Upland Update: Want More Quail? Remodel the House, Biologist Says

January 13, 2021

Photo by Jeremy Matthew/2018 Readers' Photo Showcase

Upland Update: Want More Quail? Remodel the House, Biologist Says

By Kelly Bostian
KJB Outdoors

All hunters know the disappointment of a hunt gone cold. But quail hunters stand above all in embracing experiences and traditions when futility rules the day.

When the pain in their toes becomes the pain in their knees, when their dogs are played out with nothing to show for it but cockleburs in their fur and ragged booties on their feet, when even the cold, steel barrels of their shotguns seem to ache with disappointment, quail hunters keep going.

They will comment, later, that it sure would be nice to see a few more birds. That’s where the state’s lead quail biologist gets pulled into the picture.

Tell Judkins, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Upland Game Biologist and Quail Coordinator, is an Oklahoma-grown quail hunter who knows the agony of the feet, appreciates the traditions, and spouts quail talk as long-winded as a big-running pointer on a cool, moist December morning.

Tell Judkins, Upland Game Biologist, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

“ ‘Where the heck are the quail? What happened to them? Where did they go?’ Those are the first questions that I get asked, usually,” he said. “It almost opens a Pandora’s box. I could spin off on that subject for three hours.”

Actually, with apologies for leaving out a few subjects, he recently managed to squeeze it into a 90-minute phone conversation.

Quail questions from hunters haven’t changed much in the 30 years since the Wildlife Department first dedicated a biologist to upland game management in 1990 and completed its first defining quail study with Oklahoma State University at Packsaddle Wildlife Management Area in the 1990s.

Judkins, who moved into this position in January 2019 after almost five years as a Game Warden, describes a new picture of research and knowledge drawn with newer, more intricate strokes, inside a frame etched with basics learned the past three decades. The common element coloring both is the fact that bobwhites are a species in decline but there is “a 100 percent chance that we can turn that around,” he said.

Even if some hunters roll their eyes at an age-old refrain about weather and habitat from this new-generation biologist, habitat still is the key, he said. New studies using satellite tracking and new tricks applied to years of file-boxed data compiled into digitized form confirm much of what was found in the older studies and point the way to newer techniques.

“We still can’t do anything about the weather,” Judkins said. “What we can do is make sure the habitat side of things is right so when the weather is right, we can have years like 2016 and birds can thrive.”

But changes in populations have been so drastic in some places that hunters and landowners naturally look toward something more than just habitat; things like parasites, diseases and more predators.

“A lot of people have heard me say this, but it stands: Quail need a three-bedroom home, and right now what they have is a coat closet,” he said.

Parasites like cecal worms find their way inside quail, and eye worms hit them just as they do other insect-eating birds. The Wildlife Department in 2018 joined with the University of Georgia and the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in what Judkins called the most comprehensive disease study ever done on Oklahoma’s quail. It involved full necropsies — including histology and DNA work — on up to 200 birds a year from 10 Wildlife Management Areas across the state.

Biologists collected the last batches of Oklahoma quail in October 2020, so the results are not finalized. But the tabulations already made indicate parasites and diseases are not limiting quail populations.

“The long and short of it is our birds are healthy, medically speaking,” he said. “There will always be some individual birds that have issues (diseases and parasites), and we will still want to keep an eye on it. But in general terms, it’s not something to worry about.”

Quail occupy a spot at the bottom of the food chain. But that metaphor about the three-story house for quail can be applied where predation is concerned. The idea is to fix up the house for the quail and make it less appealing for predators.

“Give them (predators) fewer places to live — take away their homes — and the population plummets,” Judkins said. “Every redcedar on our landscape is a spot a raccoon can call home. If you took out all the brush piles and cleared some of that really thick stuff, the stuff so thick your dog can’t even venture into it, then you’re clearing out those areas where the food sources like mice live, and then you’re taking away the predators’ homes.”

People are the main thing impacting quail populations. “We’re good at killing quail, and I don’t mean with a shotgun,” Judkins said.

We have whittled away at places quail live with development and modern agriculture practices, and we still don’t use fire as effectively or often as we should. Areas of shrubs and grasses of the early 1990s are obliterated by thick stands of eastern redcedar. Where dirt roads crisscrossed the countryside, blacktops and groomed roadsides now are the norm. Weed- and insect-free crops flourish fencerow to fencerow in areas previously considered not worth dulling a plow, and too many areas are overgrazed.

“We have a lot of areas that are so overgrazed it looks like a golf course with a few weeds sticking up,” he said.

People think of a quail as a grassland bird, but shrubs are the foundation of good quail habitat, he said. Grasslands are the living room and bedroom areas, and forbs (what most folks call weeds) are the kitchen and pantry.

“When we kill the weeds, we kill a food supply that carries the quail through the winter. And when we put down insecticides, it’s killing the food they need in spring and summer and into fall,” he said.

More clues to guide smaller, targeted efforts for maximum habitat impact may come with the Wildlife Department’s latest study with OSU to track quail using location transmitters. “Now we’re looking at one bird and how it uses the landscape rather than the more global look at a population and a place,” he said.

Watching individuals has shown how barren fields and roadways alter movements, how a quail might choose good nesting habitat even if it is situated near prime predator habitat, and how a dead quail that might have been considered predator fodder in earlier studies was actually first hit by a car.

An old Packsaddle WMA finding that 25 percent of the population disperses widely as a survival strategy has proved true, he said. They’ll do it even if it puts them in the middle of a golf course.

Oklahoma’s task to rebuild the house of quail is like a young couple facing a fixer-upper on a tight budget. It will happen one small project at a time, he said.

Studies are showing that farmers can save money, and even make money, with targeted practices that might turn five or six acres of poorly performing cropland into wildlife habitat that attracts quail and deer — and lease-buying hunters.

The Department’s Quail Enhancement Program or Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program and other programs with Quail Forever and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service can help landowners map out such projects.

“It’s a lot of little victories,” Judkins said. “They don’t make headlines; they aren’t earth-shattering; and you may not end up with quail this year or the next. But if you continue to make sure the habitat is good, if you want quail to survive on your property without having to feed them every day or treat them like a chicken, then you have to have the habitat.”

Spot-spraying herbicides rather than blanket spraying can lead to healthier plants and soil, he said. Fire can boost soil health and enhance crops and grazing.

“I’m not asking someone to change their livelihood or completely convert their practices. But let’s ask the questions. Why are we farming fence line to fence line on this spot? Ask why we are we doing it this way, and if the answer is ‘because we have always done it this way,’ maybe that’s not good enough anymore,” he said.

The few acres here and there can spread from neighbor to neighbor as the effectiveness of these practices serve as examples, he said.

By adjoining habitat spreads, the house of quail is slowly remodeled, and the quail population can grow. Eventually we will be able to take that old population picture and hang it on the wall of history.

(Kelly Bostian has been an outdoor editor and writer for 35 years at newspapers in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Tulsa, Okla. He now operates KJB Outdoors, sharing articles about outdoor recreation and nature.)

To learn much more about quail research, management and hunting in Oklahoma, check out the Quail species page on the Wildlife Department website at www.wildlifedepartment.com/hunting/species/quail.