After a model year for Oklahoma rainfall and cooler temperatures during the spring and summer, the 2013 statewide quail index has increased 31 percent from last year and is up eight percent from 2011.
"This is welcome news after the record heat and drought our quail populations have had to endure in recent years," said Alan Peoples, chief of wildlife for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. "We've always said that quail success depends on weather and habitat and that populations will move up or down in direct correlation with rainfall and mild temperatures. This was the best summer we've had in seven years in terms of favorable quail conditions. While our birds have been hit hard in recent years with record heat and drought, we got a break this year that brought us greener habitat and mild temperatures. We hope this gets hunters excited about this year's Nov. 9 quail season opener."
The improved quail index supports the idea that reproductive success will be better during years of more rainfall and milder temperatures, but Wildlife Department biologists say that doesn't mean the range-wide struggle and decline of bobwhite quail is coming to an end. The state is still 78 percent below the 23-year average when it comes to roadside quail count survey results (Table 1). Instead, they are welcoming the relief, encouraging hunters to get out in the field and are continuing to put forth strong efforts in the way of habitat work and research.
In 2011, the Department joined Oklahoma State University in a research effort at the Packsaddle and Beaver River Wildlife Management Areas in northwest Oklahoma. Together they're aggressively studying quail populations and habitat, several nesting aspects, relationships between quail and weather, movement and survival of radio-marked adult quail and chicks, thermal modeling, methods of determining quail abundance, vegetation monitoring relative to burning and grazing, aerial and terrestrial predation, and the possible effects of aflatoxins on quail and other wildlife species. The Department also worked with the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch in Texas to study quail disease.
In addition, a range of on-the-ground quail habitat work, such as prescribed burning, is conducted regularly across the state on both public and private lands.
The quail index is determined using the Department's roadside quail count surveys, conducted across the state in August and October each year to count quail and classify the timing and success of reproduction. The surveys are conducted by Department biologists who drive more than 80 routes in almost every county in Oklahoma.
The most significant increases in survey observations occurred in the southwest, northeast and south-central regions of the state, with increases up 66, 67 and 67 percent, respectively, from 2012. What was observed in other regions of Oklahoma during the surveys was more typical of what hunters have observed from the field in recent years, with observations down from 2012 by eight percent in northwest Oklahoma and 93 in the southeast region. The number of quail observed in north-central Oklahoma remained the same as what they were during the 2012 roadside surveys.
During 2011 and 2012, Oklahoma had record heat and severe drought, and quail conditions suffered. The lack of rain affected the amount of nesting cover available for the 2012 nesting season. Radio-collared birds showed a high mortality in 2012, with most deaths attributed to predation from birds and mammals due to the effects of the drought.
This year Oklahoma had a favorable winter, which helped with the carryover of birds into the nesting season. The relief in the drought allowed birds to have a chance for multiple nesting attempts and some late hatches to add to the fall population. Research this year showed that quail had multiple nesting attempts, successful re-nests and second hatches.
"This year, the research also showed that radio-collared quail were still nesting into October and these nests were successful," said Scott Cox, upland game biologist for the Department.
This is a big improvement over 2011-12, according to Cox, when research showed that the birds shut down nesting in mid-summer and did not attempt to re-nest.
Western Oklahoma remains in the forefront when it comes to quail habitat in Oklahoma and will typically have the highest population of birds in the state. While southwest Oklahoma continues to struggle with effects of severe drought, roadside survey observations still increased, probably because of well-timed - though limited - breaks from the drought. While observations in northwest Oklahoma decreased slightly, the coveys that were observed were large and showed a variety of age classes. As a whole, precipitation in this region was good throughout the nesting season, increasing the amount of insect-attracting vegetation and providing good brooding cover.
Central Oklahoma also received timely precipitation for the nesting season that could have allowed for successful nesting attempts throughout the season. South-central Oklahoma showed the biggest increase in bird observation during the surveys, again the improved weather and habitat conditions are being credited. North-central did not see an increase during the survey over 2012, which could be a result of an increase of habitat caused by severe wild fires in the summer of 2012 and the likelihood of birds being able to forage away from the roadside. This region also benefited from timely rains, cooler temperatures, and a chance for late season nesting attempts and success.
"Across much of the state, we have quality habitat this year that can provide good hunting," Cox said. "And with the chance of a late season hatch, there should be some good opportunities to chase quail."
In eastern Oklahoma, land use changes such as conversion of native prairie to introduced grasses and encroachment of brush due to lack of fire has made high quality quail habitat more difficult to find. Most of this region did receive timely rains and cooler temperatures that would likely increase late season nesting attempts.
"This is likely reflected in the survey results with the increase in the northeast region over last year," Cox said. "But lack and loss of habitat is expected to result in lower quail numbers in much of the eastern part of the state. However, there are areas where timber harvest and intense management for quail has taken place, resulting in some nesting success and areas where quail numbers will provide hunting opportunity."
The true test of quail reproductive success each year, however, is determined by sportsmen who go afield with their family, friends and favorite dogs to hunt the birds in what is still some of the best quail haunts in the nation.