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Sept. 15, 2003
Hunters Urged To Take Advantage of Banner Quail Year
AUSTIN, Texas – It happens in the blink of an eye, but seems like slow motion as a handful of bobwhite quail erupt in thunderous unison from a nearby bush. By the time you catch your breath and check your extremities, all that remains are pin feathers and a fading whistling sound.
If you’ve never experienced the adrenaline rush generated by a covey flush, or want to refresh your memory, make plans to hunt quail in Texas this season. State wildlife officials are predicting a banner year based upon field reports and recently completed annual census survey results.
“If you ever were going to try quail hunting, I would encourage you to do so this year,” urged Robert Perez, quail program leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “We don’t get these kinds of conditions very often in Texas, but it looks like it’s going to be a fantastic quail season.”
Perez points to textbook-perfect conditions for quail reproduction throughout South Texas and above-average conditions across the Rolling Plains. In a nutshell, he said, “It rained.” South Texas received moisture in the spring and into the summer and temperatures rarely exceeded 100 degrees. From what we know about quail ecology, the best conditions for bobwhite reproduction are cool, moist summers. These kinds of conditions and alignments don’t happen often, maybe once every 5-7 years in South Texas, but it’s happening this year,” he said.
The two factors that are most important for good quail production, according to Perez, are habitat and weather. Weather can account for between 65-90 percent of annual variation in quail populations. Weather is responsible for a big chunk in the change from year to year in bobwhite numbers, but habitat accounts for the rest.
“You have to have habitat and we have habitat,” said Perez. “The last strongholds for bobwhite quail in the world are South Texas, the Rolling Plains and southwestern Oklahoma and the reason is habitat.
“Annual quail population changes can be dramatic and our surveys indicate you may have to wait 5-7 years for another great year,” he added. “This is even more dramatic in Texas because we’re at the western edge of where bobwhites occur in North America and we see more dramatic changes from year to year. We’re prone to drought or adverse conditions, which make the highs and lows that much more pronounced. For that reason, it’s not realistic to expect a banner year every year. But hunters should take advantage of them when they come along.”
TPWD has documented quail population estimates from roadside surveys since 1978 and long-term patterns reflect a history of “boom and bust” cycles for Texas quail populations. Each quail count survey “line” is a 20-mile route where biologists record all quail observed by mile and species. The same routes are counted each year.
“Our survey counts for South Texas nearly doubled from last year, with 13 birds observed on average per roadside count,” said Perez. “Because of the numerous field reports we’ve been receiving, we don’t have any doubts that conditions are above average.”
Seasoned quail hunters and most landowners in quail country have heard of quail reproducing several times during good years, referring to them as second and third hatches. This year, Perez noted, the birds have been reproducing continuously.
“Folks always ask me ‘do we have a second or third hatch,’ ” he explained. “There are actually environmental factors that trigger reproduction, that tell a hen there’s a good chance she will produce a successful hatch. This year there hasn’t been an environmental cue that says you won’t be successful. So, what we have is hens re-nesting after failed attempts. Radio-collared hens have been recorded laying up to 4 clutches until chicks are successfully hatched. This year’s extended breeding season provides the time needed for success. Add in the so-called gypsy hens, who leave their brood with a rooster and then finding another mate and we have the ingredients for exponential reproduction,” Perez said.
While not as dramatic as in South Texas, the Rolling Plains region is also experiencing a banner quail production year. Perez points to an above-average carryover of birds from last year as the key in that area of the state. “There were a lot of adult birds in place waiting for that trigger. After rain in June, those quail began calling actively and although the reproductive effort didn’t last as long as in South Texas, it did continue into July,” he said. “There’s good ground cover and plenty of insects so under proper range management, things look good.”
The quail counts for the Rolling Plains support Perez’s assessment. Biologists observed 24 birds per route this year, compared with 16 last year. This year’s estimate is above the long-term average of 22 birds. “We’re experiencing above-average conditions. The last time we observed that many birds was in 1997,” Perez said. “There were some areas that missed the boat on the rainfall so there are pockets up there that may not reflect these increases, so my advice is to look for places with adequate ground cover and you should be okay.”
While overall population estimates have increased, survey results don’t equate with hunting success in specific locations. Perez recommends drawing from past success in the field to determine likely quail haunts this year. “I’d suggest going back to the same areas that held birds last year, because that’s where you’re likely to find them this year, only in bigger numbers,” said Perez.
“Things to avoid when looking for a place to hunt are areas devoid of cover, which means cattle stocking rates have been high during the summer,” he added. “Look for areas with a lot of ground cover, it may make it difficult finding wounded birds early in the season, but it means there is likely a good distribution of birds.”
The statewide quail season runs from Oct. 25-Feb. 29. The daily bag limit is 15, 45 in possession. Legal shooting hours for all non-migratory game birds are 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. The bag limit is the maximum number that may be killed during the legal shooting hours in one day.
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