Appreciating Quail

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April 28, 2001: I have finally found a resource that lists some grasses, forbs (non-grassy plants), and woodies (shrubs and trees)  by their common names and that shows pictures to help in identification of these plants. I have added it to the links on my index page. It is difficult to find grass examples on the web that are not almost totally technical and aimed at the professionals and many do not have pictures. I consider this site important to those of us who are interested in identifying native plants on our land. The link is to Nobles Foundation Plant Image Gallery. You may want to add it to your list of favorites. 

April 27, 2001: Yesterday as part of our ongoing goal of improving habitat for various species of wildlife, Farris and I attended an all day seminar on bobwhite, or quail, put on by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, part of the Agriculture Program of the Texas A&M University System. Mike Mallet, Extension agent for Lampasas county put together an excellent educational program. There is nothing like learning from the experts. Dr. Dale Rollins, Extension Wildlife specialist and Ken Cearley, Extension Wildlife Associate taught us more about quail in a few hours than we had learned in our combined lifetimes. 

Bobwhite populations are declining at an alarming rate across their range, especially during the last fifteen years. Their plight is so critical in many southeastern states that some scientists predict quail will be extinct in those areas by 2005. Texas still remains a final frontier for wild quail, but the bobwhite populations in our state have declined an average of 4.7% annually since 1981. Scaled quail have also declined over the last ten years and various grassland songbird populations are similarly declining. Bobwhites serve as a indicator of change in other grassland bird populations, so quail-friendly habitat management that improves quail populations will also benefit those groups of declining songbirds. 

One factor involved in quail decline is the increasing practice of land fragmentation, or splitting up larger ranches into smaller and smaller plots for resale. This also fragments and destroys habitat as the land is developed into subdivisions, for example. Such fragmentation results in increased predation and nest parasitism, loss of habitat, disturbed animal social structure and diminished habitat health because natural events such as animal grazing and natural fires are prevented. According to sources in this seminar, between 1985 and 1995, rural land parcels decreased in Texas by 4%. Parcels in South and East Texas and the Trans-Pecos regions decreased by 11 to 14 %. Other factors affecting quail populations are weather, (precipitation, winter kill and hail), increased predation, disease, and fire ants. Paradoxically, some of the increased predation due to the increase of the number of raccoons and possums, etc. that prey on quail eggs and chicks seems to be aggravated by the extermination of animals that prey on these predators! Studies show that where the population of coyotes are high, the number of quail are correspondingly high and where the population of coyotes are low, the number of quail are correspondingly low. This suggests that by exterminating the coyote from certain areas, the predators of quail are allowed to proliferate and roam freely with minimal control from natural predators.

 Texas is taking steps, such as this seminar, to address this situation, to alert landowners of the problems and some of the solutions. Chief among them is managing land to increase habitat. Another is determining ways to maintain quail populations in highly fragmented landscapes. In addition, increased research, educational programs for landowners, special educational programs for youth and adults will help. A young high school boy who had attended a coed Quail Brigade camp available to high school youth, told us about the experience of the group he was in,  in which they were given hands-on experience of working with Quail populations and habitat, learning about the species by doing special projects. It is such a good program we are considering sponsoring some girl or boy for one of the camps. 

Now that your eyes are glazed over from these background facts, let me describe some of the things we did in this seminar.

First, we were subjected to a lab test to see if we could identify certain types of plant specimens and seeds that are beneficial to quail. We were also shown quail specimens and asked to identify from a quail's wing whether the quail was a juvenile or over one year old. We were asked to identify whether the specimen was a rooster or hen. Then we were shown two radio transmitters taken from birds that had been killed and were asked to tell whether each individual bird was killed by a bird of prey, or by a mammalian predator! Then we we were instructed to take another pretest in which we were asked other questions about quail and their habitat. Most of us flunked these tests, of course. Dr. Rollins amused me by stating he likes to give these tests at the beginning of a seminar because an humble student is in a better frame of mind to learn. He was right.

