What Happened to Our Quail? Observations of an Old Quail Hunter

I know the answer to the question in the headline, but almost no one will believe me. The drastic decline in the quail (Coturnix coturnix) population throughout the South has been a passionate concern of mine for many years. The tragic and drastic decline in quail and other field-bird populations is the result of the massive and widespread spraying of herbicides by agriculture and forestry industries. I am as sure of this as I am that night follows day. There is a curious and almost hostile resistance to this assertion. I have written many letters to various groups and agencies that assume an authoritative role in such problems, but my efforts are always met with an almost hostile indifference. More specifically, I believe that Quail Unlimited and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Deptartment are more a part of the problem than the solution. To my knowledge, they have no experimental data to support their position that herbicides have no significant effect on field-bird populations. I have suggested that Quail Unlimited spray their Quail Demonstration Project acreages with herbicide and see what happens, but they declined.

I am a quail hunter, a quail devotee, and an amateur natural historian. Most of what I know about quail has come from Herbert L. Stoddard’s book “The Bobwhite Quail,” and from knowledge acquired over 65 years of quail hunting in East Texas. The most significant statement in Stoddard’s book is this: “Quail live on the seeds from weeds.”

Quail must have food and cover in the area where they live or they will not thrive. Their numbers expand or contract depending on the availability of food and cover. When these elements are in abundance, quail are much more able to escape predators and resist disease. Knowing that herbicides kill weeds, how can one argue that they have no effect on quail population? This is like arguing that killing all the buffalo had no adverse effect on the lives of Indians.

Over the years, numerous study groups have been formed to assess the drastic decline in quail and other game-bird populations throughout the South. To my knowledge, most have concluded that the decline is secondary to loss of habitat. I think this would have been correct in the ‘60s but it’s not true now. Timber companies are constantly forming good habitat when they clear-cut the land. Unfortunately, this potential wildlife habitat is rendered valueless by the massive and widespread spraying of herbicides. It is likely that herbicides also kill quail directly through contact and ingestion. They also kill insects, which are another food source for quail. For weeds to thrive in the abundance and variety needed to support a good population of quail, full sun exposure to the land is required. Semi-open pine forests with a sprinkling of hardwoods will support some quail, but not a huntable population.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when the timber companies first began the practice of clear cutting, they used the “scrape, rake, and pile” method of clearing the land, leaving long windrows of timber parts and other clearing debris. They also left margins along the creek banks and ravines undisturbed. Receiving full sun exposure, the weeds in these clear-cuts flourished, and so did the quail. Over the next few years the quail population exploded. Good huntable populations of quail could be found in most of the clear-cuts. In the mid ‘70s and early 1980s it was not unusual to find 10 or more coveys in one day. It was a good time to be a quail hunter.

Enter Herbicides

This all came to an abrupt end in the mid 1980s. It came to an end at the same time that the timber companies began the practice of spraying their clear-cuts with herbicide. For a time, some birds could still be found in the surrounding woods, but after a year or two these too were gone.

Herbicides are also harmful to other species and to man. And who knows what is happening from the runoff into our lakes and streams? Anyone who doubts this can do a casual search on the internet and get more detailed information. Just type in “effect of herbicides on wildlife” and you will find a multitude of articles and experimental data on the subject.

For some strange reason no one wants to have a conversation about this. I’ve gotten cold shoulders from biologists and agencies. But here is what we do know. We know that a drastic decline in the quail population occurred in the mid 1980s. We know that the massive spraying of herbicides began in the mid 1980s. We know that quail live on the seeds from weeds. We know that herbicides kill weeds.

Historical Overview

It is important to keep in mind that quail numbers go up or down depending on the availability of food and cover. Their primary food source consists of seeds from weeds. Weeds thrive best when there is full sun exposure to the land. I believe that a relatively modest population of quail inhabited the virgin pine forests of the South. They probably lived both in the forests and in open grasslands that either occurred naturally or as the result of fires or storms. During that time the quail had a food source that is no longer available. The virgin forests were composed mostly of longleaf pine trees. These trees produce a large nutritious seed.

