Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Boom-and-Bust Quail: Finding the Best Hunting Grounds

Article by Ron Spomer

Last winter, quail populations were up across the South and West. What finally went right for Gentleman Bob? And can it be repeated?

In a pasture near Roy, Tex., last January, I flushed a plague of quail. According to biologist Dale Rollins, bobwhite numbers hadn’t just doubled over the previous year; they’d increased fivefold. Scaled quail numbers were up eight times.

It was a classic irruption year.

Mearns quail exploded like that in southern Arizona two years ago. After years of low numbers, they were suddenly everywhere. I’ve seen Gambel’s quail do that in the Sonoran desert. Absent one year; like locusts the next.

In the 1960s, Idaho was covered up with mountain quail. Today, a remnant population barely hangs on, but introduced valley quail are doing okay.

Down in Missouri, Illinois, Mississippi, and surrounding states—once bobwhite strongholds—the quail seem almost to be missing in action.

What’s going on?

Habitat, and the way that habitat responds to weather conditions—both good and bad—is driving these trends.

Biologists have been harping on the fundamental importance of habitat for so long—while quail populations mainly move in one direction: down—that it’s getting hard to believe, especially with the huge uptick in hawks, raccoons, feral house cats, fire ants, and other predators. And what about diseases and parasites, like eye worms? These things all play a role, but, as the latest Texas irruption indicates, habitat (and habitat’s response to weather conditions) remains the crux of the situation.

Predators didn’t disappear from Texas last year. Neither did parasites or diseases. But, after years of drought, it rained. A lot. Ground that had been stripped to bare dirt sprouted vegetation in which quail could hide and thrive. Hens had plenty to eat, so they double clutched. A hen would lay 12 eggs, leave them for the male to incubate, then lay another 12 and hatch those herself. Bingo. A 12-fold increase.
Habitat, Times Three -- Read the rest of the Outdoor Life article

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