Many clients come to me looking for quail hunting ranches and the Bobwhite quail is probably the second most important species (after whitetail deer) for recreational ranch buyers in the State of Texas. While the Bobwhite has seen unprecedented losses in populations over the past 30 years throughout much of its range, several areas of Texas have held onto good populations and continue to provide excellent hunting.
The decline of Bobwhites in Texas has been most dramatic in East Texas, the Gulf Coast Prairie and Central Texas where it had previously been a stronghold. South Texas and areas of northwest Texas/Panhandle continue to have excellent populations and are the most likely places for buyers to begin their search. There are a myriad of reasons for the decline in these areas and many are controversial, but the main culprit has been a change in the uses of rangeland and increased efficiencies in farming which have reduced traditional fence line brushy areas.
For the potential buyer of quail property, other than starting your search in areas that are known to be good quail country, there are several things one can look for. Quail need three major components to their habitat to flourish; cover from predators and summer heat, food and nesting cover.
Ground cover (woody cover) is essential to have present for quail to avoid predators such as hawks in the winter and important for keeping quail cool in the summer, particularly young quail. A good rule of thumb is for an area to have 20 – 30% brushy cover with the remaining areas open. Low mesquite, hog plum, cactus and scrub oaks all provide good cover for quail. Cover that is in strips 20 – 30 yds. wide is ideals among the open areas, but what is important is that woody cover be readily accessible to quail from the more open areas where the majority of their feeding takes place.
Food is the next important aspect of successful quail country. While some woody plants will provide seeds for adult quail, the majority of a quails diet comes from forbs (weeds). This is a major area where landowners can make a difference in their quail populations. Winter disking, prescribed burns and food plots will all greatly enhance the availability of the proper plants to produce food for quail. These practices will also increase the insect populations during the summer, which is critical for the survival of chicks. Most native grasses are good as nesting cover but not a good food source and disking and burning ranges will ensure a good supply of the forbs needed.
Nesting cover is an often-neglected aspect of quail habitat. While quail will nest in some woody covers and cactuses, certain grasses make the most suitable habitat. What is important to recognize is that tall stands of grasses from the previous season must be maintained through the winter to be available for nesting the following spring/summer nesting season. This will require setting aside areas of tall native grasses that will not be disked, burned or grazed. Rotating grazing is critical to avoid letting cattle remove next years nesting cover and must be carefully watched.
A final note for those looking for a quail-hunting ranch is that you should avoid buying property that is dominated by improved grasses such as Bahia grass and Bermuda. While many people believe that fire ants, cattle egrets and predators are the major killers of quail I do not (no hate mail please). The proliferation of these improved grasses is likely a major contributor to the loss of quail habitat and unless a ranch owner is willing to go to the time and expense of replacing these grasses with natives they will be fighting a losing battle.
Several groups are working to increase quail habitat and try to restore areas that have seen population drops in the last quarter century. The Audubon Quail & Grassland Birds Initiative involving several groups including Texas Parks & Wildlife, Quail Unlimited and many others has been active in Texas since 2003 and is very helpful for landowners interested in improving habitat. Further information about their efforts can be found at www.audubontexas.org.