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Can We Bring Quail Back?

Preliminary results from focus areas show growth in bobwhite populations.

By Tom Harvey

If you’d asked me when I was a college senior if I’d be in the cattle business, I’d have said no. I might have said I want to be a corporate attorney in Argentina.”

Despite those joking words, conservation-minded rancher Frates Seeligson ended up taking a different road back to his country roots. After formative years in the country on family ranches, followed by a later sojourn in urban Austin, he is today a man on a mission: to bring back the prairie and its wild creatures, including one of the most iconic of Texas birds, the bobwhite quail.

“I feel responsible to do my part to improve the land, to put it back the way Mother Nature intended it to be,” Seeligson says. “Some people enjoy watching stock quotes go up and down — I couldn’t do that. The quail and the grasses are my stock ticker.”

Together with their neighbors, Frates and his wife, Josie, are part of a 20,000-acre focus area of multiple ranches making use of $4 million appropriated by the Texas Legislature to restore quail habitat.

And they’re not alone. Across Texas, hundreds of landowners are chasing the call of the bobwhite. They’re working with wildlife biologists to save the quail and, in the process, save the prairie, save water and preserve a way of life.

Quail

Native prairies provide crucial habitat for bobwhite quail. TPWD is working with landowners in focus areas to improve grasslands and help birds.

It’s a story that goes far beyond one bird. Yet “poor bobwhite” has become a rallying cry, bringing together ranchers and biologists, hunters and birders, government and nonprofits. This little ground-dwelling bird with funny head feathers is emerging as a poster child for saving our prairies.

Before the pioneers came, vast grasslands sprawled across most of Texas, broken by tree-lined river corridors and savanna landscapes, where oak tree clusters dotted the plains.

But in the early to mid-1900s, people changed the land. Tall native bunch grasses like bluestem were replaced by exotic grasses from Africa or other countries and by short-growing turf grasses that don’t tolerate drought well and provide little to no habitat for native wildlife. Today, many enlightened ranchers are going back the other way, finding it makes economic and ecological sense to go native.

What’s so special about native prairies? The answer may surprise you. Grasslands are possibly the least impressive landscape from an aesthetic perspective — plains and prairies can look like a lot of flat nothing. Looking closer, they are richly diverse ecosystems.

When Texas soil is rich with the fibrous roots of native grasses, it’s like a giant sponge. Rain soaks in and percolates slowly down, replenishing underground aquifers that bubble forth as springs. This is water conservation at the earliest possible point, using the soil to hold and filter water. The process helps sustain aquifers and springs during droughts, and it sends cleaner water into lakes, rivers and coastal estuaries.

The reverse is also true. When the land is abused and overgrazed, when invasive plants suck the life out and turn the land bare and rocky, rainwater runs off quickly, carrying precious topsoil that silts up rivers and lakes, quickly flushing everything away and leaving little behind for the dry times.

With the loss of native prairies came the loss of native wildlife. Since 1980, Texas bobwhite populations have declined by 75 percent. Why? Evidence points to changes in the quantity and quality of habitat as the leading cause.

There’s even more trouble in paradise. Besides quail, at least 24 other grassland birds are in serious decline. In the same period, the eastern meadowlark, songster of the plains, declined 84 percent, and the acrobatic scissor-tailed flycatcher declined 35 percent throughout its breeding grounds in Texas.

“Neither of these traditionally common birds are hunted, so hunting is not the issue,” says Robert Perez, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department upland game bird program leader. “Even though the bobwhite is our flagship species, we don’t have a narrow focus on a single species; we know when we improve grassland habitat we’re helping dozens of bird species.”

Quail

Pajarito Ranch owner Frates Seeligson (right) meets with TPWD biologist Matthew Reidy.

And this brings us back to the Seeligsons and their 5,200-acre Pajarito Ranch. They are in one of three focus areas where TPWD is funding habitat work using the legislative appropriation.

“We chose places where quail are gone, but they haven’t been gone long, kind of the front line in the battle to restore bobwhites,” Perez says. “It’s a ‘last out, first back in’ concept. Can we bring quail back? That’s the question we’re exploring in these focus areas.”

