Click to view this email in a browser
facebook-64x64 RPQRR on Twitter RPQRR on YouTube


Spotlight on Predation

“For a Central American dictator he died a natural death—he was shot in the back.”  - Will Rogers

NorthenHFew quail die of old age.  Most die before seeing their first birthday.  Some meet their death from F-150s, some from 20-gauges.  But most meet their demise from the fangs or talons of various predators.  Death from above, and death in the tall grass.  One’s scourge varies according to season; various “mesocarnivores” (e.g., bobcats, foxes, coyotes, skunks) claim more quail during the summer (e.g., nesting season), while various raptors (e.g., hawks) earn Top Gun during the winter. 

This issue of e-Quail examines the impact of predators on RPQRR’s quail population (bobwhites and blues).  It’s easy (as quail hunters) to cast a jaundiced eye on our competitors. I Rollins-ize Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion as “to every action there are many reactions, some apparent, others more transparent.”  One of the most-cited essays regarding an ecological perspective of predation is Aldo Leopold’s Thinking Like a Mountain (

In the context of quail and predation, we should at least aspire to think like a sandhill.  We should appreciate how predation (as a selection pressure) has helped shape the behaviors in quail that we admire (e.g., a covey rise).  For two relevant articles see Rollins and Carroll (2001; ) and Rollins (1999; ).  Also see one of Agrilife’s latest webisodes “Predator Management and Quail”.

Predation and predation management are often (always) controversial.  So, in the vernacular of Sgt. Joe Friday (ala Dragnet) here’s what I offer as “just the facts ma’am.”  As we enter our 11th year at RPQRR, we’ve begun (and continue) to amass the “facts” of just how multifaceted (hence complex) the quail equation is relative to predation.

Impacts on survival

Technicians Carl Underwood, Casey Weissburg, and Trey Johnson contributed to this section on survival and “cause-specific mortality.”  Our bobwhites (especially) have had a rough winter survival-wise.  When we have a mortality, we inspect the kill site and conduct “Quail CSI”, seeking to determine if the kill was that of a raptor or a mammal.  We examine the feather piles, check for teeth marks on the transmitter, and look for other telltale signs (i.e., the presence of a gizzard suggests a bobcat was responsible).  Our diagnoses are never certain, but serve as educated guesses.  Typically 20-40% of the kills are classified as “unknown” if we’re not comfortable with assigning a specific cause of death.

We’ve experienced 66 mortalities of radio-collared quail since 29 November (57.8%). Interestingly, blues were killed by mammals more often (44%) than by raptors (31%).  In contrast, bobwhites were taken by raptors more often (46%) than by mammals (24%), with unknown cause of death contributing 28% of mortalities and hunters 2% (one individual). Whether this is due to choice of habitat or to the habit of Blues to run rather than fly, is difficult to say without additional information about habitat structure and intensive behavioral observation.

Figure 1.  Kaplan-Meier survival estimates for radio-marked bobwhite (n = 69) and blue quail (n = 46) on the RPQRR, Dec 2017 – Feb 2018.

These estimates for winter survival are similar to what we experienced in 2008 (34%) and 2009 (38%) on a ranch adjacent to the RPQRR (Teinert et al. 2009; see  Teinert observed 2 significant mortality events.  The first occurred with a snowfall event at Thanksgiving and the latter confirmed more mortalities during late-winter.

Figure 2.  Bobwhite weekly survival during the 2007-08 winter based on Program MARK estimates from radiotelemetry data from the Rolling Plains (Fisher County), Texas (Source: Teinert et al., 2009).
The agents

Raptors are one of the major predators for quail. This season there have been 29 confirmed raptor kills out of our 69 mortalities; that’s over 40%. Because they are such a major factor for our quail population we conduct raptor surveys twice a week. We drive a twenty mile route and identify birds of prey to their species. In 2016, our Northern Harrier and Buteo (Buteos include birds such as Red-tailed Hawks and Swainson’s Hawks) populations spiked, with an average of 10.22 raptors per survey. This spike corresponds with a spike in our small mammal and quail populations. The abundance of prey likely attracted the raptors—these populations ebb and flow. As our small mammal and quail populations have returned to more normal levels so have our raptor populations. In 2017 we averaged 4.13 raptors per survey.

