Blog Post: Managing Bobwhite Quail on a Smaller Tract in South Texas

   Quail are in trouble in South-Central Texas and it can be frustrating to be a quail hunter in a poor year.  Perhaps the biggest reason for the decline in quail numbers is the fragmentation of the habitat across the state combined   Sorry, but not everyone can be an heir to a big ranch and, if you’re like me, and pretty much the rest of the world, you cannot afford 10,000 acres in Brooks County.  At best, you scrimp and save to buy 200 acres, maybe 400 and want to maximize the wildlife on that tract.  Deer hunters on a smaller ranch can always high fence what they have and eventually name all the deer.  Quail hunters, on the other hand, need free flow across their boundaries if they want to hunt native, wild quail more than once or twice a season.

   The second most popular species that buyers cite as their reason for buying a ranch for wildlife management is Bobwhite quail.  Other quail species are just as tasty, just as sporting, but do not respond as well to management and certainly do not lend themselves to classic dog hunting as does the Bobwhite.

   As a landowner/manager, you should already be aware that there is a crisis affecting Bobwhite quail.  Bobwhite quail numbers are down, way down, across most of the bird’s native range.  Fortunately for us, Texas and Oklahoma are two strongholds for wild Bobwhite quail, although numbers in these two states are down as well.  With Whitetail deer in everybody’s backyard, coyotes attacking poodles on the back porch, and Canadian geese taking over golf courses, why the decline in quail?  Well, since there is in place a task force of real quail experts hard at work on the problem, I won’t pretend I have the answer.  I can say, having listened to some of the taskforce members and read some of their findings, it appears that changes in land use is a primary cause for the decline.  Quail simply cannot adapt as well as other species have.

   What are these changes in land use and how does it apply to you?  Perhaps it would be best to look back when Bobwhite quail were in their heyday and compare conditions then to now.  Bobwhite quail were not plentiful in South Texas a hundred and fifty years ago, nor were they all that numerous in Central or East Texas, either.  Their numbers rose with the fragmentation of vast expanses of forest or prairie into small family farms.  Farming then was not nearly as efficient as it is today, with small fields, brushy fence lines, poor harvest techniques, and weeds mixed in with the crops.  This patchwork landscape produced a variety of foods within easy flight distances to good cover and quail filled the niche.  Bobwhite numbers exploded, and quail expanded their range from the Deep South into the new settlements of East Texas, then Central Texas, and finally, with the encroachment of brush, into South Texas.  South Texas did not have quail until it lost its grass simply because grassland prairie does not provide enough food or cover for quail. 

   Over time, improvements in farming, ranching, and forestry, with newer, bigger machinery, made small patchwork farming obsolete.  Fields were combined to make them more economical to plow by removing the old fencerows, and mixed forests became pine plantations, monocultures of same age pine trees, ideal for the lumber industry.  Hay meadows changed from 3 acres to 300 acres, and pastures were cleared and planted in improved grasses with brush chained, plowed, sprayed, and burned out of existence.  For a small bird that depends on a mosaic of plant life; weeds, grasses, brush, and trees, the new agricultural was sterile and deadly.  Add to this the explosion of suburban development, and it’s no wonder Bobwhite quail are not doing well.

   If you bought your ranch primarily for quail, your ranch should be in an area of good native habitat.  Modern farming practices do not encourage quail, although they can do well along margins of fields if there is enough cover left and a source of food.  In native rangeland, quail can find woody cover from predation, can usually find enough food, and nest in tall bunch grasses or cactus when grass is scarce.  Put simply, if quail are present when you buy your ranch, their basic requirements are being met.  Once you close, there are several things you can do to improve conditions for quail, hopefully resulting in increased numbers.  However, if there are no Bobwhite quail on your ranch, and no history of quail in the area, chances are poor that you can ever have a huntable population of native birds.

