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Quails Gone Wilde

As a student at Oklahoma State in the early 1980s, there used to be a note pasted just outside the first-floor elevator in the Life Sciences West building that warned “Adapt or perish.”  At some point, someone edited the maxim to read “Adapt and/or perish.”  There are few certainties on the Back 40.

malefightA long-time quail hunter inquired recently asking whether bobwhites have adopted a running style instead of being the “Gentleman Bob” of old.  He writes: “I’ve hunted quail since 1956—from Brownsville to the Panhandle, etc., etc.  Currently we hunt above Abilene, you know that county well.  Beginning last year, we began to see all bobs (no blues anywhere on the lease) start to use avoidance techniques used by blue quail, i.e., the dogs point, we walk up to the dog and a tight covey gets up thirty yards ahead, glides 100 yards, and flops (lands).  If you follow them, they repeat the behavior.  What’s up with all these coveys?  In my youth in Bell County, Gentleman Bob would never behave like that.”  -   WF

I often get questions like this, especially from the more senior members of the quail hunting fraternity.  They bring a 50 or 60-year perspective on today’s bobwhites’ behavior and hint that the bobwhite itself has changed (i.e., genotypically); that it’s either been “bred up” with “Mexican quail”, or that the local bobwhites have crossed at some point with blues (which are inherently more likely to run), or perhaps just observed the blues and their ability to frustrate bird dogs then copied their tactics.  Tempting hypotheses, but unlikely.

As Bob Dylan wailed “the times, they are a changing.”  Today’s bobwhite is perhaps “wilder” than its predecessor from the late 1950s (i.e., after the drought broke, e.g., circa 1957).  So, what’s changed since WF began quail hunting in 1956?

Perhaps hunting pressure has increased, at least on a per acre of quail habitat-basis.  We’ve lost much of the bobwhite’s habitat, especially east of the 98th meridian (e.g., Bell Co.).   Other sites west of there have likely been compromised via overstocking, brush encroachment, and removal of fire from the toolbox.  But, if we compare 1958 with 2016 I assume habitat conditions (and quail abundance) were comparable.  I’ve been saying the 2016 quail crop is the best I’ve ever seen in west Texas and many agree with me.  Some of the seniors maintain 1958 was better.  (I was only three then, so will defer to them!)  Note both booms came 2 years after a historic drought broke.

The first year after a drought breaks, we observe what A. S. Jackson referred to as a “lateral increase.”  Survivors expand into improved habitat and do well reproductively, but their “corpus” is small.  Another good year and these birds demonstrate a “vertical increase”, i.e., a boom.  Now, allow me to speculate about what the consequences of this are for the quail population (i.e., demographically), and for the quail hunter.

During the drought, and the first year thereafter, only the strong survive . . . I call these birds the “Yogi” quail, after cartoon character Yogi Bear.  Remember he was “smarter than your average bear.”  Grass conditions are lean, and running birds survive better than “gentlemen.”  During the boom year, we see a proliferation of young birds, or what I call the “Boo-Boo” birds . . . not quite as smart as Yogi.  A population comprised mostly of juvenile quail (it was almost 90% juvenile birds in 2016 at Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch) may be less likely to flush wild.  Now, in 2016, our juvenile:adult ratio is only about 2.1:1, i.e., a larger proportion of Yogi quail.  Perhaps they run more and flush wilder . . . both are adaptive traits.  Indeed, as a quail hunter you’ve observed “wilder” birds toward the end of the season.  Adapt or perish.

Research at Auburn University about 30 years ago monitored how coveys of radio-marked bobwhites responded to approaching quail hunters.  A third of the birds skedaddled as soon as they heard the approaching hunting party, i.e., the bird dogs might’ve smelled them, but they were done gone.  Another third were pointed by the dogs, but the birds flushed wild, or behind brush, thus not allowing any shots at the fleeing covey.  The final third were pointed and shot into.  Genetically and behaviorally, which group was selected against?  The “Gentlemen Bobs.”

