Timely rainfall and milder temperatures this spring have sparked excitement and anticipation not seen in years about the prospects for a rebound of bobwhite quail in Oklahoma.
"We're seeing better conditions now than we've seen in the past two and a half years," said Scott Cox, upland game biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
"There are a lot of birds being heard that haven't been heard in the past two or three years. We're optimistic that we're looking at a good nesting season," he said.
Department personnel have been hearing from landowners across the state indicating A Northern bobwhite quail sits atop a fencepost this month at Drummond Flats Wildlife Management Area in northwestern Oklahoma. (Jena Donnell/wildlifedepartment.com) they have been hearing the quails' characteristic "bob-white" whistle more frequently this spring than in past years. That is an indication that more birds are on the ground and are looking to nest this year.
In the past 60 days, most areas of Oklahoma have received more than 6 inches of rain, according to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. The state's southeast region has recorded close to 12 inches of rainfall since mid-April, and the parched western regions have seen between 5 and 8 inches of rain in many areas.
"Last year, the birds weren't nesting until we got some timely rain and milder temperatures. This year, birds are on the nests right now," Cox said.
Last year in mid-June, researchers who were tracking birds in northwestern Oklahoma had not recorded any birds nesting at that point. This year, people in western Oklahoma reported seeing quail chicks in mid-May.
This spring's rainfall has created good growing conditions for ground-cover plants, which quail use as nesting habitat. "Due to lower cattle numbers, nesting habitat ought to be really good this year," he said. "Up to now, we're about as good as it gets as far as nesting and forbs production in most parts of the state. The Panhandle is still behind in isolated areas, but it's looking better than in the past few years.
"Right now, with the rainfall and milder temperatures, we're definitely going to see more birds, if we don't have any catastrophes between July and October."
Other current factors pointing to higher quail numbers this year include:
• Late spring temperatures have been milder than in recent years. May's statewide average temperature was 58.2 degrees, which is 0.9 degrees below normal for the month.
• Because of increased sales, fewer cattle on pasture the past three years means less grazing pressure, which helps quail habitat.
• Unusual late-summer nesting in 2013 helped boost the number of birds available for this spring's breeding season.
• Some ranchers have reported seeing more quail this spring than anytime in the past decade.
• Quail chicks were seen in early May in Roger Mills County, notable because that is considered early in the nesting season.
• Healthy populations of grasshoppers and other insects are starting to be seen in quail nesting habitats, which indicates good food resources available for nesting birds and chicks.
• Researchers at Beaver River Wildlife Management Area reported finding more than a dozen quail nests as of mid-May. Last year, researchers there had seen no nests as of mid-June among the birds they were tracking, due to excessive heat and drought conditions.
Laura McIver, Oklahoma's regional representative for habitat advocacy group Quail Forever/Pheasants Forever, said the reports of better quail conditions are exciting.
"The weather is very important for quail. When Mother Nature plays nice, then they can rebound like that," she said.
Cox conservatively estimated Oklahoma's quail population at 750,000 to 1 million birds currently. In peak population years in the 1990s, the state's quail population was probably close to 7 million birds, he said. And in years with favorable conditions, quail have been known to nest as many as three times during the spring and summer months.
Bobwhite quail populations are related to favorable weather and good habitat. Even so, research has shown that quail mortality is generally about 80 percent each year. Since the bobwhite quail has an average lifespan of only seven to 10 months, Cox said hunting does not affect the overall population of the species.
Landowners who might be curious about this year's quail population need only go outdoors in the early mornings in the next few weeks and listen for the tell-tale "bob-white" whistles. Cox said the number and frequency of those quail calls could indicate how many birds are in the field presently.
Cox also advises landowners, especially in the northeastern parts of the state, to try to delay haying until August so that quail nests won't be destroyed or disturbed. Or, if haying must be done sooner, he urges landowners to leave strips of native grasses untouched so birds will have places to nest or re-nest.
But even though recent rains may have dented the drought over much of Oklahoma, Cox said it's too early to say that the state's quail population is coming out of its long-term slump. Researchers use radio transmitter collars to track bobwhite quail on two wildlife management areas in northwestern Oklahoma. (Jena Donnell/wildlifedepartment.com)
Research programs by the Department and Oklahoma State University are ongoing at Packsaddle and Beaver River WMAs in northwestern Oklahoma. These programs are aggressively studying quail populations and habitat, nesting, relationships between quail and the weather, movement and survival of radio-collared adult quail and chicks, thermal modeling, methods to assess quail abundance, vegetation monitoring, and possible effects of aflatoxins on quail and other species.
Researchers have also said that quail require three consecutive spring seasons with favorable conditions to achieve a robust population boost. This spring appears to be the second such season with good conditions. Only time will tell whether good conditions for a third year will create the population rebound that many hunters have been hoping for in the past several decades.