Gene Howe WMA

Location and owner/manager:

Hemphill County north of Canadian. Texas Parks and Wildlife.

From the south at Interstate 40 exit 163: Go north on Highway 83 fifty-two miles to FM 2266 and turn right. The turnoff is a mile and a half north of the center of the town of Canadian and a tenth of a mile south of where Highways 60 and 83 split apart. Go east on FM 2266 five miles to a check station on the right. The WMA is along both sides of the road here. Note than Gene Howe WMA is near the Black Kettle Grasslands a few miles up the road which have some mixed grass prairie also.

The Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area along the north bank of the Canadian River in the Texas panhandle contains habitat that has been managed as mixed grass prairie since the early 1950s. About a third of the WMA consists of bottomland along the Canadian River while the other two thirds can be described as upland sand sage scrub and grassland. The upland habitat contains a large black-tailed prairie dog colony with burrowing owls, various raptors and prairie rattlesnakes. Gene Howe WMA was not set up specifically to protect native vegetation but rather as hunting land purchased primarily from Pittman-Robertson fees on guns and fishing equipment. This Wildlife Management Area is significant in any discussion of the mixed grass prairie because it has been burned on an intermittent basis (not always intentionally) since 1950 and because it has served as a site for the research and management of northern bobwhite quail – one of the first and most successful efforts to protect a bird associated with grasslands anywhere.

Bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) are short stocky brown birds with lines of black dots and some white around the eyes and throat. They are highly social and non-migratory. The male gives a ‘Bob White’ whistle – sometimes with a pause ‘Bob …. White’ - and sometimes with a stutter ‘Bob … Bob …White’. Their habitat requirements are usually best met in a weedy grassland with some shrubby vegetation near by to provide additional cover. They are not exclusively grassland birds but perhaps can be better described as birds of the early successional vegetation that leads into a mature grassland. This game bird was often found along the edges of old southern fields and pastures. Bobwhite quail have become increasingly rare as suburbia has spread across much of the south – they are now Number 1 on the Audubon Society’s list of ‘Common Birds in Decline’ - but their numbers have held up well at their western limit in the Texas panhandle.

Texas wildlife biologist Alfred Sloan Jackson studied the northern bobwhite at Gene Howe WMA throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1969 Jackson’s A Handbook For Bobwhite Quail Management in the West Texas Rolling Plains was published as Texas Parks and Wildlife bulletin number 48. This publication hardly ever shows up on the secondary book market – its far more rare than the first editions of Ulysses and Lolita for example - but can be found in the non-circulating government documents section of some Universities. As part of his research over the years Alfred S Jackson examined feathers from tens of thousands of Northern Bobwhite that hunters had turned in from throughout the Texas panhandle. He also examined the crop (esophagus) contents of close to three thousand bobwhites of which about a third were from the Gene Howe WMA. Some of his conclusions contradict many management practices that today are the norm for protecting endangered species – if so, at least such conclusions were based on many years of observation in the field.

Alfred S Jackson in his publication’s introduction summed up his recommendations for managing this ‘small, huntable, brown bird weighing approximately 6 ounces’ as follows:

‘A major problem lies in the holdover of faith in management techniques that have proven ineffectual in the past. The most widely advocated of these is the close-the-season-stop-all-hunting approach. Another is the stocking of non-habitable range with pen-reared bobwhites. Still another is predator control. None of these works in deficient habitat and none are needed where the habitat is right. Such apparently easy solutions cripple effective management and merely repeat past failures.’ (Jackson, p12).

The life of a bobwhite quail can be summed up very simply: to be a bobwhite quail in this world is to have much of the world trying to eat you. Predators abound at every stage in this bird’s lifecycle and the bobwhite must be constantly on the lookout for them. Most bobwhites will die in the year that they are born. Jackson estimated the percentage of juveniles to adults by examining the primary wing covert feathers of bobwhites that hunters had mailed in or left in drop boxes on public hunting lands between 1950 and 1965. Primary wing coverts are relatively short feathers that lie at the base of and on the upper side of the longer primary flight feathers of each wing. These primary wing coverts retain a light color through the bird’s first winter. Based on his examinations Jackson concluded that the annual bobwhite turnover was about 80 percent (Jackson, p13). More importantly this turnover held steady throughout sharp population fluctuations or the degree to which bobwhites were hunted in any particular year or place. For example in 1958 hunters contributed a total of 11,525 wings – this was several times that of the previous few years but the turnover percentage changed less than 1 percent (Jackson, p15). Jackson believed that because of the high turnover and prolific nature of northern bobwhites it was not possible to ‘stockpile’ bobwhites from one season to the next but that bobwhites would quickly disperse into any suitable habitat that became available.