Reckon that first third (perhaps more Yogi quail) take off at the sound of a dog whistle, the rumble of a Kawasaki Mule, or as Bill cusses loudly because his hard-headed pointer Tex isn’t working like Bill wants?  Recently I was hunting at RPQRR with a couple of fellows from a pickup truck.  When one of my dogs pointed, we’d drive within 50 yards, then disembark.  On two occasions, a slamming truck door caused the birds to flush.  Accordingly, I recommend a quick, but quiet, approach to one’s pointing dog.  Many of us (myself included) aren’t as nimble as we were in our twenties. 

There may be one other technological change that’s impacting this equation.  The GPS tracking collars on bird dogs have become standard issue.  You look down at your receiver to see where ol’ Tex is and whether he’s pointed or not.  I never had one til last year, but now I’d feel blind without it.  And it seems to me that my dogs “know” I can find them now even if they’re out there at 300 yards or further.  But the further the point, the longer it takes me to get there, and the more time the birds have to run . . . and they do.

landscapeSometimes the habitat itself precludes a stealthy approach.  Take mares’ tail (Conyza canadensis) for example . . . we had it ad nauseum at RPQRR last summer.  It’s almost like walking through a bamboo forest yet it’s open at quail level and they can run through it like Usain Bolt.  Shinoak and tall broomweed pose the same “problems” for quail hunters.  I put “problems” in quotations because what becomes a problem for hunters becomes an asset for the prey. I always hope to err on the side of the quail.

Range that’s grazed too closely mandates a wilder quail.  Always be careful of the trade-offs between stocking rate, residual grass cover, and propensity of a covey to hold for a covey rise.

So, for a combination of reasons, Gentleman Bob is unlikely to return to what WF remembers.  And I predict it’ll be even more challenging next year.   Improvise, adapt, and overcome.
Song of the month

Only the Strong Survive by Jerry Butler
“Rat-astrophe” at RPQRR? by Brad Kubecka, Graduate Research Assistant

Every living moment of a quail’s life is dictated by the threat of predation. As such, it doesn’t hurt for there to be an abundance of other similarly-sized prey animals for predators to satiate their voracious appetite. These other prey animals (e.g., cotton rats), serve as buffer species for quail. A cotton rat is essentially a bobwhite with fur rather than feathers.  Buffer species act to ameliorate the pressure of predators on quail and therefore are an important aspect to bobwhite management. But we’re concerned because our cotton rat population has crashed over the past 2 months.

Since RPQRR's inception in 2008, small mammal trapping has been a biannual task (January and June). Small mammal trapping consists of placing 5 x 5 grids of Sherman traps baited with rolled oats among 8 different vegetation communities on the ranch. For each vegetation community, there are 5 replicates (125 traps) deployed for a duration of one week. Within a month, a crew of hardworking interns and technicians will have checked 4,000 Sherman traps. The summer of 2016 marked the most abundant small mammal trapping session on record, averaging 28.8 individuals caught per 100 trap-nights. This year has also been our best year for quail on the ranch.

smallmammal
Our winter session of small mammal trapping started last month. Currently, numbers are down to an average of 4.4 individuals per 100 trap-nights (down 85% from last year’s average). Could this be a pending “rat-astrophe” for quail? The mechanisms that drive small mammal populations depend on region. In the Southeast, supplemental feeding of milo en masse is a common practice on plantations that manage for quail. Data from Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee suggest that supplemental feeding has the potential to increase rodent abundance, and indirectly, bobwhite demographics. In the semi-arid regions of the Rollins Plains, supplemental feed studies have yielded mixed results for increasing bobwhite demographics, likely due to the excessive mood swings Mother Nature knows as El Nino and La Nina. In other words, predation tends to be second to weather in the Southwest.

At the densities we documented in 2016, rodent populations at RPQRR were likely reaching their “carrying capacity.” Winter conditions have been relatively mild with no severe ice or snow storms, and 2016 rainfall was right at average. Functional responses by predators (increased predation due to increase prey availability) is a possible explanation for stabilization effects in rodent populations, but evidence lacks for this hypothesis at RPQRR. Be it a result of a functional response, inter-, or intra-specific competition, “density stress”, disease, or other factors is unknown without additional evidence. Anecdotal reports around Taylor, Stephens, and Shackelford counties suggest that the small mammal numbers in those areas are still high. Perhaps . . . only time will tell.