We learned the various statistics such as I mentioned in the first paragraph. We also learned that the chief value of land in these parts now is not raising cattle so much as eco-tourism; ranchers are not buying ranches, the buyers are people who are wanting rural land that enables them to view and enjoy wildlife. We were taught what some of the beneficial plants are for quail and whether they provide seeds for food, nesting habitat, cover from predators or safe, shady loafing areas. We were told how to look at habitat from a quail's point of view: lie on your side on the ground, close your eye closest to the ground and then you will see the world from an adult quail's point of view, six inches above the ground. If you want to see the world from the chick's point of view, close that eye and open the one nearest the ground and see the world from three inches up. This made us aware how vulnerable quail are to predators.

Quail have to live a defensive life of hiding and camouflage to avoid predation. We learned that common broom weed that many ranchers dislike and destroy is one of the best plants for cover for quail from aerial predators such as Cooper's Hawks, Northern Harriers and other hawks. Prickly Pear provides cover for both hiding and for nests. 

One of the most fascinating parts of the day was listening to Dr. Rollins whistle imitations of the 11 or so varied calls of the quail, the calls of the wild turkey, owl calls and the calls of several hawks. His whistles were so convincing (he participates in competitive calling contests) that I encouraged him to record these calls on tape so we can buy them to help us learn to recognize the calls. He is very busy but said he would think about it as a possible fund-raiser for the Quail Brigade. 

After this study we went outside where some specimens were. We  weighed them and learned the adult weighs about six ounces and is about six inches tall. We discovered which plumage indicated whether the specimen was male or female, whether it was a juvenile or adult bird, what type of food it eats, whether it spends more time walking or flying, whether it is a predator or prey species (from the type of beak and size and location of the eyes), the purpose of the craw and the gizzard. We found out that  the type of breast muscles they have indicates whether they can soar or only fly short distances, we learned the purpose of the proventriculus gland (are you impressed?) and many other kinds of information about the birds. 

After a great fajita lunch we went to a local ranch where our instructors first showed us an amazing demonstration of two ways to hypnotize a quail so it would simply lie there and not move even if he removed his hand from it (apparently this can also be done with chickens), and how as soon as he touched it after this, it would become active again. Then a radio transmitter was put on the bird; transmitters are used to study the habits of quail and this quail was released into the field and we went off to do other things, planning to come back to track and find the bird later. 

A lot of preliminary work was done for this educational opportunity, for thirteen days ago 32 dummy quail nests had been placed on the land with three chicken eggs in each. Our task was to find the nests within a restricted area and determine and record whether each nest was intact, and if not, to attempt to determine what kind of predator had destroyed or damaged the nest. This was indicated by the condition and location of the eggs shells remaining. Quail nests usually contain 12 to 14 eggs and the nests are used for 23 days, and they are on the ground. Out of one hundred eggs produced, only about four quail will survive to adulthood. This emphasized the need for good nesting sites and cover. We learned how to build a certain type of natural "quail house" or resting/hiding place for quail out of tree limbs stacked into a teepee shape. Then we had on-site training of the kinds and size of good nesting sites, and were taught how to determine and evaluate the density of  nesting sites and  cover sites on one's own land.  All of this will enable us to determine what steps need to be taken to improve conditions  for quail at The Lair.

After this we returned to the meadow where the quail with the transmitter had been released. Using an antenna-like receiver, we found the quail. It was hunkered down in a prickly pear patch and we would not even have seen it had it not had the transmitter on, for even with some forty or so people milling around it, it remained absolutely still until one of the instructors reached in to retrieve it. 

It costs $140 per quail to outfit one with a radio transmitter and an individual quail can be sponsored with a contribution of $250 to their Adopt-a-Quail program to fund quail research and education programs conducted by Texas A&M University System. The sponsor receives a certificate showing his quail's statistics, such as its name, its transmitter frequency, when it was captured, when it was retrieved, its nest fate, that is whether it was destroyed or how many chicks were fledged, the fate of the bird, that is whether it was alive when recaptured and if possible what killed it if it was dead, and where it was recaptured and how far from the original trap site. The university web site offers information about the Quail Brigade and much of the information I have summarized here on management, habitat, food, including pictures of key seed-producing plants for quail and a feature called Know your Grasses. To visit the Texas Natural Resources web site, click here  There is an organization called Quails Unlimited, similar to the Ducks Unlimited organization that was so instrumental in helping bring back the duck populations. Visit their web site.

We came home with a lot more knowledge about quail than we had day before yesterday and are much better equipped to begin to carry out some of these programs on our land to help give our quail populations a better chance to survive.