In the early part of the 20th century the virgin pine forests were completely irradicated by the timber companies. The canopy which shielded the sun from the land was removed. Grass and weeds sprang up as never before and the quail population exploded. Quail hunting will never again be as great as it was in the 1920s and ‘30s. I’m not sure that legal limits even existed in those days. If they did, I doubt that they were observed. Quail were killed by the tub full, but their numbers never seemed to decline from year to year. Prime quail habitat was vast and the number of quail hunters was relatively few. In the small East Texas town of San Augustine where I grew up, there were probably not more than 10 semi-automatic shotguns in the whole town.

As the trees grew and the canopy began to reform, the quail population began to dwindel. In the 1940s, fairly good hunting could still be found in remaining open areas, around farms, and on farms that had been abandoned. A good hunt in those days was a bag of 8 to 18 quail. Not bad, but not the way it was in the “Golden Era.” There was a gradual continued decline in quail habitat and quail numbers over the next decade. By the mid ‘60s about the most one could expect was to find one or two coveys in a full day’s hunt. Most quail hunters either quit altogether or turned their attention to South Texas for the continued enjoyment of their sport. There was no canopy of trees in South Texas to shield the land from the sun.

The quail population expands or contracts depending on rainfall. In a good year the quail population in South Texas can be truly spectacular. Weeds need water and weeds need the sun. As the weeds go, so go the quail. I don’t think the crucial connection between the weeds, the seeds, the sun, the rain, and the quail has ever been fully appreciated by state wildlife departments, or by most wildlife biologists. How can this be when the evidence is so plain? It’s a sad and puzzling curiosity.

The last covey of quail I found in East Texas was late one afternoon as the covey was moving from the woods back into a clear-cut. Their craws were full of acorns. It has always amazed me how they are able to shell the acorns and ingest only the meat. Acorn-fed quail make superb table fare but acorns are not a dependable food source for quail.

When I could no longer find quail in East Texas, I started hunting in Louisiana. The hunting, however, was no better there than it was here. I could tell by the way the land looked that it had been sprayed with herbicide. I found one or two coveys over there but that was all. One early morning in Louisiana, after getting no response from my quail call on the edge of a clear-cut, I encountered a small group of quail hunters and we had a short visit. They told me that there were no birds in the clear-cuts since they had been sprayed with herbicides. They said they had killed about 60 quail so far during the season, and all the birds they found were in the woods. None were in the clear-cuts. Interestingly, they were locating coveys with a recording of a quail call that they were able to broadcast from their truck with an amphifier and speaker system. They said that they were having no luck at all until they came up with this curious contraption. I headed back to Texas.

I would like to think that a remnant population of quail is still out there somewhere, but I don’t know. Herbicides are now being sprayed on pasture lands, farms, rights-of -way, roadsides, and just about any place else where a weed might grow. Can it be that quail, field larks, grass birds, robins, whipperwils, robins, frogs, honey bees, and butterflies are all destined to go the way of the buffalo, the passenger pigeon, and the longleaf pine? I don’t know, but I hope not.
It may be that nothing can be done. It may be that the land and the delicate balance of nature has been so poisoned and polluted that the harm is irreversible. Maybe we old quail hunters long for an era that is gone forever. But we will always have cherished memories, that recall the thrill of the hunt. That may be more than the next generation will have.

But I’d like to think that we can turn this decline around. The following are initiatives that I would like to see taken:

1. Stop the massive spraying of herbicides on farms, ranches and clear-cuts.

2. Obtain cooperation from one of the timber companies to designate 500 or more acres to be cleared by the rake, scrape, and pile method—with no herbicide use.

3. Try a stocking program if no birds inhabit the
area after one year.

If this pilot program is successful, then I would hope that the timber companies would revert to this method of clear-cutting and cease using herbicide. If this results in an increased cost to the timber companies, then perhaps this increased cost could be offset by selling bird hunting permits at whatever price it would take to cover that cost.

In addition to these measures, I would like to see some of the federal land in the South managed for quail habitat. As with the timber companies, the cost of management should be offset by the sale of hunting permits. To the best of my knowledge, Quail Unlimited, or any of the other wildlife conservation groups, have never advanced an initiative that had any meaningful, positive impact on the quail population. It’s time for a different approach.


Dr. Gordon Jones of Broaddus, Texas in Outdoor Life, 27 November 2013