Good weather combined with habitat and conservation efforts are fueling a full-fledged rally for this struggling North American gamebird.
Northern bobwhites and other quail once flourished across much of the North American landscape. Their whistled calls echoed in diverse cover ranging from rolling grasslands to brushy draws and Southern forests. Coveys of these diminutive, hard-flying upland gamebirds once drew legions of hunters into the field. At their peak, quail provided world-class shotgunning opportunities enjoyed by millions of sportsmen.
Unfortunately, habitat loss and other factors such as the increased use of agricultural pesticides led to huge declines in quail numbers. Bobwhite populations, for example, plunged 85 percent nationwide between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, with declines topping 90 percent in some regions.
“IN MANY STATES, 2016 MARKED A TURNING POINT FOR QUAIL,”—JARED WIKLUND, QUAIL FOREVER PUBLIC RELATIONS MANAGER
Fortunately, quail respond quickly to habitat improvements—particularly when coupled with favorable weather. Thanks to projects supported by groups like Federal Premium conservation partner Quail Forever, these downward spirals are reversing as quail numbers are again on the upswing.
“In many states, 2016 marked a turning point for quail, with bobwhite numbers increasing incrementally due to favorable weather patterns and their effects on habitat,” says Quail Forever public relations manager Jared Wiklund. “Several states, including Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Iowa, witnessed the highest quail populations since the late 1980s.”
The boom triggered a surge in harvest figures in some states. Kansas hunters bagged around 520,000 quail in 2016—up from 2015. “Hunter success was relatively high, though hunter numbers remain below average,” says Jeff Prendergast, small game specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
“In recent years north-central, south-central and southwest Kansas have generally had the best quail indices,” Prendergast continues. “However, all regions are currently above their long-term average according to our spring whistle survey.”
The news is similar in Texas. “Last year was one of the best bobwhite years ever recorded,” says Robert Perez, upland gamebird program leader with Texas Parks and Wildlife. “There were quail everywhere, especially on the rolling plains. Hunters had a heyday.”
“LAST YEAR, OUR QUAIL ROADSIDE COUNTS WERE THE HIGHEST SINCE 1989,”—TODD BOGENSCHUTZ, IOWA DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES
Scorching summer heat and drought can devastate Lone Star quail, but Perez reports the weather so far has been easy on the flock. “There are still a lot of birds out there,” he reports. “Some places got rain and some didn’t. That will have an effect. But there were excellent populations to start with coming out of winter and into spring, so it promises to be another great year for bobwhites in Texas.”
The prognosis is likewise bright in Iowa. “Last year, our quail roadside counts were the highest since 1989,” says Todd Bogenschutz, upland game biologist/Farm Bill coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “I think we could see them go up this year, depending on the hatch. I never thought I’d see that.”
Bogenschutz credits a mild winter for boosting quail numbers heading into breeding season. “Snowfall was normal or below normal for most of the state,” he says. “That was good for quail survival. We are somewhat on the northern edge of bobwhite range, but with the mild winters we have been having, quail are doing fine in Iowa. Overall, we came into nesting season in good shape, with decent numbers of birds on the ground.”
Hunters pursuing other types of quail elsewhere in the country have reason for optimism as well. For example, Arizona hunters enjoyed an above-average season for Mearns or Montezuma quail in 2016, and weather conditions since the hunt ended have been favorable for survival.
“We didn’t have any events last winter that would produce mortality, and Mearns have thus far been receiving summer moisture,” says Wade Zarlingo, small game program manager with the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.
And, while the state’s Gambel’s quail yielded a below-average harvest in 2016, Zarlingo notes that this year’s call counts were 25 percent above the long-term average.
“That’s good news,” he says. “Weather has so far been conducive to good nesting. We’ve had lots of reports of large broods in urban areas, specifically the Phoenix area and around Tucson.”
Sustaining The Rally
Keeping quail on the comeback trail is no easy matter. Weather is fickle, and can cause bird numbers to fluctuate on an annual basis.
Habitat, on the other hand, drives long-term trends. Prime habitat can soften the impact of poor weather conditions and help quail make the most of fair weather. On the flip side, marginal habitat magnifies the ill-effects of hard winters, cold spring rains, and summertime drought.
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