NATURE NOTE: At the front gate of our place wildflowers are everywhere. We have Englemann's Daisy, Wine Cup, Vervain, Foxglove, Parralena, Evening Primrose, Fringed Puccoon, Rayless Coneflower, Stiff Stem Flax, Showy Primrose, Wild Verbena, Pink Gaura, Mealy Sage and others. It looks like just what it is, a wild Hill Country garden.

April 24, 2001: Last weekend we attended the seventh annual Quisisana Quacker, or yellow rubber ducky race and picnic given by Richard and Sue Carter. We had ideal weather in terms of temperature but the day was overcast and dark and I left my camera at home and have no pictures. That was a mistake, for guess whose duck streaked down the creek and won the race? Why, the one belonging to Farris, of course! His prize was a hat with an LED window in the front of the crown and a message that scrolls across the screen saying in effect "I won the  Seventh Annual Quisisana Quacker and I did not cheat." I question the last part of that statement. A couple of fellows remarked (making sure I could hear) that Farris sure made a lucky shot when the rock he threw knocked the # 11 lead duck (mine) out of the race. On the other hand I question their statement as well, for when the race commences, all moral rectitude seems to vanish.

There were fifty or sixty people there, so we met some interesting individuals and renewed acquaintance with others we had met at previous picnics. I particularly enjoyed meeting and chatting with Diane, Sue's cousin. She is an art therapist and lives in an old Grist Mill on a stream in the mountains of North Carolina. She is currently working on her doctorate in the ministry and is building a creativity/retreat center out of an old log building. When everything is up and running she will be holding workshops in art/spirituality. I can hardly wait and look forward to linking to her web site when it is all ready. 

The food at the picnic was delectable as usual, the creek and waterfall were restoring to the soul, and the live music was haunting and lovely. We topped the day off with our traditional hike to Sue and Richard's bluebonnet field. It was spectacular this year with flowers as far as one could see and the sweet aroma is in my memory still. 

I made Pico de Gallo this week and the makings were so pretty I had to preserve them artistically:

pico veggies

NATURE NOTE: We have had some wildlife activity around here. Three baby bunny rabbits were down at the front gate, appropriate for the Easter season. One morning this week soon after we got up Farris called me to the window to see a huge wild turkey walking through the yard.  Day before yesterday I glanced out the computer room window and saw Phantom, our cat, strolling down the driveway toward the carport and about six paces behind him was another huge wild turkey. They looked funny, like they were in line. I wonder what Phantom would have done if he had looked back and seen that huge bird stalking him. I replenished a nectar feeder one day this week and while I still had my hands on the feeder and the chain a male Black Chinned humming bird zoomed in, landed on a perch not six inches from my hand and proceeded to drink. I froze for a few minutes, enjoying seeing his lavender throat flash as he looked up and around, but he did not fly even as I withdrew from the feeder. I saw an Inca dove in town, but have not seen any at The Lair, although Mike Krueger, our wildlife biologist, tells me he sees them occasionally under the feeder at their place just a few miles down the road. 

Mike remarked about how the Inca dove's mournful call reminded him of his childhood  in central Texas near San Antonio with still, hot summer days, and two other sounds that take him back, the call of the dickcissel in the cotton and milo fields and the zoom of the common nighthawks or "bullbats" on summer evenings. Isn't that lovely? That reminded me of nights in my room as a young girl listening to the mockingbird sing its heart out during the night hours, the lazy swelling and waning sounds of the cicadas that spelled summer days and no school for me, just hours of enjoying the beauty of nature at Bend Field Farm (see the painting of Bend Field in the Lair Gallery). I heard the wailing of a train whistle deep in the night last night and that reminded me of hearing the mournful sound of the steam engine whistles in the night as a child and wondering about all the exotic places the people on the passenger trains were going. The call of the mourning dove brings back multiple memories. One is sad and yet bittersweet, a memory of a little still-born grand niece being placed in her grave while a whole chorus of mourning doves began to sing in the morning air. It also reminds me of how the mourning dove call always made me restless, as I wrote in a devotional article years ago. To read about that, go to the Creative page and read "Honeysuckle and Mourning Doves."

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Last revised: November 26, 2010

Copyright 2001-2010 Rheba Kramer Mitchell. All rights reserved.