Figure 3.   Cause-specific mortalities of radio-marked bobwhite and scaled quail, RPQRR, Dec 2017 – Feb 2018.

Figure 4.  Raptor trends at RPQRR, 2009 – 2017.

Accipiters include Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks. Accipiters are bird hunters (Dr. Rollins refers to them as F-16s; they’re designed for air-to-air combat).  Despite the rise in other raptors, the number of accipiters remained relatively low, but our data for accipiters are likely biased low. Their elusive nature and tendency to perch in denser shrub cover, makes them more difficult for us to detect. Even with their low numbers, we suspect accipiters account for most of our quail mortalities. Buteos include the common red-tailed hawk (in Rollins’ lingo, the “B-17 bombers”) and northern harriers (“A-10 Warthogs”), target mainly small mammals but will opportunistically capture quail.  

Déjà vu 1943

“Between then (17 Jan 1943) and January 15, the bobwhite population was disrupted with explosive suddenness, and all but remnants of coveys were lost, to predation. . . Everywhere the ground was littered with evidence that predation had been recent and terrific.  Significantly, evidence of predation on scaled quail was light.”  - A. S. Jackson (1947)
Blue quail are somewhat more intelligent than bobwhites.” – V. Lehmann

In my opinion, harriers are underrated in their ability to catch quail.  See Casey Weissburg’s excellent photo (above) of a harrier carrying off a leg-banded bobwhite recently.  In an incident of a bobwhite irruption in King Co. terminated by predation in 1943, A. S. Jackson described the events leading up to and during the mortality event.  This is an interesting read (and read the questions/comments he received after his presentation).  He reckoned that harriers were the only raptor common enough to account for most of the predation events.

Feather piles

featherpileWhen someone calls me saying their quail population has “disappeared” I ask if they’ve observed any feather piles (i.e., evidence of predation) during their sojourns afield.  They always answer “no.”  If there has indeed been an implosion, shouldn’t one be observing feather piles?  Since last month, I have solicited observations from quail hunters about the incidence of feather piles (i.e., kill sites) they observed while hunting.  One serious hunter (Steve Snell, QM 2015, RPQRF board member) observed 20 such kill sites in 3 days of hunting in Borden Co.  I find these numbers incredible (not that I doubt Snell’s count), but other hunters were also reporting feather piles commonly.  Over the last two months of quail season, we’ve been saving pelts from the bobwhites harvested at RPQRR.  Soon we’ll be placing those at random locations across the ranch to determine how long such feather evidence remains visible. 

Prey situation

Figure 5.  Small mammal abundance (green line) vs. Minimum Known Quail population (red line), RPQRR, 2013-2018.

As you can see, quail abundance and small mammal (i.e., rodent) abundance have tracked each other quite incredibly at RPQRR. The relationship of small mammals and quail is important because small mammals have the potential to serve as buffer prey for quail, or species that shift predatory pressure away from quail. Alternatively, high abundance of small mammals could also attract predators and the relationship of small mammals and quail demography could be antagonistic. Thus, it is important to understand the mechanisms of their relationship.

During small mammal trapping we trap in 8 habitat types. We set up five 50m x 50m grids, with 25 traps per grid. This totals to be 4,000 trap nights per session. Hispid cotton rats (Sigmodon hispidus) comprised the majority of the trap yield in 2016, but experienced a 99% population decline in 2017. All small mammal species, except Mexican ground squirrels (Spermophilus mexicanus), exhibited lower numbers during the June 2017 trapping season. More Mexican ground squirrels (19 total) were captured during the June 2017 trapping season than all other trapping efforts combined.  Interestingly, we identified ground squirrels (via photo surveillance of quail nests) as significant egg predators last summer.

This year our small mammal populations have continued to decline from the low population we observed in 2017. After checking 4,000 traps we only captured 55 individual rodents, 40% of those being wood rats (Neotoma).   Cotton rats accounted for 97% of the rodents trapped in January 2017 . . . but not a single cotton rat was captured in January 2018.  The dearth of rodents and the rise in quail mortalities are undoubtedly related. Considering the past relationship between small mammals and quail populations, we anticipate documenting future quail response to this drastic decline.

