By Oliver Hartner
Water nourishes all life on Earth, and quail are no exception. Some heartier species among the drier climes require less hydration, but they too rely upon water for their survival. Viable levels of water sustain their food sources, grow their nesting cover, and quench their thirst.
We collected comments from biologists and wildlife managers in several states affected by the drought out west to find out what they are seeing on the ground and how the habitat and quail species are faring.
This state is home to three different species—Mearns’, Gambel’s, and scaled quail—and it is expected they will experience significant decline due to the drought. Larissa Harding, avid quail hunter and Small Game Program Manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, explains, “Most of Arizona has seen little to no precipitation since winter 2019-20, so wildlife are struggling with 18+ months of ongoing dry conditions. The 2020-21 winter produced very little or highly localized moisture, if any.” As a result, Larissa believes that quail struggled this past spring to either nest or rear broods. “The land didn't 'green up' this spring to trigger breeding activities or support the insects chicks need. Two of our longest running survey routes in southeastern Arizona had an 80% decrease in calling activity compared to last spring.”
Delays in the nesting and breeding cycle were compounded when extreme temperatures broiled the state, and it seems those chicks that managed to hatch became casualties of the torrid temperatures. Larissa says, “I saw a handful of local Gambel’s quail coveys, each with half a dozen small chicks, but the heat wave in late-May/early-June took a severe toll before they could mature enough to thermoregulate.
Most Mearns’, Gambel's and scaled quail out there now are likely carryover from the previous year's surviving juveniles and adults.” Southeastern zones of the state offer the best quail hunting according to Larissa, but those areas are suffering along with most of the state. She estimates about 90 peercent of Arizona is in extreme or exceptional drought conditions. “Any moisture would be welcome for all quail in Arizona.”
Larissa hopes areas with riparian corridors might buffer the devastation from drought and excessive heat, but she admits those areas also struggle with the lack of moisture. “While there are riparian areas and reclaimed drainages where local Quail Forever chapters have concentrated their efforts, we can't make it rain, and that's the crucial piece that's missing.” She adds that quail will use urban water resources and anything else they can reach, and that state employees and volunteers deployed millions of gallons of water to tanks and guzzlers to keep water on the landscape for the wildlife. “We've got a lot of tough birds who seem to persist against the odds, so we're hoping if we can get some rain in the coming months, quail numbers will respond favorably.”
Mountain, California, and Gambel’s quail make their home in The Golden State, and statewide populations for each of these species face severe drought conditions this year. According to Katherine Miller, Upland Game Bird Biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, conditions this year will extend a three-year trend of precipitation below 30-year normal averages. “In 2020, these hot dry conditions resulted in severe fires for the summer and fall months, affecting both the nesting birds and those paired with hatchling young. When upland game bird populations experience severe drought, nesting success is often reduced in correlation with decreased plant abundance which birds use for cover and food. This also reduces the insect population which is critical to the diet of young chicks.”
There do not seem to be any areas in California unaffected by the drought, and the southeastern region near the Mojave Desert holding most of the Gambel’s quail population is of particular concern. Mountain quail ranging down the east slope of the Sierra Nevada are also a source of concern for biologists. Though southern and northern coastal regions in California are experiencing more moderate drought conditions, they also have the least amount of habitat due to urban density. “The native vegetation in these areas will continue to provide food and refuge for some quail, but many other factors including urbanization and the potential for more frequent large-scale wildfires could impose additional strain on these birds,” Katherine says.
All quail species inhabiting California evolved in its arid climate, and they survive drought conditions by lowering productivity until more favorable nesting conditions return. However, multiple years of unfavorable conditions will take their toll. In the meantime, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and several other agencies are doing all they can to mitigate the crisis. “Department staff have coordinated with other agencies to provide water for wildlife in dry areas, and are engaged in efforts to better understand quail habitat through research, in order to better manage the habitat for each species,” Katherine reports.
According to biologists here, quail populations in Iowa could experience additional detriment from new regulations on cutting for hay in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) areas. Todd Bogenschutz, Upland Wildlife Research Biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, says, “The biggest impact on quail hunting this fall could be cutting CRP lands for hay. Old CRP rules stipulated that during a drought only 50% of the field could be cut for hay. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) changed the rules so that now an entire field can be cut for hay. This means zero cover for late nesting or late broods, zero cover to hunt, and zero cover for winter survival.” Todd adds that about 70% of counties in Iowa could be opened up for cutting hay once the primary nesting season ends on August 1, 2021, and that other states should take note. “These rules don’t apply strictly for Iowa, and producers keep their full rental rate while selling the hay. So why wouldn't they cut their entire CRP if hay prices are good during a drought? This incentivized poor habitat management,” he believes.
