Quail hunting season opens this weekend. And there’s new hope that the bobwhite quail is making a rebound. The population has dropped off by about 75 percent over the last 40 years—partly because their grassy habitats have been depleted by development and cattle grazing. Conservationists are trying to get more landowners to restore native prairies on their property.
Jay Whiteside is walking me through a pasture in rural Navarro County. Whiteside is a biologist with Texas Parks And Wildlife and he’s pointing out what a good habitat for bobwhite quail looks like. Partridge pea and wooly croton and bunchy grasses are favorites for the bird—and that’s what Texas Parks And Wildlife is trying to restore.
"That’s your nesting structure right there," Whiteside says. "That’s what the quail are going to try to look for to build a nest in it’s going to conceal them, it’s going to hide them from predators, it’s going to hide their scent and that’s what’s critical."
Bobwhites are a favorite wild game for hunters across the nation and they’re famous for the their call, “bob-bob-white.” But the bird’s population has been on the decline for decades. Whiteside works with a group of landowners called the Western Navarro Bobwhite Recovery Initiative. The group is one of fifteen organizations that are dipping into $4 million in quail restoration grants from Texas Parks and Wildlife. That money goes to restoring grasslands that bobwhites nest in.
One of the focus areas is in Western Navarro and Ellis counties. Whiteside says around here, the decline happened when cotton farmland switched over to cattle.
"Well they come out of their contract and need to use the land, so they put barbed wire fence around it, put cows on it and start grazing it," Whiteside says. "And suddenly, what happens to your cover? Especially if it’s not stocked properly."
If cattle are overstocked, they graze down the grass too far. That eliminates the all-important cover for bobwhites—they need tall grasses to escape predators and make nests. When cotton was king in Navarro County, there was still ample area on the borders of fields where native grasses grew undisturbed.
Whiteside says the kind of grass that ranchers want their cows to eat is often a problem...Bermuda grass. He says bobwhite’s don’t like it, and when it’s grown by itself, as it often is, it mines nutrients out of the soil.
Gary Price owns 20,000 acres of ranch land in Ellis and Navarro counties, on much of which he lets native grasses grow…and grow tall.
"These grasses are more resilient to drought and you have a lot of diversity there so the cattle are going to do better, you have plants that are coming at a bunch of different times of the year, reaching maturity so that’s a benefit and of course tremendous wildlife benefits," Price says.
Price rotates his cattle to keep them from over grazing any pasture. He says the wild grasses are better than the mono-culture of Bermuda grass—not only is it better for his cows, it’s more economical.
"This land is too much slope to be plowed up anyway, shouldn't be and shouldn't be in cropland and shouldn't be plowed up and put into Bermuda grass," Price says. "And much of it's marginal land so if you're going to spend money for fertilizer you better be putting it some pretty good land today."
Texas Parks and Wildlife says many of their requests to restore native habitats have come from landowners who have bought property for recreation—hunting, fishing, or just being outdoors. Robert Perez is the leader of the upland game bird program at Texas Parks And Wildlife. He says the program won’t be able to restore the millions of acres of depleted habitat on it’s own, but it can still provide best practices for landowners who want to improve their property.
"They’re not happy and I don’t blame them with the fact that they grew up and they had quail and they remember hearing quail and seeing quail and they don’t now," Perez says. "And you associate the beginning of spring, the renewal of the year, spring you hear that bobwhite whistle, that bobwhite call the male’s mating call. And I have folks tell me 'Hey, I want my children to hear that call in the spring. I don’t think it’s right that we don’t have that anymore.'"
Jay Whiteside says there’s no hard data yet on the bobwhite’s recovery, but but he’s encouraged by the projects and the bird’s population can bounce back quickly. And he says he gets a kick out of helping landowners transform themselves into prairie nerds.
"Yeah landowners that never looked at a flower in their life are walking through their fields making a list of all the flowers growing on their property," Whiteside says. "It’s a different way of looking at the world."