Coyotes and quail

Coyotes are usually maligned as menacing predators of quail.  Are they?  Our data, based on scat content analyses conducted over 5 years (2010-12 [La Niña conditions; Tyson 2012], 2015-16 [El Niño conditions; Bowlin 2018]) have exonerated coyotes as an important predator of quail, at least here at RPQRR.  Even though quail abundance varied greatly between these two studies, neither indicated significant predation on quail. Our diet studies have documented very low occurrence of quail (< 1%) in diets of coyotes whereas they prey on potential predators of quail (e.g., snakes, skunks) more than quail.  Accordingly, we give them a pass. When you pass one along a ranch road, it will likely stand and stare at you from 50 yards away.

Figure 6.  Number of coyote scats (n=496) containing particular food item (collected October 2015-February 2017) on the RPQRR, Fisher County, Texas.  Quail were identified in only 3 scats (0.6%).  Source:  Bowlin 2018; MS Thesis, Texas Tech University.

Song of the Month

Mack the Knife by Bobby Darin (1959).
Word of the Month

logomachy - noun; “a controversy marked by verbiage”, i.e., discussions over the topic of predation management.
Evaluating Translocation Efforts: The Next Round of Translocation Research by Becky Ruzicka, Ph.D. student, Colorado State University

  Since 2013, RPQRF has conducted 6 translocations across the Rolling Plains ecoregion: 3 with bobwhites and 3 with scaled quail (or blue quail). The overall goal of our translocation research is to be able to improve the effectiveness of translocation as a tool to restore wild quail populations.  Recently, we received another round of funding from Texas A&M Extension Service’s Reversing the Quail Decline in Texas Initiative (RQDI) to continue our translocation research into two techniques to evaluate translocation success: a genetics based assessment and large-scale multi-season occupancy surveys. 

One of the shortcomings of most translocation research is the lack of monitoring and reporting post-translocation. Translocation success can be highly variable and is often dependent on a variety of factors.  Without reliable monitoring techniques, gaining an understanding of the factors that influence translocation success is impossible.  Many studies rely on short-term monitoring that focuses on the vital rates of founding individuals, typically, in the first breeding season post-release. However, if the long-term goal of a reintroduction is to establish a self-sustaining population over many years, then monitoring approaches that can assess success or failure at the appropriate time scale are needed.

1.  Genetic Assessment: Many studies have assessed the genetic contribution of translocated individuals or source populations to the current population on the release site as a method to evaluate the impact of a translocation efforts in other species.  Recent advances have made genetic tools more accessible and cost-effective. Thus the practicality of these approaches for monitoring and evaluation purposes has improved. In our proposed study, we will compare the genetic characteristics (using DNA from feather samples) of the scaled quail translocated onto RPQRR with a large sample of birds from the current population.  This will allow us to assess whether the current population is the result of reproduction only among translocated quail or whether there is introgression from either resident birds not detected before the translocations took place or birds migrating in from neighboring populations.  This research will also provide a framework for evaluating the impact of future bobwhite and scaled quail translocation efforts.   

2.  Occupancy Survey:  Recent research has highlighted the importance of large landscapes for sustaining quail populations. It follows that translocation may also need to be conducted on similarly large landscapes to increase the probability of success. However, large landscapes present a challenge for monitoring release sites pre- and post- translocation. Typically, helicopter surveys have been employed to monitor abundance over large landscapes, but these surveys are costly. They are also ineffective if the surveyed area supports multiple quail species due to the difficulty of differentiating quail species from the air. Techniques to monitor relative abundance of quail are similarly problematic. Spring call counts are feasible on a large scale, but large sample sizes are needed to detect a difference and the relationship between the average number of calling roosters and true abundance is tenuous at best. Fall counts can be used to monitor bobwhites, but scaled quail do not make an equivalent call during the fall-winter months.  However, fall call counts are labor intensive and, thus, not easily employed over a large landscape. Relative abundance techniques also do not allow for the estimation of detection, which may be an import driver the data collected.

Multi-season occupancy is a potential monitoring tool for translocations in large landscapes. These analyses can make use of visual and auditory presence/absence data collected from independent points within the survey area. These data are efficient to collect and can be analyzed in a framework to estimate detection and incorporate covariates. With a covariate to describe distance from release point, it can be used to provide information on the spread of the population over time. Additionally, multi-season occupancy data can be used to evaluate factors (e.g. habitat, soil, weather, etc.) driving extinction and colonization of habitats. Monitoring colonization patterns of reintroduced populations may increase understanding of preferred habitats. Occupancy surveys are best employed on large landscape to facilitate the necessary sample size of independent points and in an area with low occupancy at the outset of survey.

