Bobwhite quail, once plentiful in Houston, is disappearing


Before dawn one day last month, I drove along a farm road in Waller County to see the rare range of six planets. I also saw another unusual sight at sunrise – a bobwhite quail calling from a grassy mound.

Spying on pollock near Houston these days is almost as rare as seeing six planets lined up. Yet birds were once common in our five-county area. I remember a call on my college campus in the mid-1980s as I walked to teach my classes early in the morning.

When I was a boy on a farm a long time ago, my grandfather taught me to whistle the resounding call of the bird that sounded like his name, “bob-WHITE.” I whistled the call, and at least two or three bobwhites responded, eventually perching on fence posts.

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Few places remain around Houston where you could whistle a duet with bobwhite quail. A few birds have breeding outposts on fields protected by the Coastal Prairie Conservancy, formerly Katy Prairie Conservancy. But it is only by chance that you are likely to see or hear a call.

• The birds live throughout the eastern half of the United States and eastern Mexico.

• During the winter non-breeding season, companies of about a dozen bobwhite quail may appear in the southern Texas scrub.

• When startled, they spring into the air and fly a short distance at 20 mph.

• Birds suffer from high mortality rates and rarely live longer than five years.

• Bobwhite populations have been in decline since the 1930s, but their numbers began to increase when wildlife officials released captive birds into the wild.

• Around 1967, the population began a steep decline that is still continuing.

Officially named northern quail, males have an overall ruddy-brown color except for their white throats and black-lined eyebrows. Females look alike except for their beige throat and eyebrows. The plump, short-necked, short-tailed birds are about 10 inches long, and their plumage camouflages them in a grassy field.

Their diet consists of weed seeds, leaves, beetles, grasshoppers, and crickets.

During the breeding season from March to October, bobwhite quail pairs are solitary, nesting on the ground in grass-lined depressions.

They usually raise a few broods for a total of two dozen chicks. But death continually awaits the birds.

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Because bobwhite quail are popular game birds, an all-out effort by federal and state wildlife agencies has begun restoration of lost habitats to conserve the bobwhite quail population. It is not an easy task. Since 1967, the birds have declined by at least 80% across their range, from Texas to the eastern United States.

Causes of the decline include the loss of grassland habitat due to modern farming and forestry practices as well as ever-expanding suburbs that are wiping out the grasslands. Also, the eggs are roasting in the shell due to global warming.

Hope rests with adequate numbers of bobwhite quail that can rebound to sustainable numbers, given a chance with restored and preserved grassland habitat.

Gary Clark is the author of “Book of Texas Birds”, with photographs by Kathy Adams Clark (Texas A&M University Press). Email him at [email protected]


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