What is known is that bobwhite populations tend to follow suit to their furry friends.  We’ll be conducting our Spring helicopter counts early next month to assess our overwinter survival of our birds.  
Impact of La Niña vs. El Niño weather patterns on RPQRR coyote diets by Cade Bowlin, Graduate Research Assistant, Texas Tech University

coyoteAdaptive, resilient, and relentless with acute senses of smell, vision, and hearing are traits seldom packaged together in one individual, but the coyote can lay claim to each of the above.  Coyotes can make a living just about anywhere, eating just about anything.  This prolific North American canid resides in all states of the union except Hawaii.  Populations of coyotes occur in remote wilderness and urban jungles such as Chicago and San Francisco. 

Coyotes are a common sight on the RPQRR; they comprised 49% of mammalian predators spotted during camera trapping efforts on the ranch during June 2016.  Coyotes have been credited with preying on quail and depredating quail nests in the Rolling Plains of Texas.  However, it is not known how large of an impact coyotes have on quail populations. 

Previous research concerning coyote diets and prey selection on the Rolling Plains has warranted further investigation. Mark Tyson studied coyote diets on RPQRR in 2009-11 as his master’s thesis at Texas Tech University.  Tysons’ research was conducted during La Niña weather patterns, with 2011 being one of the hottest, driest years in Texas’ recorded history.  The subsequent drought had dramatic effects on the flora and fauna on the ranch and statewide.  Bobwhite quail abundance on the ranch reached the lowest numbers since monitoring efforts began on RPQRR.     

We hear about La Nina and El Nino on a regular basis.  But what causes these phenomena and what exactly are they?  The El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle is comprised of two contrasting phases, La Nina and El Nino weather patterns.  Put simply, ENSO describes the fluctuation between sea temperatures in the equatorial region of the Pacific Ocean and atmospheric temperature above this area. El Nino patterns occur when sea surface temperatures are above average.  Oceanic temperatures below the mean induce La Nina conditions.  Fluctuations in the ENSO can have worldwide weather implications.  In our part of the world, El Nino weather patterns typically result in below normal temperatures and above average rainfall.  Conversely, La Nina results in hot, dry weather like we experienced from 2010 to mid-summer 2015 (Nielson-Gammon 2016).  We are currently in an El Nino phase that has been in place in the Rolling Plains since summer 2015.

A follow up project replicating Tyson’s work during an El Nino, wetter weather pattern is underway on the ranch.  This study will assess how major weather patterns affect coyote’s diets and how their diets shift through changing environmental conditions.  How do these weather patterns affect coyote diets on a landscape managed strictly for quail such as RPQRR?       

Coyote scats have been collected, since Fall 2015, in order to analyze the diets of coyotes on RPQRR focusing on consumption of quail, vegetative mast, and small mammals.  Data attained from scat samples will allow analysis of coyote dietary composition. The scat collection route is a 20-mile, continuous loop on the Texas Quail Index (TQI) route on the RPQRR.  Coyote scats are collected once monthly with a total of 30 scats collected per month.  Scats will be analyzed in the laboratory using a biomass calculation model and frequency of occurrence techniques.  Data derived from scat analysis will be used to determine coyote dietary composition on the RPQRR.  Using small mammal and quail trapping data, arthropod sampling, as well as monthly vegetation surveys, a determination of food item selection versus availability will be made.

Tyson’s study on RPQRR showed only one quail consumed by coyotes (n=1080 scats).  However, quail numbers were also well below historic average on the ranch during the study period.  Spring trapping data showed 45.3, 34.1, and 32.2 quail per 100 trap nights during 2009, 2010, and 2011 respectively.  Efforts from spring 2016 trapping on the ranch indicated 331.2 birds/100 trap nights (a 10-fold increase from Tyson’s time period). The purpose of this follow-up study is to ascertain whether coyotes are important predators of quail and quail nests during a period when quail and additional coyote food sources are abundant.   Additionally, the study will investigate dietary differences of coyotes on RPQRR during La Niña and El Niño weather cycles. 

