Quail season thus far has been disappointing . . . again. Since 2006, quail hunting in the Rolling Plains has been sub-par by Texas standards. Roadside counts at RPQRR were down 72% from 2008. And the dim prospects have hunters, landowners, and at least one wildlife specialist, scratching their heads for an explanation.
At the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch we seek to unravel what’s happening to bobwhites and blue quail across much of the Rolling Plains. To that end, we’ve adopted a philosophy of ‘leave no stone unturned.’ So, we’re investigating some heretofore overlooked agents, namely disease and parasites.
Several times over the past ten years, hunters and landowners have ased me why an apparently bountiful quail population disappears between Labor Day and opening day (usually about November 1). Could some disease be involved?
When you say ‘disease’ in the context of wild quail, the most common disease mentioned at the coffee shop is coccidiosis. But there are other potential threats, including West Nile Virus, avian influenza, avian cholera, and avian tuberculosis.
I had three blue quail specimens submitted last spring from Sterling County - one of them tested positive for avian tuberculosis. Whether such findings are important in regulating quail populations is unknown, but intriguing.
Recently (Nov. 13 ) we found a radiomarked bobwhite dead, and were able to retrieve it before the carcass was scavenged. It, and two others, were submitted to the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Lab for post-mortem examination. Results of those tests are pending.
I’ve always been intrigued about the possible role of disease in quail dynamics. When you think about it, they offer a perfect biological fuse for disease spread among the population. They are social birds, and when a covey dwindles to less than about six birds, the survivors seek another covey.
Blue quail used to be common over areas as far east as Throckmorton, but they disappeared over much of their range in 1988, in December 1988, in my opinion. While hunting in Crockett County that December, I noticed several quail had ‘spotted’ livers, but at the time I didn’t have my antennae up about disease. I took some photographs and discarded the birds. Within months, blue quail had vanished as far west as the Pecos River. I cannot explain such a ‘die-off’ except for some mystery disease. Suffice to say my antennae are up now.
Disease surveillance in wild quail is nearly impossible. A sick quail doesn’t go the edge of the road waving a white flag—it retreats to thick cover, and then dies. The odds of finding it before a predator does are remote. But with the radio-marked quail at RPQRR, our odds of finding sick quail are better.
This month as we trap quail for leg-banding and radio telemetry, we’re alsocollecting samples for disease and parasite testing. We submitted about 200 samples for screening of viral, bacterial, and parasitic diseases during November; results are pending. These data will help us better understand whether various diseases are a factor.
A separate research project on eye worms and intestinal parasites was initiated in September in collaboration with the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute. Preliminary testing from quail collected at RPQRR last winter showed parasite infestations in the eyes, which may be noteworthy. When you’re a bobwhite, you live on the edge as it is; any debilitating factor (like harboring worms under your eyelids) can’t be good news.
Quail hunters should be on the lookout for sick quail. Externally, if a quail is markedly light in weight, or if you see green discharge from the vent (anus), it might be noteworthy. As you clean birds, pay special attention to whether the liver has white or yellow nodules in it—these are suggestive of a bacterial infection. Either way, put the bird in a Ziploc bag, refrigerate it, and give me a call as soon as possible (325-653-4576 or 325-776-2615).