   I recently visited with a landowner who had a ranch out near Junction.  He had bought 1,000 Bobwhite chicks.  They were delivered in brooder houses that provided food, water, and protected the chicks from the elements.  Following directions to the letter, he eventually released the chicks into the wild and they all died.  He did it again, 1,000 chicks, brooder houses, release, all died.  He called me to tell him what he was doing wrong and I had to tell him he did not do anything wrong, he was simply in the wrong place.  Sure, there used to be quail on that ranch, used to be quail throughout that area, but years of sheep, goats, and cattle had reduced the ranch to rocks and cedar.  Additionally, his ranch was high fenced, and he had stocked it with exotics.  His combination of livestock, exotics, and general overgrazing had eliminated forbs (weeds) from the ranch, eliminating most food sources for Bobwhites and of course there was no nesting cover had they lived that long.  Even if those poor chicks could have found cover, and adapted to living in the wild, there was no food.  Easy fix you say, put out feeders!  Well, I can tell you I’ve been there and tried that.  On a ranch near Bandera, I had an unlimited budget to produce huntable native quail populations.  The ranch was high fenced and cleared of cedar, leaving a pretty park-like appearance of live oaks and short grass.  The ranch produced exotics commercially for meat and the exotics had eaten every weed and fought over any new weeds that sprouted.  I tried to increase quail numbers through feeders and by feeding the roads, but I never overcame the lack of native foods, nor the lack of nesting cover.

   On my family place near Hondo, we used to have a lot of Bobwhite quail when I was young, but not anymore.  What happened?  Primarily, it was not a change on our place, but on the neighboring places.  Adjoining ranches had changed hands and been fragmented.  The new owners wanted to run hobby herds of cows and either cleared brush for improved grasses or overgrazed their places, so our ranch was surrounded by what to a Bobwhite quail was a parking lot, devoid of food or cover.  As our place was only 300 acres, there was just not enough suitable habitat for our quail to recover when natural events decimated the population.  We had become an island surrounded by dead zones for quail.  This is important to remember.  There is a minimum acreage that will support sustainable Bobwhite quail populations.  The exact minimum acreage varies with the quality of the habitat and the occurrence of natural quail “disasters” but may be as large as 3,000 acres. 

   O.K., horror stories over, what can you do to improve quail numbers on your ranch?  First, remember that a Bobwhite quail is only about the size of a beer can.  The entire existence of the bird is spent on the ground with brief forays into the wild blue yonder, usually in response to the threat of death.  To do well, a Bobwhite must have food throughout the year, several types of cover, and enough numbers to survive naturally-occurring die-offs. 

   As Bobwhite quail do not “overgraze” their habitat like deer or cows tend to do, monitoring quail numbers is not as important.  To track relative abundance year to year, you can record call counts or covey rises during your travels over the ranch.  With quail, however, the real inventory comes with the harvest as management cannot be judged effective unless it produces huntable birds during the season.

   Management techniques for Bobwhite quail include regular disking to promote weeds, controlled grazing, burning, feeders and small food plots, and predator control.  These actions are most effective when applied in a framework of suitable woody cover.  Certainly, you do not have to manage your whole ranch for maximum utilization by quail.  Some landowners manage the better soils, i.e. sandier soils, for quail by stripping the brush, and leave the brush on the heavier soils.  In truth, most of the brush work we do for “quail management” is really to improve hunter access and success.  Quail do well in guajillo or shrub oak thickets; opening them up simply allows us to hunt them more easily.  Of course, when we do open up thickets, it does increase the forb or weed segment of their diet, which is very important. 

   If quail hunting is a major concern, initial considerations when you take possession of your ranch should include a critical assessment of the relative percentage of woody cover to open areas.  A long-held rule was 20% woody cover to 80% open.  This is not a hard and fast ratio but can be adjusted based on the density of the brush.  I have learned thick brush growing close to the ground, like hogplum provides adequate cover for quail in strips as narrow as 5 feet.  Conversely, regrowth mesquite, with little foliage near the ground, will not provide attractive cover for quail in strips 50 yards wide.  And the 80% open country cannot be a monoculture of Bermuda or Bufflegrass.  It can be grass, preferably a bunchgrass, and ideally should have strips or clumps of forbs across and thru it.

