Habitat & Conservation  |  01/10/2023

Snakes and Turtles and Quail, Oh My!


Exploring the link between feathers and scales

Story and photos by Chad Love

This past summer, I found myself hunkered down at the base of a prairie windmill, staring at the world through the viewfinder of a camera. I was working on a photo essay for the Quail Forever Journal, documenting the rich and varied life of a prairie stock tank.

Every few minutes pairs of bobwhites would wander in from the surrounding prairie to get a drink, but it was the ancient, crusty old ornate box turtle that I won’t soon forget. He slowly crawled — unperturbed — across the toe of my shoe, then turned and stared up at me through eyes that had seen who-know-how-many years before slowly continuing into the sand-sage. Turtles are nothing if not chill.

A few weeks later I was bicycling along an old, seldom-used county road when I saw him — a tiny little southern plains triceratops in miniature. A Texas horned lizard, or “horny toad” to generations of plains kids. He (or she) was eating red harvester ants in the middle of the road. As I do with all creatures I encounter while on these backroad bike rides, I stopped, picked him up, admired his beauty, snapped a quick photo, then moved him over to the side of the road. That’s when the covey of bobs that had been frozen in the nearby plum thicket decided to take flight.

Not long after that turtle encounter, I was crouched in a thick patch of prairie sunflower on my state’s dover opener, shooting and mostly missing, when I noticed one of my absolute favorite snakes in the world — a hognose — slithering across the ground. Dove were immediately forgotten as I became a child again, playing with that snake before letting him slide off into the grass in search of toads. Come December, that hognose will be hibernating, but a nearby covey of quail I’ve come to know well over the years will be found in that patch of dried sunflower stalks.

Those encounters — and countless others I’ve had over a lifetime of chasing both quail and herps — illustrate the strong habitat link between quail and other species which occupy the uplands. This link obviously applies to non-reptiles, too, but cold-blooded critters occupy a special place in my heart.

When I was a kid I never wanted to do anything but read, write, roam, fish, hunt, and catch reptiles and amphibians, and while I’m certainly longer a kid, that hasn’t changed one bit.

I will literally jump off my bike to chase a lizard. I will come to a screeching halt in the middle of a dirt road to catch a snake or pick up a turtle (those of you who have hunted with me know this to be true).

Do I look silly and childish doing so? Of course I do. And that’s exactly the point. The day I stop feeling that sense of childlike wonder at turning over a rock or log to see what’s under it or refuse to gleefully chase a lizard or snake across the prairie is the day I know curiosity and wonder are dead, and I should just grow up and turn boringly adult.

You may wonder why — if I self-identify so strongly as a bird hunter — that I talk so much about such creatures, and why (if you happen to follow me on Instagram: @dispatchesfromnowhere) I post so many photos of snakes, lizards, and turtles on my feed.

One, because when I was a kid I wanted desperately to be a herpetologist, and have had a lifelong fascination with reptiles and amphibians.

Two, that aforementioned link between good upland bird habitat and good reptile habitat.

Ever wonder why you see so many box turtles and horned lizards and other reptiles in areas of good quail habitat?

It’s not a coincidence.

It’s no secret that quail (and most other gallinaceous gamebirds) are an excellent indicator species for the overall health of an ecosystem. What’s good for quail is generally going to be good for other species, too, including reptiles.

In fact, I’m in the process of assigning out a couple very cool stories for this coming year involving reptiles and quail.

One will explore the interconnectedness of bobwhite quail to other indicator species (including a couple reptiles) across its range, and why and how efforts to improve quail habitat helps other at-risk species. Think fireflies (or “lightning bugs” if — like me — you grew up in Oklahoma), indigo snakes, gopher, tortoises, and horned lizards.

The other will be more of an informative essay about herpetology in the uplands, a combination of biology, field notes, and love letter to all the fascinating herps we can find in the field, and how they connect to the birds and places we love. Look for both those stories in upcoming issues, because being crazy about quail is not just all about bird dogs, shotguns, and covey rises. It’s slithery snakes and lightning-fast lizards and slowly-trudging turtles, too.

And I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty darn cool.

Chad Love is the editor of Quail Forever Journal.