Quail get early start, rebound possible

Published on Saturday, 19 July 2014 22:45 - Written by Steve Knight outdoor@tylerpaper.com

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there…

Well, you know the rest of it.

What about if quail are calling and nesting on the landscape and there aren’t any quail hunters? Is it still a big deal?

This could be the year to find out. Although it is way to early to be making any bold predictions, borrowing a catastrophic August North Texas hunters should once again have huntable numbers of quail on the ground this fall.

Whether this is the beginning of a long-term turnaround won’t be determined for years, but it certainly appears a short-term uptick is possible.

“We could go up to a seven (on a one to 10 scale),” said Dale Rollins, executive director at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch near Roby.

He said that while the quail population in some parts of North Texas continued to languish because of dry range conditions last year, others showed vast improvement

“They used to say you couldn’t do more than double (a population) from one year to the next. Some places just east and northeast of San Angelo were a five or six last year, and that is why I am saying it is going to be a seven.”

The North Texas quail population has been in a free-fall since 1993. Although there were some upward blips in the last 20 years, counts rarely climbed above the long-term average.

The debate about what caused the decline and what it will take to fix it continues on with multi-million dollar research projects around the state. Rain and improved habitat are about the only ingredients everyone agrees on, and that is what is fueling this year’s improvement.

“We have been having brood reports since the second week of May. We have had a pretty good hatch already. Right now we are at a record pace of nests at the research ranch. We have had 71 already this year and for the last four years combined we had 108. Not all have hatched, but they are sitting eggs. They are trying,” Rollins said.

He told of one hen researchers had been tracking that was found dead recently. When they located its nest they found the quail had been sitting on 17 eggs. It was her second attempt at nesting thing year.

Rollins explained that a hen can have as many as 21 eggs each time she nests, but 14-16 is about average. He said what is more important is nest success.

“If a hen has 16 eggs, 14 or 15 of them would be fertile. The important thing, though, is nest success and range wide about 30 percent of the nests are successful,” Rollins said.

He added that the difference between a good season and a really good season is generally the hatch that occurs in June, and this year reports are good across the area.

What happens between now and opening day on Nov. 1 is dependent upon weather conditions. Hot and dry the rest of the summer could be a disaster. A quick two inches of rain could result in even more nesting and more birds in the fall. If everything stays as it is, hunting could still be good.

“If we don’t have a disaster like 2010 when everything disappeared on Labor Day we should be alright,” Rollins said.

That leaves the question that if quail numbers rebound will quail hunter numbers go up also. In 1993 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimated there were more than 280,000 quail hunters in the state. By 2012-13, the last year an estimate is available, that number had fall to 29,000.

At the same time the number of hunter days in the field had fallen to 100,000, 10 percent of what they were 20 years earlier.

Along with the disappearance of hunters has been the disappearance of bird dog owners. Getting hunters back can happen overnight. Getting trained dogs back into the field might take three years, and that is only if the growing legion of urban hunters is interested in owning them.

“We have had no recruitment in the hunting population,” Rollins said. “It is disappointing and sobering to me when we have a Quail Brigade youth camp and I ask the kids how many of them has ever quail hunted and only five or so say they have.”

He added at 59, he is one of the youngest active quail hunters he knows.