RPQRF’s scaled quail translocation effort in the South Wichita River Drainage in Knox County (which was funded by the 2016-17 RQDI) provides an opportunity to apply occupancy techniques for use in monitoring large scale translocation efforts. We were able to translocate 888 scaled quail over two years into an area with 4 cooperating landowners that covers approximately 40,000 HA (100,000 acres) of contiguous habitat. Prior to the first release we conducted an occupancy survey on a 1.5 km x 1.5 km grid (73 sampling locations) across the release site. This survey confirmed low occupancy prior to release (one sampling location was occupied). We continued that survey in 2017 prior to the second release and were able to document an increase in occupancy in immediate proximity to the release site. Our objectives in continuing this survey are two-fold: 1) to monitor the spread of the population throughout the study area using multi-season occupancy and 2) evaluate landscape and habitat characteristics that influence how a reintroduced scaled quail population colonizes a novel habitat post release.
QuailMasters to muster April 22 at RPQRR

QuailMasters 2018 has opened registration for its final run, its founder said. The series, co-sponsored by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and the Texas Wildlife Association, starts in April.

The series is an intensive, hands-on training designed to introduce participants to the best quail habitat in Texas, thus making them “masters” of the art and science of quail management, said Dr. Dale Rollins, statewide coordinator for Texas A&M AgriLife’s Reversing the Decline of Quail Initiative at San Angelo and series founder.

“I started the QuailMasters program as an offshoot of the Bobwhite Brigade Youth Leadership Camp,” Rollins said. “QuailMasters offers landowners, biologists and graduate students an opportunity to get immersed in quail management. We meet four times for two and a half days each time, and tour some of the finest quail properties in the state.

“I’ve said for the last two years that ‘this is the last time’ so some gig me, but this time it really is,” he said. “So in honor of this particular program’s final chapter, I’m referring to it as the ‘When Quail Freezes Over’ tour.”

The sessions are:

-Session 1, April 22-24, Roby.

-Session 2, May 20-22, Breckenridge.

-Session 3, Aug. 5-7, to be announced based on class feedback at Session 1.

-Session 4, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, Hebbronville.

Individual tuition is $500 and $250 for college students, which includes most meals and educational support materials. Three hours of graduate college credit is available for additional fees as dictated by the participating university.

For more information or to register, contact Lisa Flowers, Texas Wildlife Association director of programs, San Antonio, at 210-826-2904 or; Amanda Gobeli, Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute associate, Dallas, at 720-33-6224 or; or Rollins at 325-653-4576 or
RPQRR’s Wish List – Can you help?

Our support for quail research comes almost exclusively from private donors.  Perhaps you would like to help us help quail.  We have need for various pieces of equipment.  If you would like to donate, RPQRR is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation, so your donations (cash or in-kind) are tax deductible.  Alternatively, if you’d like to make a cash donation and have it earmarked for one of these items that’s great too.  Here’s our current list of needs:
Item Need
100-hp tractor Food plot preparation, shredding
15’ batwing shredder Shredding
Shop-style drawer toolbox Tool storage
Sea container Storage of equipment
12-ft tandem disc Discing, field prep
Moveable hog trap For trapping feral swine (they’ve been quite problematic over past month.)
Calendar of events

Mar 8:  Park Cities Quail T. Boone Pickens Sportsman of the Year banquet honoring RPQRF’s Rick Snipes; FMI see .

Mar 9-11:  Region 7 American Shooting Dog field trial, RPQRR; FMI contact Chip Martin (325-660-3599.