Iowa looks like a mixed bag when it comes to habitat availability for quail this season. Todd sees northwest Iowa needing the most additional moisture for crops while southeast Iowa is flooded with too much rain. And while quail seem likely to fair well on public land, due to the new CRP rules, Todd believes that quail habitat on private land may not fare so well. He adds, “Iowa is far enough east that droughts don't generally impact us like western states. We've had a dry spring which usually bodes well for a good hatch. But in our quail range, we had a severe winter, and it looks like our quail numbers will be 50% lower than a year ago. The severe flooding in the southeast part of the state also presents a problem with quail nesting. We will have to wait for our roadside counts to know for sure the extent of these problems.”
Unlike several nearby states, weather conditions this summer in Nebraska have been favorable for production. John Laux of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission says, “Looking at the U.S. Drought Monitor, only a few counties in the extreme northeast areas, primarily Boyd County, but also northern Holt, Knox, and Cedar Counties, have experienced prolonged drought conditions. Outside of that, the remainder of the state is in pretty good shape overall.” He adds that during June, conditions were very warm and dry statewide, but timely rains helped maintain good habitat conditions in most areas of the state so far this summer.
Extreme drought and heat plague the State of Nevada, and the quail populations here are feeling the burn...literally. Nevada is home to a significant number of Gambel’s, Mountain, and California quail, and their water supply is dwindling. Shawn Espinosa, Upland Game Staff Specialist of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, says, “We are in the midst of significant drought with much of the southern and eastern portions of the state classified as ‘extreme drought’” by the United States Drought Monitor. This will have negative influences on Gambel’s quail in the southern portion of the state, and California quail in northwestern parts of the state.” He adds that the quail species inhabiting the state rely on small game water developments which are beginning to dry up, and that this will have consequences for Gambel’s quail distribution in southern Nevada.
Poor habitat management seems to have compounded the drought problem, particularly in regard to livestock and the wild horse population. Shawn says, “Nevada is suffering from overpopulations of wild horses that are significantly impacting habitat quality of all types. As of March 2021, wild horses are well above 300% of the ‘Appropriate Management Level’ according to the United States Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. This coupled with improper livestock management in some areas of the state intensifies the negative effects on habitat quality, and the diminished water resources will only exacerbate these issues.”
While most parts of Nevada remain in significant drought status, there are some areas of relief, particularly for California quail in northwestern Nevada. “Quail populations that are associated with agricultural resources will likely be able to sustain themselves, and there are a few mountain ranges such as the Santa Rosa Mountains and the Montana Mountains in north-central Nevada that received more precipitation and overall snowpack than surrounding ranges,” Shawn explains. Still, the overall situation on the ground is dire, and the Nevada Department of Wildlife will not know the extent of the damage until later this year. “We expect some production in the mountain ranges and around agricultural areas, but it will be modest at best, and quail populations that reside in more native situations are likely to suffer.”
As with most southwestern states, multiple years of drought appear to be causing declines to all of New Mexico's quail species, whose overall population includes Gambel’s, scaled, and northern bobwhite. Casey Cardinal of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish says, “Scaled quail and northern bobwhite numbers have been slowly dropping since a peak in 2015 due to periods of drought. With the severity of the drought going into spring of 2021, we saw further decline in those populations. Gambel's quail had a good year in 2020, but in the spring of 2021, coveys stuck together longer rather than breaking up into breeding pairs. For all of our quail species, extreme drought going into the spring led some birds to delay nesting efforts due to reduced habitat and a lack of phorbs and insects which chicks need for nourishment.”
Casey reports that most of the quail habitat range in New Mexico was affected by the drought this spring, and that the southeast and southwest regions in particular have been hardest hit. “Over the last several years, we have seen reduced numbers of scaled quail in the southeast, and reduced numbers of Gambel’s quail in the southwest, due to suboptimal precipitation. This spring had some of the driest conditions since the quail population peak in 2015, and winter drought in the southwest portion of the state heavily impacted Gambel's quail production since winter moisture increases their breeding habits.”
