consists mainly of seeds and vegetation instead of relying on eating so many insects like our native birds,” Reyna said.
Most important to hunters is that they fly fast and are good for dog work.
Reyna’s research could be ongoing for years because in part it requires wild birds. Research has show pen-reared birds have behavioral differences that make them more susceptible to predation. But it is possible that if quail hunting is to survive in Texas, it may take another implant from California.