   The best quail hunting I ever experienced was along old fencerows in the Valley on an abandoned fern farm.  The fields were small, perhaps 300 feet across and full of good food plants for quail.  The fencerows were very dense, but only 15 feet wide at their widest.  This would equate to about 10% woody cover (150 feet of open/15 feet of brush).  However, because the brush all along the fences provided good cover close to the ground, quail were able to escape to good cover easily and the weedy fields provided abundant food close to this cover.  In one stretch we walked, representing perhaps 50 acres of total habitat, we busted 8 coveys of 15 birds or more, just walking the fences.  So, you can see it all depends what cover is available close to the ground and how dense the overhead cover is.  While some taller woody plants are a requirement for quail to feel secure and to reduce ground temperatures, cover close to the ground is most important.

   I have referred to clearing brush as “stripping”, but you need not limit yourself to boring straight lines of brush.  What we are going for here is edge and quail don’t care if the edge is along a 500-foot strip, straight as an arrow, or along the margins of a brushy island or mott.  With the advances in GPS technology, land contractors can set out a pattern of islands which provide the correct ratio of open to brushy while perhaps preserving good deer brush or avoiding poorer soils.  Take some time to work out any brush program on the maps (soils, aerial, and topographic) and you’ll have better results.

   On occasion, I consult on places that are old farms or ranches with a good bit of open country.  To improve quail utilization of open areas, you need to increase woody cover or at least give the impression of increased woody cover.  Brush piles or “teepees” made of old fence posts, if set out in groups of no less than three and no more than 75 yards apart, work pretty well, if the surrounding ground cover is predominantly those “high weeds” I mentioned; weed plants that offer good overhead cover and bare ground underneath, such as broomweed, doveweed (croton), sunflower, or sesame.  New varieties of bundleflower and partridge pea are now on the market that do well in Texas and can be planted in rows, imitating a fencerow; providing good cover as well as excellent food.  I also used plain sorghum almum planted in rows the do the same thing.  Problem with sorghum almum is it is fairly open at ground level and may be dangerous to livestock should conditions turn dry.  A technique developed on the King Ranch involves planting pear cactus in hedgerows and works in very sandy soil.  Not to beat a dead horse, but perhaps the best way to increase utilization of old fields remains simple disking in early winter, attempting to bring on the native sunflower.  If the project involves an old field, farmed in annual crops in the past, native sunflower is probably in the soil waiting for the stimulus of the disk.

   Experience has taught me humility and the need to experiment when making drastic changes in nature.  I once designed a reforestation project which involved planting native brush species in a 100-acre field of deep sand.  We bought 1,000 brush seedlings from a nursery in the Valley and hired high school students to plant them.  We even went so far as to run waterlines to the new “mottes”, so the seedlings would get a good start.  Of 1,000 seedlings, NONE survived the first year.  It turns out that the field was full of rats, living in the grass and cactus, and the rats loved the new seedlings.  Point is, if you have plans for a major renovation of anything in Nature, ask around for advice and start on a small scale to see if it really will succeed.  The Agricultural Extension Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. are great sources for free advice; use them.

   Now that you have opened up the brush, leaving at least 20% with woody cover no more than 50 yards in any direction, you have the frame for your quail house.  The walls of the house are those herbaceous plants that provide close cover and food for the birds.  Good examples are broomweed and croton.  Both are dense above, so much so that little grows underneath these plants.  Quail feel secure underneath the canopy and can easily find seeds on the bare ground.  Native sunflower is another favorite of mine in that it produces a large, oily seed and prohibits growth of other plants beneath it.   

   Herbaceous cover is nothing more than grass and weeds.  As discussed, weeds are the primary food source for quail and are the plants you will see after any soil disturbance.  They are the first echelon of succession followed by grasses which are followed by woody plants.  We need some grass for nesting cover, but should work to reduce grass cover annually, thereby promoting weeds and further restricting the regrowth of brush.  It is a fact of life that neglecting regrowth brush will result in a loss of open country in a very short period.

