The 2018 Fall Covey Call Counts: A Relic Year

Written by Matthew McEwen and Brad Dabbert, published in The Quail Tech Alliance

“The relic population survives in niches of stable habitat along brushy water courses, about ranch buildings, feed lots, and at field edges where weed seeds and waste grain result from the land use. These quail are in a sense, selected stock and, to a degree, adapted to scant cover. They represent the fittest of last year’s population.” ~ A.S. Jackson 1963

Key Points

  • Bobwhite populations across the Rolling Plains of Texas have declined severely with TPWD counts reporting an 80% de- cline from 2017. 2018’s 5.43 (mean # quail observed per route) closely matches the 5.39 from 2011.
  • Quail-Tech Alliance anchor ranches suffered less, averaging a 50% decline from 2017. 2018’s average of 3.21 coveys per point closely matches 2013’s average of 2.95 coveys per point. A point encompasses 194 acres.
  • Ranches employing intensive management activities including supplemental feeding suffered less.
  • Demographic data indicate drought and increased rates of nest and chick predation are the cause of the decline which
    began two years ago.
  • Increased predation rates are the result of the absence of the primary prey base, small mammals (primarily cotton rats),
    because small mammal populations crashed during 2016.

Unfortunately, the bobwhites have officially busted for the second time since 2010. The overall QT Alliance 2018 covey call count average is down nearly 50% from 6.50 to 3.21 coveys per point (Figure 2), marking the second consecutive year of a regional decline. To put this into context, a point in this case evaluates the number of coveys in a 194-acre circle centered around the point. So, on average, we heard 3.2 coveys per 194 acres.

Fortunately, the QT decline wasn’t as low as the 80% decline seen by TPWD Rolling Plains roadside surveys, but the respec- tive charts say the same sad thing, down and down again. This is as A.S. Jackson would refer to as a “relic” year, where during the boom bobwhites were found extensively across rangelands, they have now contracted and are found hunkered down in the stronghold habitat. On too many points we heard zero coveys but there were still points where 6 or 7 coveys were detected in the 194-acre circle.

This decline comes as no surprise to anyone who has been in the Rolling Plains with boots on the ground the last couple of years. During the majority of 2018, the landscape again experienced poor conditions (increased pre- dation rates and drought) for nesting and brooding success across the region and after two years in a row it’s taking its toll. This is exactly what we all feared following those bumper-crop years of ’15 and ’16.

Quail Tech Alliance Covey Count Average

We documented and forecasted the decline was coming in the December 6, 2017 e-Bulletin as we saw the juvenile/adult ratio’s plummet in 2017, and 2018 was another drastically negative year for chick production and survival (Table 1). These age ratio’s also support the data found in the e-bulletin from June 8, 2018 where we indicated that in 2016 chick production to 21 days of age was 1.5 chicks per hen, but reduced to 0.3 chicks per hen in 2017, due to heavily increased rates of preda- tion on chicks and nests. This year was especially rough on reproduction since the first nest we documented came on June 1 and then we saw nesting shut down in July after a heat wave. Though late summer hatches were also documented, these are rarely sufficient to change the game and these birds are less likely to survive into the winter. Let’s not forget the remark- able decline in cotton rats over the past few years which leaves the bobwhites as next on the prey menu. Maybe these re- cent rains will help boost the cotton rats, but the bobwhites will have to wait till next nesting season. Look for more details concerning this odd relationship between cotton rats and quail in an upcoming bulletin.

As always, we must reiterate the importance of implementing the supplemental feeding technique of broadcasting grain sorghum into the vegetation as a way to buffer the steepness of these declines and support the surviving relic population. However, though supplemental feeding reduces the rate of mortality of adults, it doesn’t prevent it, and reproduction is still necessary for populations to grow. Even the Tall Timbers Research Station, where drought is a rare word, acknowledges that “declines are inevitable, and even with consistent and focused management, quail populations in the Red Hills and Albany tend to trend downward every five or so years” (Palmer and Sisson 2017).

In our quest of occupying over 150 points across two dozen ranches, we did have those few points that heard a chorus of “koi-lee” where stable habitat is supporting multiple coveys similar to last year and largely those were also in areas where feed is supplemented. Despite the abundance of the awful silence heard as well, we are fortunate to hear the few and far between coveys still remaining, who with favorable conditions can restock the bobwhite populations across those areas (Figure 3). It remains important to be diligent in protecting and nurturing the habitat cover needs for bobwhites, especially nesting cover for next year. With a wet fall this year, there are already areas with an abundance of quality forbs growing in the rosette form that provide green food now and will produce seeds next growing season. There is likely to be a flush of annual weeds in areas that were knocked back by the drought as well, so optimistically as Jackson might say we may be able to call 2019 a lateral increase at worst.

Given the fact hopes were not high for this quail season, we must acknowledge the caveats of our efforts. The prime time for listening and counting the coveys is October 15-October 31, and as you will recall, that’s when the torrential showers finally showed up across the Rolling Plains. Needless to say we got a late start and the later counts are conducted past the peak covey calling period, there is a decreased likelihood of hearing all coveys present. Consequently, our numbers may be biased low compared to previous years.

Even with all the variables that go into this challenge, the QT team always en- joys the comradery of being sleep-deprived biologists who get to drive hun- dreds of miles to witness the sunrises across one of the most intriguing land- scapes and sharing our communal experience each call count morning. As Leo- pold said “The hope of hearing quail is worth half a dozen risings-in-the-dark.” I think we all cherished this quote more this year than many. I want to commend all the QT troops who had patience and perseverance to complete the covey counts before Thanksgiving. As always, we are deeply grateful for the support from the Burnett Foundation, Quail Coalition, and all the Alliance landowners, managers, sportsmen and women who make all this possible. Here is to hoping next year will be better for the bobwhites and cotton rats.


References

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