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Are We Seeing the Return of the Bobwhite?

Posted Jan. 1, 2003

It seems as of late, sportsmen have had something to talk about other than the weather or big deer. For the past few months, chatter at local sporting goods stores, coffee shops and other places where outdoor enthusiasts gather quickly turns to quail bobwhite quail. In fact, conversations have been positive and include statements like "been seeing MORE quail this year." What a difference from the last few years!

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's (ODWC) annual roadside survey routes (Table 1) indicate an increase in late summer and early fall quail numbers. The surveys are conducted in August and October of each year. Each route is 20 miles long and there are 83 across the state, at least one in every county except Tulsa and Oklahoma. More information about ODWC roadside survey routes can be found on the Web at www.wildlifedepartment.com.

Grandpa always said not to count chickens before they hatch, but to a quail enthusiast, these numbers are encouraging. All areas of the state are up from last year and half are up from the 12-year average. However, this is the big question: "Is this the beginning of the return to the glory days, or is this just a momentary blip in the long downhill decline of bobwhite numbers?" If, in fact, bobwhite numbers have increased, what is the cause? Can this increase be sustained? Can it be multiplied?

When considering the questions above, let's examine some variables that might affect quail numbers predators, habitat fragmentation and weather. More specifically, have any of these variables changed over the last year or so?

Consider the continuing debate about predators. Over the past year, has anything happened on a large scale to alter predator numbers in Oklahoma? Has there been a large-scale reduction in raccoon, bobcat, opossum, skunk, hawk, coyote, or snake numbers? The point is, while all of these critters seem to be as abundant as they ever were and, considering their known or reputed ability to eat quail or quail eggs, quail numbers increased, despite them.

Mark Moseley with the Natural Resources Conservation Service says Oklahoma is losing 782 acres per day to Eastern red cedar. That's over one square mile per day and does not include man-induced losses such as urban development, sub-urban ranchettes and introduced pasture establishment. The Natural Resource Inventory estimates that Oklahoma is losing 22,133 acres per year to urban expansion and 311,111 acres per year to Eastern red cedar. (See article: Eastern Red Cedar is Public Enemy Number One) There is no doubt that in time, quail will not be able to survive habitat destruction of this magnitude. Yet, proportional to current available habitat, quail numbers increased during the past year.

Again, is this just a temporary increase (nature's way of playing a cruel game of quail-in-the-box with us) resulting in population numbers that are "limited out" proportional to current available habitat? Were quail numbers so low that they are now beginning to fill in "empty" available habitat? Or, did something happen to alter habitat?

Arguably, weather during the past year has been the biggest change impacting quail in much of Oklahoma. Most areas of the state received above average rainfall during the past summer. Also, daily high temperatures were lower across Oklahoma. Lower daily temperatures may have contributed to improved conditions for nesting success and chick survival. In many areas, more rain and cooler temperatures resulted in more herbaceous (grass and forbs) ground cover, especially areas with proper cattle stocking rates. This cover is very important to quail. More bunch grasses mean more nesting sites for quail, reduced efficiency of nest predators and cooler ground surface temperatures that may facilitate nesting success. More forbs mean better brooding areas for quail chicks. Because of the drought over much of the state during the past few years, there was probably more bare ground under plants, which facilitated travel through areas of increased herbaceous vegetation. All of these weather-induced factors probably were the biggest influences on the reproductive success of quail this year.

So, in a nutshell, what does all of this mean? Basically, if habitat is of good quality and available, the weather cooperates and predation is natural, quail can successfully reproduce. Weather is the trump card and is the only factor that we know has changed significantly during the past year. Weather directly and indirectly influences a quail's ability to survive. Direct effects include stress from heat, cold and rain. Indirect effects include weather patterns that influence habitat such as drought or flood. For instance, above-average rain and cooler temperatures this year following the previous years' drought and hot temperatures resulted in a lot of grass and forbs and good nesting and brooding conditions.

For a good reference on what bobwhite quail habitat should be, ask your local Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service office for a copy of "Bobwhites on Oklahoma Farms and Ranches: Management Options for Landowners." Wildlife specialists here at the Noble Research Institute will be able to assist you with habitat management for quail as well.

Keep in mind that weather and predation can change yearly, but the one constant is a quail's daily need for habitat quality and availability, which year-in and year-out is the best insulator against factors affecting their population.

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