Despite harsh conditions across most of the state, some places show promise for the quail species inhabiting those areas. “The Northeast corner and along the Middle Rio Grande Valley were in lower levels of drought going into the breeding season. These areas don't hold the highest quail densities in the state, but production may be better here than in those extreme drought areas,” Casey explains. She adds that proper habitat maintenance might mitigate some damage from the drought. “Areas with sufficient cover from the previous year can still provide nesting habitat for going into a drought-stricken spring. Additionally, areas with healthy vegetation are better able to absorb and recover when precipitation arrives. Unfortunately, even with habitat maintenance, prolonged extreme drought will reduce breeding activity and reduce chick survival.”
If current conditions stay on trend, The Lone Star state looks poised to have a better-than-average year for its quail population. John McLaughlin, West Texas Quail Program Leader of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, reports, “At the statewide level, Texas has benefited so far from an extended spring and mild early summer conditions. With cooler temperatures and widespread rainfall, only 13% of the state is currently experiencing drought-like conditions as of early July. This fact bodes well for nesting this year, and we’re hopeful we can begin to rebuild from what has been multiple years of below average production.” He adds that while parts of central Texas saw the rainfall come to an abrupt stop, early nesting gains are likely to take root. “The longer we see current conditions hold, the more likely we are to see additional nesting attempts and recruitment of young birds into the fall population. We still have a long, unpredictable summer ahead, but significant gains in 2021 would put us in the best position possible to take advantage of another good quail season in 2022.”
Scaled quail and northern bobwhite both make their home in Texas. During times of drought, their population numbers fluctuate depending on the region they inhabit and their species-specific abilities to adapt to drier conditions. “Areas most affected by drought are the Cross Timbers, Rolling Plains, High Plains, Trans-Pecos, Edwards Plateau, and South Texas Plains; these eco-regions hold the bulk of our quail populations. The Trans-Pecos and much of our western border with New Mexico are particularly prone to drought. Moving east, the influence of drought on quail populations is reduced. However, because of changes in habitat conditions and land use, much of East Texas only has relic quail populations at this time,” John explains.
Though drought has not been a broad problem for Texas, reductions in the quantity and quality of habitat have contributed to long-term declines in Texas quail populations. John believes proper habitat management can reduce the severity of drought, and that the influence of rainfall on quail abundance in Texas varies based on the scale of reference. “At the regional level, fewer factors are responsible for shaping long-term population trends. At the local level (i.e., ranch scale), a greater variety of factors come into play, including site conditions (e.g., soil types, brush cover), and ranch/farm management (e.g., grazing practices). As such, the ability of a ranch manager or landowner to insulate local quail populations from drought increases. A ranch with healthy, abundant, and diverse vegetative cover is more likely to have retained rainfall. That soil moisture will serve as a buffer if conditions turn worse as summer wears on.”
Coveys of California and Gambel’s quail in the State of Utah look as though they will weather the drought well in the northern parts of the state, but this will depend on whether enough precipitation can make up for the deficit caused by the drought. Heather Talley, Upland Game Coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources reports, “In northern portions of the state, quail should not experience major declines to the populations since we do have water in the rivers and irrigation canals, but it all depends on if we do get enough precipitation or not. Some speculate that irrigation systems will start shutting down in the first part of August, so there could be some localized declines in areas along the Wasatch Front and in agricultural fields in the valleys.” She adds that in the northeastern corner of the state, the drought impact on quail populations are probably minimal since they are closely aligned with privately owned irrigated crop lands. “We don't have a lot of quail that live out on rangelands or non-irrigated and non-riparian lands. But if irrigation water runs out and the fields dry up, it could impact those populations.”
Unfortunately, in southern Utah the drought and its damage will most likely have a negative impact on quail populations there. Heather says, “Cover on non-irrigated croplands and grasslands will be reduced in the area due to the drought. This will likely reduce both hiding cover and food sources that young birds need for survival.”
As stewards of the resource, we must exert every effort to ensure government policy makers and landowners have all the information available to make sound decisions about managing both the habitat and the water that sustains it. Responsible and equitable conservation efforts ensure the habitat holds enough clean water to support the species living there while also addressing the interests of agriculture and industry. Answer the “Call of the Uplands” by getting involved in your local Quail Forever chapter.