Mar 29:  Urban Quail Appreciation Day, Botanical Research Institute of Texas, Ft. Worth; fmi e-mail
RPQRR to host its first field trial Mar 9-11

Region 7 of the American Shooting Dog Championship will host a field trial on RPQRR Mar 9-11.  For more information, contact Chip Martin (325-660-3599).  I’ve never been to a field trial so I’m anxious to see how this goes.  One concern that I’ve been told some may grouse about is “y’all have too many quail.”  If that happens, I’m just going to smile and savor the comments!
Intern diaries

Our internships give budding professionals a chance to get some OJT and a taste of quail research.    I require each intern/seasonal technician to leave me with an essay describing their experience at RPQRR.  This month’s essay is by Trey Johnson.  He did a great job and will make someone a fine employee someday. -- DR

TreyJOn August 3rd, 2017, I packed up and headed home from a field job in North Dakota where I was monitoring the reproductive success of greater sage-grouse. As I drove 1,200 miles south, back to the Lone Star State, I prepared myself for my upcoming interview with Dr. Rollins. What is the scientific name of a northern bobwhite? What are preferred food items of quail? What is the significance of prescribed burning? I let the questions flow through my mind in hopes of securing a job a bit closer to home. Focusing on potential interview questions (and a little caffeine) helped to keep me attentive on the tiresome 16-hour drive.

While speaking with Dr. Rollins two days later during the interview, I quickly realized that I would need to do much more than brush up on quail ecology and management to meet his expectations. Several days later, I was offered the position. With the high standards of the RPQRR in mind, I quickly accepted the challenge (position).

On the day that I arrived, Brad Kubecka, a past graduate student of Dr. Rollins’ and an exceptional mentor, was waiting at headquarters to greet me. After unpacking a few of my belongings and stretching my legs a bit, Brad toured me around the ranch. As we drove around the 4,700 acre ranch, I was, for the first time, exposed to true west Texas quail country. All the while, we discussed the daily ongoings of the ranch. Soon after the tour, I was introduced to ranch manager Lloyd Lacoste, a fellow Aggie, who immediately struck me as someone I would enjoy working for. As I settled into my room that evening, with the impression of those two and the vastness of the landscape in mind, the satisfaction of my decision to move to west Texas was furthered.

During my time at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch, I learned a variety of skills ranging from aging quail to driving a tractor to properly using a Lincoln–Peterson population estimator. I also had the opportunity to shake hands with some of the biggest names in the quail “industry.” While the technical skills and relationships that I acquired at the ranch will likely leave their mark on my career, the things that will stick with me, the things that have become a part of me are the life lessons that I have learned. Possibly the most important is one from “Suzie’s 12 Point Plan.” Point number 5 states “dismiss the meadowlarks. As a bird dog (student) your mission is to find quail. Avoid the distractions. The scent of a meadowlark or rabbit will bring only fleeting satisfaction; stay focused on your goals in life.” With this in mind, I will proceed forward in search of a graduate position.

By the time this reaches the newsletter, I will have traveled to Tallahassee, Florida to volunteer at Tall Timbers Research Station for a week, and then on to Reno, Nevada for a USGS sage-grouse training in preparation for a field season in the sage steppe of southeastern Wyoming. Without the “love of labor” that the ranch has bestowed upon me, none of this will have been possible. I can’t begin to describe how thankful I am for all the opportunities that Dr. Rollins and the RPQRR have given me. I know I will be seeing y’all again. I can’t stay away from Texas for too long. Thanks and Gig’em!
Coming in April


 Forward this message to a friend

By the numbers

44.7% - That’s the percent of quail bagged over the past hunting season (n = 170) that were leg-banded last November.  Those data allow us to calculate a “mark-recapture” estimate of our quail population.  Program MARK overestimated our Minimum Known Population quite a bit; estimates were 5,069 vs. 2,282 respectively.

BATR (Back at the Ranch)

We have several prescribed burns lined up, a field trial to be held, and additional trapping to increase our number of radio-marked hens as we enter the nesting season (May 1).  We also plan to deploy our first GPS transmitters on quail this month.

In the News

See Tom Davis’ article in the March 2018 issue of Sporting Classics on the eyeworm research being conducted at RPQRR.

From Facebook

See my post of 22 Feb for my tribute to outdoor writer Ray Sasser who passed away on 21 Feb.  RIP Ray.

Got e-Quail?

Got a new e-mail address? Please [Click Here] to update your information if you wish to continue receiving e-Quail.

Forwarded from a friend?  Please [Click Here] to sign up for the RPQRR e-Quail Newsletters!

Visit Us on the Web


Non-Profits Email Free with VerticalResponse!