In Tyson’s study, quail were found in less than 1% of coyote scats.  Remains from mammals and mast were found in 63% and 67% of scats, respectively. Mast is the edible vegetative or reproductive part produced by woody species of plants and is a key component of coyote’s diets.  During the fall of 2011, 96% of scats analyzed by Tyson contained mast. Vegetation surveys have been conducted throughout the duration of the study. Twenty-four, 100-m permanent transects were established along the TQI.  Once each month for the duration of the study, all transects were walked and mast assessed.  The top five most consumed mast-producing plants from Tyson’s study were monitored (mesquite, prickly pear, hackberry, chittam, and lotebush).  The same individual plants were monitored each month to establish mast availability in the study area.  Land management practices that encourage growth of mast-producing plants important to coyotes could help relieve pressure on coyote prey species.

In a similar study, Meinzer et al 1973 looked at coyote diets in nearby Knox and King counties.  Rodents were the top-ranked prey item consumed by coyotes during the study.  The study area is well known for large cow-calf operations; astonishingly no livestock were reported depredated during the study period.  Small mammals comprised 24.5% of mean annual diet of coyotes on their study area.  Birds and bird eggs made up 1.1% of diets.  Meinzer et al (1973) suggested coyote diets vary in a large part due to climactic conditions and patterns. Trapping data on the ranch will help give an abundance estimate of small mammals during the study period.

Preliminary analyses of scats collected Fall 2015 show an abundance of small mammal remains and hair whereas mast is appearing in low abundance in scat samples.  No novel items have been found in analysis of scats thus far.  Statistical analysis is currently being conducted on vegetation survey data for the study period.  It appears low mast production was experienced on RPQRR during 2016.  But small mammals (especially cotton rats) have boomed since 2015.  A total of 1152 small mammals were captured during summer 2016 trapping efforts on the ranch.  These results are drastically different than the 167, 285, and 78 small mammals trapped during 2010, 2011, and 2012 respectively.  But winter trapping efforts (still underway on the ranch as of this week) suggest a major crash in small mammal population.  The effects on coyote diets, and ultimately quail abundance, are yet to be determined. 

mammals
Observations on Quail Crops

greensI’ve never seen a quail season like this one, especially relative to crop contents.  Unless they’ve got access to feeders or feed sites, the quails’ crops I’ve cleaned have been stoked almost entirely with greens . . .  all season long.  Initially (on my lease in Howard Co.) it was a mix of broomweed seeds and greens, but for the past month it seems as the broomweed seeds have been mostly exhausted.  I confess I don’t know if this is a good sign, or not, for the coming season.  For now, I’m worried that if we hit a week of cold, snow-ice weather our birds will go downhill rapidly.  As a reminder, RPQRR is soliciting crop contents of quail harvested across the Rolling Plains (TX & OK) in an attempt to compile a comprehensive seed collection of plants eaten by quail.  As you clean birds at the end of the day’s hunt, dissect out the crop and empty the contents into an empty shotgun shell box so they will dry out, then tape the seams with duct tape. Do not put them in a plastic bag as they will mold.  At the completion of your season send the box and contents to RPQRR, P.O. Box 220, Roby, TX.  The crop content analysis from these samples will constitute our “Seed Appreciation Day” next May.
Word of the Month

epic; adj “of unusually great size or extent”, e.g., “the 2016-17 quail season has been epic in every way."
RPQRR’s Wish List – Can you help?

Our support for quail research comes almost exclusively from private donors.  Perhaps you would like to help us help quail.  We have need for various pieces of equipment.  If you would like to donate, RPQRR is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation, so your donations (cash or in-kind) are tax-deductible.  Here’s our current list of needs:
 
Item Need
¾ ton pickup truck Pulling trailers, carrying pumper unit for prescribed burns
100-hp tractor Food plot preparation, shredding
15’ batwing shredder Shredding
Rear-tined PTO tiller Renovating spreader dams
Grain cart Bulk purchase/storage of milo
Sea container Storage of equipment
 
From our Facebook page

facebookphotoWe had a special visitor recently who is deeply rooted in rock-n-roll.  Here he is (on left) at the intersection of Bobwhite Blvd. and Blue Quail Tr.  See my post of January 29th for his name.  Here’s a hint: “Gimme Shelter”, always an appropriate theme for Students of Quail, was one of the hits where he played keyboard.  He’s toured with The Rolling Stones, Allman Bros., and several other bands.
Want RPQRR’s printed newsletter?