The three areas are in different parts of the state: a portion of southeastern Texas, involving close to a dozen counties around Columbus, Sealy and Victoria; the Interstate 35 corridor area in Navarro and Ellis counties in North Texas; and the Rolling Plains/Cross Timbers area, involving counties around and south of Wichita Falls.

In these areas, landowners and support organizations are planting native grasses and removing invasive brush through controlled burns or other means.

“The government will never be able to pay enough to restore millions of acres for quail habitat,” Perez says. “The goal is to demonstrate success in various areas of the state and show that quail habitat can be restored, to inspire and guide private landowners throughout the quail range.”

In late 2014, 15 grants were awarded to various groups for grassland restoration in the three focus areas. Although the Legislature directed allocation of the money, the $4 million in grants came from the sale of $7 upland game bird stamps purchased by Texas hunters.

Grant recipients include the Wildlife Habitat Federation west of Houston, the Western Navarro Bobwhite Recovery Initiative south of Dallas, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Grassland Restoration Incentive Program under the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture, which has already delivered habitat restoration projects on more than 40,000 acres of grasslands in the three focus areas.

In addition, a federal Wildlife Restoration Program grant for $200,000 is funding bobwhite quail and grassland bird population monitoring over four years in partnership with the joint venture, to measure the impact of restoration efforts in the focus areas.

“What’s different here is the monitoring,” Perez says. “That scale and quality of monitoring is often left out because there isn’t enough staff or money to do it. But this time we are counting birds carefully in new ways, before and after restoration. We hired summer technicians to cover thousands of points, counting quail and other grassland birds that share this habitat and are also in decline.”

One of those summer technicians was passionate young birder Rosemary Kramer, who spent the first three weeks of June on Pajarito Ranch after graduating from high school.

“There was a very notable difference in bird species in restored habitat,” Kramer says.

Her experience mirrors that of the Seeligsons, who are starting to see years of work paying off.

“I’m seeing more quail than I’ve ever seen before,” Frates Seeligson says. “In the areas where we’ve done habitat work and in areas with water, where we’ve run irrigation for trees, for example — you’ll see quail under the little oak trees we’ve planted.”

Although the Seeligsons lived for years in urban Hyde Park in Austin, Josie grew up in a family connected to ranches and wide-open spaces. She well remembers the bobwhite’s distinctive call, and is happy to hear its song returning to Pajarito Ranch.

“I remember hearing that call and everyone getting excited,” she says. “You knew that quail were out there and you knew what that represented. For a while you didn’t hear it, but now I when go on walks with the dogs, I hear it more often. Our neighbors say they have quail all over the place, too.”

Indeed, though it’s early yet to say, and scientists want more years of data to draw reliable conclusions, preliminary analysis of the expanded monitoring shows promise.

In 2013 and 2014, there were almost twice as many bobwhites in the southeast quail focus area as there were in nearby reference areas where no habitat work was done. Interestingly, when it comes to 2015, the data reverse, showing almost twice as many quail in unimproved reference areas. Perez thinks that’s because in 2013–14, Texas was still in a parching drought.

“Management shines in the tough years,” Perez says. “During drought, birds will be limited to where they can find refuge on the landscape. But when things get good, quail expand out on the landscape.”

Still, it’s a long-term investment. Quail didn’t disappear overnight, and it could take many more years to bring them back. Fortunately, more people are making the commitment to stay with it.

“I like watching the succession of nature,” Frates Seeligson says. “Every time I’m out there, I marvel at how we humans have this idea that we can do things better. We’ve brought in all these improved grasses and so on, but Mother Nature can do things better. It’s a long-term process. Things don’t happen fast. But because it takes a long time, it’s that much more gratifying.”

Got Land? Want to Help?

Ranchers in quail focus area counties can get help from organizations like these:

Wildlife Habitat Federation, west of Houston — whf-texas.org

Western Navarro Bobwhite Recovery Initiative, south of Dallas — navarroquail.org

Oaks & Prairies Joint Venture, statewide — www.restoreourgrasslands.org

Anywhere in Texas, landowners can get free technical guidance from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Find your local wildlife biologist at tpwd.texas.gov/biologist

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