   The best way to reduce grass and woody regrowth is by disking.  If the area is one of light brush, you can effectively clear it and promote weeds using a rome plow as mentioned in Chapter 2-3.  If it is already cleared of woody plants, you can use a farm disk.  I like to rotate disked areas, disking annually perhaps 10% of open areas.  This can add up over a large ranch but need not break the budget.  For example, on 1,000 acres to be managed for quail, you should have at least 200 acres of brush, leaving 800 acres open.  Of the 800 acres, perhaps a fourth is in field or food plots, leaving 600 acres.  10% of that is only 60 acres and you can disk that much in 12 hours with a 12-foot disk.  You should try to disk ground that has not been disked in the last three years.  This will give you areas of one-year-old disk strips, two-year-old disk strips and the new disked strips.  Do your disking in October to March and learn what weeds come up following the disking.  In sandy soils in South Texas, native sunflower comes up in fields disked in October-January, while jumbo or three-seeded croton comes up in areas disked after March 15.  Adjust these times for climate as I’m sure disking in the Panhandle for weeds would be different than in the Coastal Bend.  The point is, you should plan on disking some portion of your cleared areas every year to inhibit grass and woody regrowth and to promote weeds.  Do NOT disk the same ground more than once every three years, as that tends to wear the soil out by depleting the nutrients and the seedbank.

   Other techniques for managing vegetation for quail include burning and grazing.  Burning turns back the successional clock by reducing woody cover, removing dead plants, and returning nutrients to the soil much quicker than normal decay.  It can speed up sprouting of weeds by reducing competition with grasses and by warming the soil with solar heat absorbed by the black ash.  Burning is a wonderful tool, but only marginally predictable and quite dangerous.  I do not recommend burning to the novice landowner and strongly advise anyone not experienced in burning to seek professional guidance.  The Natural Resource Conservation Service is an excellent source for assistance and will design and conduct burns on your land for free.  Texas Parks and Wildlife is gearing up to do the same and should be able to provide qualified burn masters in the near future.

   Grazing, on the other hand, is simple and safe.  Problem is, few people understand grazing pressure and plant recovery, so most ranches are grazed too close for quail.  Removal of all the grass by September means there will not be enough nesting cover in the spring.  By the time grasses have recovered enough in the spring to provide suitable nesting cover; it is too late in the season for quail chicks to survive the summer heat.  You must leave adequate nesting cover in the fall if you want good quail reproduction in the spring.  More on grazing in a later chapter, but suffice to say, I do not believe cows and quail can be maximized on the same ground.

   It is human nature to want to put out food for wildlife, and most management plans include feeders.  Supplementing the food supply with feeders is quick, easy, and gives us a feeling that we are overcoming shortfalls in Nature by sheer force of will.  In truth, I do not have much faith in feeders for Bobwhite quail.  I’ve built a good many feeders, put out perhaps hundreds in my life, and certainly filled thousands, but I just don’t think they do as much as we think to promote quail survival or reproduction.

   The major drawback to feeders for quail as for deer, is that they disrupt normal distribution of the individuals.  Because food is readily available and easily consumed, feeders tend to concentrate populations.  In the case of deer, this leads to over-browsing in the area of the feeders.  In the case of quail, it results in a buffet for predators and a central pick up point for disease.  I guess if a feeder was provided for each covey, in good cover, it would be acceptable, but even with that you risk disease from the feed and added predation simply because the predators know when the birds will come to feed.  I firmly believe it is far better to work the soil and encourage native food production than to put out feed from a bag.  At a minimum, I would limit supplemental feed for quail to broadcasting feed along a road over a large area.  I suggest broadcasting the feed to the side, so most of it lands in the brush at a rate of 50 pounds per mile of road, with no more than ¼ pound per acre applied once a week during the winter months.

   Food plots are another quick fix in the minds of many landowners.  For quail, this, too, has some drawbacks.  First, a food plot of sunflower, sorghum or millet only produces food for a short period in the fall.  The rest of the time it is either bare ground or growing plants, assuming you receive enough rainfall for a crop at all.  Secondly, food plots are limited in the number of coveys they can attract and supplement, simply due to natural dispersion of the coveys.  Conversely, disking over the whole management area promotes native plants which are hardier than commercial plants and produce seeds which for the most part are better accepted by the birds and better for them.  An acceptable variation is food plots that follow roadways.  Planting the margins of roadways provides what food is produced in a more accessible manner and does not disrupt normal foraging routes as much as a plot. 

