Each year for the past 26 years, biologists throughout Oklahoma have conducted roadside quail surveys in August and October. The surveys produce population indexes for the reproductive season and the upcoming hunting season. Each county in Oklahoma, except Tulsa and Oklahoma, is surveyed. Some of the larger counties have two survey routes. The trends give us indications about the success of the nesting season and about how hunting season might play out.
Fortunately, most quail will attempt multiple nests. Researchers from Oklahoma State University classify nests as first attempts, second attempts, re-nests or abandonments. Not all females will attempt nests, but a very high percentage will try to nest multiple times throughout the summer months. However, this breeding characteristic gives quail an annual chance to boom or bust for the fall hunting season. Just as with pheasant, weather and habitat play significant roles in how quail will respond coming out of the winter.
So, in August, biologists will conduct the first of two roadside surveys for the year. They will drive a pre-determined 20-mile route at 20 mph, at daybreak or twilight, and count the number of birds seen along the route. Birds seen are logged in categories: single, pair, covey, one-fourth grown, half-grown, three-fourths grown, or full-grown. Biologists will also count the number of rabbits seen, too! Oklahoma has cottontails, swamp rabbits and jackrabbits. The surveys are conducted at this time due to birds coming off roost sites going to feeding areas or moving from feeding areas and going back to roost sites. Oftentimes, birds will use less-traveled roads to catch grasshoppers and move from place to place. Weather parameters are recorded, as well, such as temperature, wind speed and cloud cover. Also, scaled or blue quail that are observed (extreme western Oklahoma and the Panhandle) are also recorded.
Last year, survey numbers in all regions of the state were up and close to the state’s 25-year average, except in the south-central region. Sometimes the counts can be a bit deceiving due to the amount of vegetation along the roadways. Heavy vegetation can conceal birds and create escape cover from oncoming traffic. However, this can be a good thing because birds probably have better habitat across the fence and don’t have to cross the roads for greener pastures. Of course, weather and habitat play the key roles in a successful reproductive season. Wetter and cooler summers usually mean better reproduction. So, after the August survey, biologists follow up with an October survey, when nesting is pretty well concluded and quail are in the “fall shuffle.” At this time, analysis of all the data from both roadside surveys will be conducted and a season outlook will be written for the upcoming hunting season. The index has been fairly accurate to date, which leaves only the weather to cooperate for hunters to have good opportunities to pursue birds in the field.
To keep quail around, landowners should provide suitable habitat year-round so the birds don’t shuffle off to greener pastures. Management techniques include strip-disking in late winter, prescribed burning in spring (preferably one-fourth of total acres), correct stocking rate, timber thinning, eastern redcedar removal, native grasses interspersed with forbs and friendly shrubs, and removal of exotic grasses. This formula provides everything quail require, if the acreages are large and contiguous.
For more information about improving habitat for quail, call Scott Cox, senior upland game biologist, at (405) 301-9945, Kyle Johnson, quail restoration biologist, at (405) 684-1929, Doug Schoeling, private lands biologist for western Oklahoma, at (405) 590-2584, or RosaLee Walker, private lands biologist for eastern Oklahoma, at (918) 607-1518.
(This Upland Update was written by Scott Cox, senior upland game biologist.)