The Quail Whisperer
Pioneering biologist A.S. Jackson left an enduring legacy based on no-nonsense, boots-on-the-ground research.
By Henry Chappell
I was 30 years old and considered myself a quail hunter. After all, I had grown up following pointing dogs. I pored over quail hunting articles, read popular books on the subject, ran a pretty good German shorthaired pointer and pocketed a few bobwhites. Then, in 1991, I read A Handbook for Bobwhite Quail Management in the West Texas Rolling Plains by A.S. Jackson. I learned more from those 77 pages than from the previous hundreds — or thousands — of pages I had read. The modest paperback book contained no discussion of guns, loads or hunting methods. Instead, its author explained in simple, elegant prose, the basics of bobwhite ecology on the Texas plains. I passed out copies to friends and quoted Jackson to long-suffering hunting partners. More importantly, I realized that the birds were more interesting than the hunting.
A few years later, writing assignments took me afield with biologists, and I began to hear A.S. Jackson stories: He would camp out with the birds for days at a time; he could out-walk anyone; as an octogenarian, he told a roomful of young biologists that they needed to get out of their pickups and walk. In Canyon, I held his neat, detailed maps of prairie chicken leks, hand-drawn on onion skin. I noted citations of his work in every scientific paper or TPWD bulletin on upland game bird ecology I read.
I regret that I never knew him. So I resolved to know more about him.
Alfred Sloan Jackson was born February 5, 1901, on a cotton farm in Dallas County, Texas. After living on several farms in several counties, the Jackson family settled at Wolf Ridge, near Gainesville, where they farmed the Blackland Prairie along the Red River. Young Jackson roamed thousands of acres of wooded bottomland and saw some of North Texas’ last red wolves. After graduating from high school in Gainesville in 1920, he stayed on the farm another six years before enrolling at North Texas State Teachers College in Denton. He received a bachelor of science degree and married his college sweetheart, Mary Elizabeth, in 1930. After teaching for a year at the NTSTC demonstration school, he taught science and served as principal at Grandview High School and Throckmorton from 1931 to 1941. In his spare time, he worked toward his master’s degree, performing research on mourning doves and white-necked ravens. Although he earned a master’s degree from North Texas State University, that institution didn’t offer courses in wildlife management, so Jackson supplemented his education with courses at Texas A&M University.
In June of 1941, at the age of 40, A.S. Jackson began a new career when he went to work for the Texas Game, Fish, and Oyster Commission. After a brief assignment in Lubbock, where he began to familiarize himself with the various wildlife projects, he moved his young family to Paducah, in the southeastern Panhandle. There he did his first serious quail and prairie chicken research.
In 1944, Jackson moved to Albany, where he established an office at the Lambshead Ranch and formed a friendship with rancher Watt Matthews that would last the rest of his life. His research focused on the Rio Grande turkey. He trapped surplus birds, which were used to restock depleted areas in the Panhandle. Many of the turkeys in the Canadian River bottom today are descendants of the Lambshead birds.
Jackson’s theories on quail mortality caught the attention of Aldo Leopold, the great naturalist, writer and conservationist widely regarded as the father of modern wildlife management. The two corresponded and met in San Antonio to discuss their ideas.
In 1950, the Jacksons moved to Canadian, where he was instrumental in the acquisition of the Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area. There, in the river breaks and sand hills of the northeastern Panhandle, he supervised and performed research on bobwhite quail and blue quail, prairie chickens, turkey and pronghorn. He laid down principles that still guide wildlife managers today.
“A.S. Jackson was a premier quail biologist in his time,” says retired upland game bird program leader Don Wilson. “He wrote all the beginning stuff about quail — the things we take completely for granted today.”
Jackson earned his formidable knowledge through thousands of days in the field, literally living with quail, locating and studying coveys, nesting pairs, and broods, rising before sunup to relocate birds by their morning calls. He was among the first to understand that quail populations suffer about 80 percent mortality independent of hunting. He consistently debunked popular misconceptions. In A Handbook for Bobwhite Quail Management, he considers the problem of misplaced faith in unscientific practices:
“A major problem lies in the holdover of faith in management techniques that have proven ineffectual in the past. The most widely advocated of these is the close-the-season-stop-all-hunting approach. Another is the stocking of non-habitable range with pen-reared bobwhites. Still another is predator control. None of these work in deficient habitat and none are needed where the habitat is right.”
