Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch

Restoring Wild Scaled Quail Populations: The Ecological Justification for Trying Translocation

by: Becky Ruzicka, Ph.D. candidate, Colorado State University

Scaled_quailSince 1966 when the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) was initiated, annual monitoring has documented the range-wide decline of blue quail (or more properly, scaled quail). BBS estimates the decline is around 7% per year on average. A lot of our recent research has focused on improving translocation as a method for restoring these populations. Our interest in translocation stems from a long history of its use in successfully re-establishing gamebird populations. Here, I outline my logic in an ecology-based argument for including translocation as a tool in the proverbially toolbox for restoring wild quail.

Thinking of blue quail decline in terms of overall historic range doesn’t tell the full story. Landowners and hunters in the Midland-Odessa area might rightly point out that they have had on average just as many blue quail as they have always had (although perhaps the lows have been lower). The range-wide decline has been coupled with an overall range contraction. In other words, blue quail are absent (or severely depopulated) from areas on the periphery of the range they used to occupy, while populations have remained constant or even increased within the core of their historic range.

One of the most widely recognized and written about (at least in the scientific community) factors contributing to the loss of blue quail in the periphery of their range is habitat fragmentation. A scientific paper published in the Journal of Ecology and Environment (Rho et al. 2015) noted that blue quail decline from 1970-1990 was correlated spatially with a decrease in native rangeland and a tendency toward spatial aggregation of row crops (I interpret that to mean more modern farming techniques). But correlation doesn’t equal causation. Having driven tens of thousands of miles across West Texas, it is hard to wrap my head around how habitat fragmentation can play a role in this wide open landscape. I understand how stakeholders west of Dallas-Fort Worth can be so dismissive of the theory. Especially, when coupled with the fact that we know blue quail are capable of dispersing long distances (the greatest distance recorded in the literature is about 45 miles).

In my opinion the term “habitat fragmentation” (as it pertains to this discussion) has become a syntactic crutch and is probably a poor descriptor for communicating the actual ecological processes at work. Habitat fragmentation brings to mind a landscape like you might find in the outskirts of Dallas: small isolated patches of native grass surrounded by seas of coastal bermuda, impenetrable oaks, and concrete. But that is not the situation in West Texas. Out west, for the most part, we have a large rangeland of varying degrees of habitability for quail. Think of your neighbor that hasn’t touched his brush since 1962. On a habitability scale of 1 to 10 it’s about a 1, but a quail could still disperse through it if it had a mind to. West Texas rangeland is interspersed with row crop agriculture (habitability score of 0 for most of the year). In a good rainfall year, more of the landscape will score higher on the habitability scale – in a poor year, less of it will.

In poor years, quail survive and reproduce at a lower rate, which ultimately leads to a decrease in the population (a phenomenon highly evident this fall). Poorer rangeland conditions increase dispersal costs in terms of lower survival and an increase in the distance required to find quality habitat. Say a fixed percentage of the quail population disperses each year, then lower population sizes also mean fewer birds will disperse. Isolated populations on the periphery of the range are more vulnerable to “winking out” during a string of poor years because they lack an input of dispersing birds and also suffer from survival and reproduction rates that result in negative growth.

So what does any of this have to do with translocation? I would argue that small changes at a landscape scale to the habitat in West Texas have increased dispersal costs for scaled quail to the point where natural dispersal is no longer sufficient to reestablish populations in what was once their historic range. This is especially true after the historic drought of 2011-2012 that reduced core populations back to their smallest extent since we have started monitoring in 1966. It is possible that after enough good years in a row (whatever that may be), scaled quail will fill in their former ranges through natural dispersal. But can we wait that long? Can we depend on enough good years in a row? How many years in the last 20 have been “good?” Translocation of wild-caught quail from core areas where populations are stable can be another tool at our disposal to assist in the recovery and reestablishment of scaled quail populations throughout their range.

Rho, P., X. B. Wu, F. E. Smeins, N. J. Silvy, and M. J. Peterson. 2015. Regional land cover patterns, changes and potential relationships with scaled quail (Callipepla squamata) abundance. Journal of Ecology and Environment 38:185-193.


Knox Co. Blue Quail Restoration Effort update

by Becky Ruzicka

In the next three weeks we will be wrapping up our summer telemetry monitoring of translocated scaled quail on the Knox County study site. The primary pieces of information we gain from telemetry monitoring are hen survival and hen dispersal post release.

Hen Survival: This year’s survival doesn’t compare favorably to last year. At this time last year our hens were at 63% survival. Currently, 40% of the hens we released in April are still alive. We know from the published literature (and our own observations on RPQRR) that quail survival can fluctuate wildly between years. Published estimates of scaled quail survival during breeding season range from 22% to 80%. Unfortunately, it is difficult to pin point what is driving the decrease in survival. Most of the mortalities where we have been able to determine cause of death were attributed to raptors. That is similar to last year. I speculate that a drop off in the small mammals has caused predators to shift their prey preference and focus more on our quail.

Hen Dispersal: Recently, we were able to fly fixed wing surveys to look for some of our hens that went missing. We were missing 15 out of the 113 hens we released. We were able to find 8 of those birds alive (2 were dead) from the air and got on the ground locations for all but one live bird. Several of the birds that were missing made long distance treks up to 11 miles. Two of the hens crossed US Hwy 82—a busy highway!

We were able to keep up with most of the hens that we released this year, even prior to our flight, a little better than we were last year. Mostly because we are much familiar with the terrain because the hens have been moving more this year than last year. I don’t have data analyzed to compare yet, it’s just my observation. The only piece of data I have is that our farthest recorded dispersal distance last year was 5 miles compared to 11 miles this year. Incidentally, the longer movements could be contributing to survival. It will be interesting to look at daily survival probabilities as a function of dispersal distance in the future.


Getting a reliable count is among first issues in learning about the mysterious quail

by Ray Sasser

truck_releaseAfter a record 2016 quail season in the Rolling Plains of West Texas, bird hunters want to know what’s in store for 2017.

Bradley Kubecka thinks it will be about average. The Rolling Plains is the state’s most consistent quail region.

Kubecka bases his forecast on spring call counts. Male bobwhites use their namesake whistles to attract females. Researchers stop at predetermined listening posts on a route, counting the number of males calling.

Call counts this year were about the same as last year on the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch near Roby. RPQRR is 4,700 acres dedicated to quail research. Kubecka is a Flatonia graduate student working on his master’s degree from Texas A&M-Kingsville. His thesis will compare various methods of counting quail.

Continue Reading  Getting a reliable count is among first issues in learning about the mysterious quail


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