February 3, 2015 | by Mark McDonald
A Question of Quail

Gamebird Numbers Sink; Biologists Ask Why

By Russell Graves
Senior Correspondent, sportsandoutdoors.guru

COAHOMA, Texas — Two weeks ago, I was walking with a trio of orange clad hunters through the dried tan grass and mesquite flats of West Texas between Sweetwater and Big Spring. In front of us was a pair of English Pointer bird dogs zigzagging in and out of the tall grass and tangled brush.

“Watch her,” said Rick Snipes, board member for the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch near Roby. “She’s birdy.”

The dogs work the grass and lock in on an invisible scent stream and abruptly stop. They lock into a staunch point.

While one dog stands rigid in the grass, her head low and tail pointed to the heavens, the other dog takes notice and “honors” the point and stops her hunt to defer to the first dog.

BIRD IN THE HAND – A researcher in the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch program searches a specimen for eyeworm, which biologists say may be contributing to the downward spiral in quail populations throughout much of its U.S. range. (photo by the author)

BIRD IN THE HAND – A researcher in the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch program searches a specimen for eyeworm, which biologists say may be contributing to the downward spiral in quail populations throughout much of its U.S. range. (photo by the author)

Rick, fellow board member Joe Crafton, and ranch director and chief researcher Dr. Dale Rollins ease up towards the dogs and abruptly, 20 or so bobwhite quail explode from the grass and head in random directions.  Quail flush like that to avoid predation.

While the dogs run around and try to reestablish a point I can see the satisfaction in the eyes of the hunters.  That makes the tenth covey we’ve flushed this afternoon. It is an increasingly uncommon sight these days, and not just in Texas but throughout the popular gamebird’s former range.

Over the past few years, quail hunting has been tough as the birds are slowly disappearing from the ranges where, historically, they once thrived. Each year biologists from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department conduct their annual quail census counts along randomly selected 20-miles stretches of roads in the Texas Rolling Plains.

While the numbers fluctuate from year to year based on primarily rainfall and nesting conditions, the trend lines are clear — quail are disappearing, and no one know for sure why.

The men in our trio, however, are committed to unlocking the mystery as they are three of the principal players in a ranch that is committed solely to quail research. Purchased in 2006, the 4,700-acre ranch is a laboratory in which answers to the most vexing quail questions are sought. Population dynamics, predation, land use and habitat influence are just a few of the many questions that studied at the ranch.

A BIRD IN DECLINE – Scientists and hunters alike wonder what happened to the quail population? (Wikipedia photo)

A BIRD IN DECLINE – Scientists and hunters alike wonder what happened to the quail population? (Wikipedia photo)

Of late, however, it seems a parasite has caught the attention of researchers. Could the eyeworm be responsible for the quail’s demise? Or is it a broad decline in the amount and quality of habitat?

It is too early to tell, but Dr. Rollins and his team are earnestly looking into the question.

By collecting sample birds from hunters, they’ve been working for the past couple of years to establish the eye worm a the smoking gun that when abated, will stem the tide of the quail decline.

They recognize the job ahead of them is a big one but are committed to the cause. The site of quail flushing gets the heart racing and the team at the helm of the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch is committed to seeing that future generations can experience the same thrill.

For more information about the ranch and the work they are undertaking, check out www.quailresearch.org

RGravesCheck out www.russellgraves.com for top-notch photography, outdoor articles, videos, and more! On Facebook @ russellgraves.com

 

 

 

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