   Where existing fields lend themselves to food plots, rather than letting them go back to native vegetation, I prefer to manage them as a rotating food plot.  I plant or disk one-third every year, leaving the other two-thirds fallow.  I also often combine the seeds for cool season deer plots such as oats with native sunflower or croton, to get two crops out of one planting.  The oats come up in September-October and die off just as the sunflower comes on in March.  This can be done in the one-third/two-thirds system mentioned above with good results for deer, quail, and dove.  There are other commercially available mixes that try to do the same.  Be careful with these mixes as they might not be suitable to your soils or climate.  Also, some commercial seeds require real farming techniques and can be an expensive mistake if not planted properly.  

   All the research literature on Bobwhite quail and water seems to indicate that quail do not need drinking water at any time in their lives if adequate plant moisture is available.  Ignoring that, we went through a period in South Texas where quail waterers were the craze and to this day, you can find small concrete basins on ranches throughout the Rio Grande Plain.  I was as guilty as anyone and was instrumental in getting many of those expensive watering basins put in.  I believe now that they do not improve quail reproduction or survival and you can benefit from my mistake.  However, I do believe there is a place for supplemental water in quail management in a very narrow application.  This is just as expensive as watering basins, maybe more so, but thus far seems to be worth it to those who must do all they can to have huntable native birds every year, regardless of the weather.

   We have long associated good quail years with good rainfall.  The thought was, when it rains, there is abundant food produced, good cover for nesting/brooding, and chick survival is good.  That is all true, but one factor that was overlooked was ground temperature.  Bobwhite quail chicks are very sensitive to temperature and will perish if they cannot escape the heat.  Ground temperature is significantly higher than where our heads are, so a hot day to us is death on the ground for a 2-inch tall quail chick.

   Vegetation reduces ground temperature, both by shading the ground and through evaporation of moisture the plant draws from its roots.  Leaving adequate ground cover is always a good idea but may fall short in periods of hot dry weather.  I toyed with the idea of supplementing the normal rainfall, using lawn sprinklers set out in the pasture.  I put out thermometers, both inside the watered circles and outside, with a thermometer at ground level and at head height.  Both thermometers at head height stayed pretty much alike, regardless of the use of the sprinkler, but the two at ground level differed greatly.  Inside the watered circle, at ground level, it was consistently 15-18 degrees cooler than outside the watered circle during daylight hours.  How would this effect chick survival?  Well, say it has been a dry spring and it turns hot early.  I believe the hens will continue to hatch chicks, but the lack of insects, critical diet for chicks in the first two weeks, combined with the heat, quickly kills off her brood.  If she has a green circle nearby, the chicks can escape the heat and feed on the abundance of insects drawn by the lush, green vegetation.

   Problems with this technique include cost of setting out enough sprinklers with sufficient water pressures to make adequate circles, predation on the chicks at a vulnerable time in their life, and manpower to run the system(s).  Naturally, if all else is brown, you cannot have cattle around either, and this is sometimes a problem.

   As mentioned, this is not for the casual quail manager, and may not improve quail numbers on most ranches.  As with buying “improved” genetics for deer management, setting out sprinklers will not correct an overall poor management plan.  It does seem to provide some insurance against the weather in some years and is an example of “tweaking” Mother Nature.  In other words, trying to money-whip a problem that may be too big for anyone’s budget.

   Harvesting quail is somewhat self-limiting; if numbers in the bag go down, so does interest.  However, I caution you to guard against over-harvesting your birds if you use feed to draw them to the road.  Quail seek to maintain coveys of 12-14 birds and will reorganize as their numbers drop due to natural causes and hunting.  What appears to be a “fresh” covey in late January, may in fact be three partials combined to form one covey.  Learn to age quail and use this to determine what your reproductive success was the previous spring.  If the percentage of young birds in the bag is high, you can safely harvest more birds.  If the ratio of young of the year to mature birds is less than 3 to 1, be careful.  As always, try to kill what you shoot at.  Providing your guests with the opportunity to shoot some warm up skeet, even if hand-thrown, will help reduce loss to cripples.  And use dogs; even a lousy dog is better than you are at finding a cripple and makes the hunt more fun.   

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