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Birds
Bobwhite Boosters
Audubon efforts in Texas to improve quail habitat are bolstered by hunters hankering for ample game.

The Audubon Texas-led restoration plan would return the state’s quail populations to levels not seen for two decades.
B.S. Thurner Hof, from Wikipedia

As bobwhite quail numbers continue to drop across the species’ historic range, concerned conservationists have come up with a variety of plans to boost populations, all of which involve preserving or re-creating suitable habitat. Audubon Texas has enlisted a range of groups, including hunters, in support of its Quail and Grassland Bird Initiative.

“Bobwhites do all right on the southern plains and western grasslands,” Texas wildlife biologist Jason Hardin told me. “If it rains, we’ll have more wild quail in those regions than anyplace else in the Southeast.” But East Texas, he said, is a disaster area, especially the pineywoods and the blackland prairie, which has been farmed to death, and “quail aren’t given much of a chance.” Indeed, an Oklahoma ecologist once referred to small fragments of bobwhite habitat that are created by urban sprawl and harsh land-use practices as “graveyards” whose “zombie birds” are doomed to disappear. Their numbers are simply too few for longevity.

Hardin was the first coordinator of Audubon Texas’s Quail and Grassland Bird Initiative, launched in 2003 with a grant from Houston Endowment. Audubon’s many partners in the ambitious program, which aims at restoring the Lone Star State’s bobwhite populations to the numbers seen 20 years ago, include the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas A&M University, the Texas Wildlife Association (a landowners’ group), the Welder Wildlife Foundation, and the Nature Conservancy. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided funds for a “burn trailer” used for prescribed fires. The three Quail Unlimited (QU) chapters in Texas pooled their money to buy the Audubon program an extended-cab pickup. 

A customized quail-hunting pickup in Texas. Hunters are important supporters of quail restoration efforts.
Jason Hardin/Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

“These little birds are worth their weight in gold,” said Hardin, who now works for Parks and Wildlife. Texas quail hunters take their pursuit seriously. The average QU member, a survey found, spends more than $10,000 a year on his or her sport. Public hunting areas are few and far between in Texas, and many Texas ranchers have found that quail hunting leases are worth more than their property’s value for livestock grazing. And a common sight during the state’s four-month quail season is a custom-made hunting rig mounted on the chassis of a double-cab Chevy or Ford pickup. Hubert’s Welding in Riviera, for example, offers a wide range of options, including captain’s chairs, dog boxes, gun scabbards, and racks for water coolers and ice chests at prices ranging from $15,000 to $30,000, not including the truck. The only missing amenity (or maybe not!) is a wide-screen TV to watch football, the biggest fall sport in Texas.

Hardin’s successor at Audubon Texas is Kyle Brazil, who has jumped into the role of holding workshops to acquaint Texans with the plight of bobwhites and other grassland birds and work with landowners and managers of more than 2.8 million acres to improve habitat. One project that Brazil has initiated would create grassland corridors radiating out on private lands from Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge west of Houston. “It will benefit both quail and the endangered prairie chickens,” said Brazil.

The Audubon initiative has been a hit with Texas quail lovers. Mark Sitterle and six hunting buddies leased 2,340 acres of idle, mostly brush-covered land in Live Oak County, between Corpus Christi and San Antonio. But getting help to improve the site for birds proved frustrating until Sitterle sat in on a presentation by Hardin at a QU meeting. The biologist drew up an elaborate plan that included brush clearing to create openings, disking and planting native grasses and food plots.

“It’s fantastic that Audubon is doing this work,” said Sitterle. “The quail are coming back just like he promised.” 

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