Jackson studied the feeding habits of bobwhites by examining the contents of thousands of quail crops. During hunting season, he and colleagues gathered data on age and mortality by sorting thousands of bobwhite wings provided by hunters.
Retired TPWD wildlife technician Tommy Hinkle recalls his first year working for Jackson at Gene Howe WMA: “We were doing crop analysis, and we separated out every seed. Maybe out of 500 crops, we’d have half a dozen seeds we couldn’t identify.”
In those days before radio telemetry, Jackson sometimes resorted to colorful methods — literally. To investigate covey dynamics, he trapped and dyed birds red, green, purple or orange — one color for each covey — then released them. The result? Within a few weeks, the coveys were multicolored. The birds moved between coveys far more than many biologists had previously believed. Better yet, the Gene Howe WMA staff didn’t tell the hunters about the dyed birds. “You should’ve heard some of the comments,” Hinkle says.
Jackson’s interest ran far beyond game birds. “He was more than a biologist,” Hinkle says. “He was a naturalist.” Jackson loved the Mississippi kite, a small, agile hawk common on the southern Great Plains. He built blinds in trees to monitor kite nests and took countless photographs and field notes. His article “Mississippi Kite” appeared with his accompanying photos in the August 1945 issue of Texas Game and Fish, the predecessor to this magazine.
“He was a wildlife biologist of the old school,” says Vernon Morse, who managed Gene Howe WMA late in Jackson’s tenure. “He could tell you all about species I didn’t even know about — from obscure little fish who live in puddles to buffalo and bear. He spent more time in camp than all the rest of us biologists combined.”
During the late 1950s, Jackson led negotiations with the Matador Ranch for the acquisition of the 28,000-acre Matador Wildlife Management Area. He bargained shrewdly; it’s no accident that the state came away with miles of Pease River bottom.
In 1997, retired TPWD biologist Dick DeArment, one of Jackson’s closest friends, told me, “Jack was remarkable in that he was not only an exceptional field man, but a fine writer as well.” What writer wouldn’t love to claim these passages from “Sandhill Citizen,” Jackson’s March 1957 article in Texas Game and Fish magazine?
“Over-sized, bugged out black eyes, swollen cheek pouches, and two-legged locomotion give the kangaroo rat an impudent, winning personality not possessed by other members of the rat family.”
And a bit further on:
“The flesh of the Ord Kangaroo rat is tender and without offensive odor. Doubtless, were it not for our prejudices, it would be as delectable as quail on the breakfast table.”
By the time he retired in 1966, Jackson’s influence and reputation had spread well beyond the Panhandle. His awards include the 1963 American Motors Conservation Award and the Outstanding Service Award from the Texas Chapter of the Wildlife Society, given in 1967. More telling, perhaps, are A.S. Jackson Park in Canadian and A.S. Jackson Nature Trail at Lake Marvin, designated by his community.
Likewise, he made some of his most important contributions close to home. Retired TPWD biologist Billy Hudgins went to work for Jackson in 1958, “A.S. was a great natural teacher,” he says. “We young hands up in the Panhandle thought of him as our Aldo Leopold.”
Andrea Green, Jackson’s daughter, recalls riding with her father on mourning dove and prairie chicken surveys. “Those are some of my fondest childhood memories,” she says. “His ideals certainly influence my life. I nearly always knew what kind of snake I was looking at, or flower, or bird. If I didn’t know I’d look it up. I still do today.”
In 1991, while working on an assignment for this magazine, photographer Wyman Meinzer asked Dick DeArment who he should talk to about the natural history of the Panhandle. Following DeArment’s suggestion, Meinzer drove to Canadian and knocked on A.S. Jackson’s front door. The two became instant friends. “The man had incredible recall for facts and poetry,” Meinzer says. “We spent a lot of time driving around up on the Canadian River, talking about Indians, buffalo and history.”
About a month before his death in 1994, weak and burdened with an oxygen bottle, Jackson had to decline when Meinzer suggested an outing. “But he told me to be sure and stop by on my way home,” Meinzer says. “He wanted to talk about what I’d seen.”
Andrea Green’s summation of her father’s life is as simple and beautiful as many of his field notes: “He did everything he could to conserve what we have. He lived a fine life.”