Quail hunters are, as a rule, an older lot.  Older men (aka potential donors!) don’t always use the internet for their communications, e.g., e-Quail News.  So, we decided to offer a quarterly printed newsletter as a supplement to the e-version.  If you’d like to be on the mailing list for the printed newsletter send your name and mailing address to Russell Graves, PO Box 68, Childress, TX  79201.

newsletter
 
Intern diaries

emilyHere at RPQRR, we use inquisitive young professionals to help “put the legs” under our various research activities. I require each intern to submit an essay describing their experience upon completion of their tour of duty.  This month’s essay is by Emily Beisch.  Emily is from Windthorst (Archer Co.) and earned her B. S. at Colorado State University.  Upon completion of her internship here, she headed back to CO to work on a bobwhite project in northeastern CO. 
– DR
 
Working at the Rolling Plains Quail Research from August to January has allowed me to gain more experience and knowledge than I thought I would in my time here. I have learned about the importance of the quail industry and many things about quail ecology that I did not know previously.
 
Radio telemetry was an easy task to learn that I used almost every day. The varying quail sampling methods were fun to learn. The roadside counts showed record numbers of quail, but it also showed me how observer bias is a true concern. Sometimes there would be a difference of 5 quail between myself and other observers. Fall covey call counts seem to be the method that has the highest possibility of error. Deciding the distance the covey calls come from seems to be educated guesswork, especially when the observer is not very experienced. The helicopter surveys were one of the more exciting ways to estimate population size. That was a great way to experience distance sampling first hand. Trapping season was long and busy, but it was a great way to gain a tremendous amount of hands-on experience. It consisted of many times of trial and error with our methods of collection, data entry, and organization, but our efforts were rewarded with more record-breaking quail numbers.
 
I was able to independently monitor prickly pear cactus plots during my tenure. Once a month, I took photos of these plots (which had been crushed and sprayed in June) from fixed photo points in an effort to monitor the decay of the cactus. There are 10 treated plots and 5 control plots throughout the ranch.  Additionally, the opportunity to meet so many people from the quail world was incredible. From Parks Cities Quail to a past president of The Wildlife Society, it was great to meet the wide variety of professionals.
 
From never seeing a quail to seeing possibly too many quail in one trapping day (the day we caught 720 birds), I have gained so much in my time at RPQRR. The “quail family” was extremely welcoming, and I feel so fortunate to be a part of it now. I look forward to bringing all the knowledge I gained to my new job with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (where I’ll be working on another quail project) and all my future endeavors!

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By the numbers

46.8%  - We trapped (and leg-banded) a total of 4,740 quail last November at RPQRR . . . that’s just over a bird/acre.  After several hunts this season, with a current bag of 254 birds, only 110 were banded, which suggests our density actually approached 2 birds/ac.  Wow!

In the News

See the latest issue of Covey Rise for an article “Coalition for Bobs and Blues” that features the RPQRR as one of the beneficiaries of Park Cities Quail and Quail Coalition.

Mark your calendars for encore efforts on tap for 2017

Two efforts are slated for 2017: (a) “QuailMasters-Encore!” will be the last opportunity to experience the “adult version” of Bobwhite Brigade.  Over a course spanning 4 sessions and 4 months, participants will tour some of Texas’ premier quail properties and learn from landowners and professors alike.  Sessions have been set for (1) Snyder (RPQRR), (2) Hebbronville, (3) Vernon, and (4) Abilene.  For more information, contact Clint Faas (cfaas@texas-wildlife.org) .  The other effort will be a redux of the Statewide Quail Symposium on August 16-18, 2017 in Abilene.  The agenda should be firmed up by next month.

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San Angelo, Texas 76906
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