The bobwhite quail spends much of the cooler months in a small group called a covey which disperses into breeding pairs during the warmer part of the year. The covey at rest will often form a tight circle facing outwards. The place where a covey of quail congregate is called their headquarters. Ideally the headquarters is a place on the ground, shielded from above and close to where the bobwhites forage for food. The plants that provide this headquarters cover can vary a great deal – in the north Texas panhandle grapevines and sumac often meet these requirements. The Bobwhite may also need some ‘escape’ cover – thick vegetation near by such as matted grasses to dash off into. When the bobwhite quail ventures out during the day to feed the cover requirements are different. While feeding the bobwhite needs some ‘screening’ cover from avian predators. This screening cover can not be too dense as the Bobwhite needs to be able to freely move about. Jackson further noted the distinction between ‘screening’ cover and the other types as follows:

'It is important to remember that what we have called screening cover has the function of bringing bobwhite and his food safely together. While this type may be less generally recognized than the more conspicuous escape and loafing types of cover, it is no less essential. Without it, a covey can be pinned down in a certain safe escape or loafing cover situation most of the day by a single hawk or, worse yet, be forced by weather or predators to abandon the location entirely' (Jackson, p26).

A good example of screening cover is a moderately grazed field with some tall weeds. All three types of cover should ideally be in close proximity.

The diet of the bobwhite in the north Texas panhandle varies by the season – seeds during the winter and green shoots and insects during summer. Jackson examined 963 bobwhite crops during a four-year period at Gene Howe WMA and found that:

‘Seven forbs contributed 40 percent of the total volume of food. These were western ragweed, erect dayflower, Texas croton, ragsumpweed, small wildbean, Stevens sandlily, and redroot amaranth. The 28 percent of total foods contributed by grasses include seeds of seven species’. (Jackson, p16).

The summer diet of the bobwhite consists of insects, shoots and green seeds. Jackson studied this diet during four summers at Matador WMA and summed up the insect part of it as follows:

'Grasshoppers are the most commonly found insects in quail crops, perhaps because they are the most available. Other insects are eaten as their numbers make them convenient. One bobwhite was found to have consumed 136 winged ants (Figure 6). Beetles, bugs, spiders, and larva are common food items. Walking sticks (Family Phasmidae) are stuffed down, and one bobwhite was found to have swallowed a hairy, full-grown tarantula'. (Jackson, p19)

He further notes that the bobwhite is a bird that does not need to drink – it can meet its moisture requirements from eating green seeds and ‘juicy’ insects.

Bobwhites construct nests of grass in odd corners of fields or among dead bunch grass. They can also nest at the base of mesquite or sand sage or among grasses that are protected by prickly pear cactus. Such nests are so skillfully concealed that humans seldom see them. Jackson noted that the nesting habitat area needed by bobwhites during the breeding season was much larger than that needed by bobwhites when they live as a covey. If the nesting habitat is restricted to small scattered units the quail quickly are hunted out by snakes and skunks (Jackson, p28).

Despite heavy predation the Bobwhite can often thrive. Jackson in one study made in 1942 in Cottle and King counties noted:

‘On the Cottle County area, 22 nests were located for observation. Only 7 escaped predation. Six nests were lost to snakes, 4 to skunks, 1 to a coyote, and 3 to farm and ranch operations. Yet the cumulative results of nesting and renesting were such that the fall population was determined to be approximately 1,200 quail (including scaled quail) on the 1,600-acre study area. Obviously, predation here did not seriously limit fall populations.’ (Jackson, p69).

Predation is normal for any ground nesting bird and the bobwhite hen will continue laying eggs until she has successfully hatched a brood. Jackson believed based upon his fieldwork that a bobwhite nesting pair does not rear more than one brood in a single year but if unsuccessful simply continues to try until a successful incubation is achieved. This contradicts many current accounts of the Bobwhite’s life cycle and its possible that this may vary somewhat with geography and habitat.

Jackson believed that attempting to boost the quail population through predator control was largely a useless endeavor. The bobwhite has a wide variety of potential predators which often keep themselves in check:

‘Predator control is not the simple or practical cure-all it appears to be. It is more complex because of the interrelationships between the predatory species themselves. Predators prey on each other a great deal more than is generally realized. Marsh hawks commonly feed on rodents that compete for the bobwhites' food. Red-tailed hawks commonly feed their young on snakes that, in the Rolling Plains, are the worst offenders in robbing nests. Both coyotes and horned owls preyed on skunks on the study areas and fed far more often on the species of rodents capable of destroying quail eggs.’ (Jackson, p70).

With regard to another predator – humans – Jackson considered quail hunting largely self-regulating. In his opinion most quail hunters are opportunists who easily bag their limit during a good year and quickly give up when it is bad (Jackson, p67).

Alfred S Jackson’s quail management recommendations seem to make much practical sense but it is reasonable to ask if they carry over to other species? The basic premise – that habitat is paramount in preserving a species – probably does. However, bobwhites represent an extreme – a species whose individual members may live briefly but where the group can achieve explosive population growth in a short period of time. Many endangered species are at the opposite extreme – species whose members are long-lived but reproduce very slowly. Also, in the case of the bobwhite hunting may indeed be self-regulating but this is not the case for some game such as bighorn sheep where high demand and limited population does require quotas of some sort. Finally, there are situations where a species is in decline for reasons besides a simple lack of suitable habitat. A famous example is the decline in some raptor populations due to thin egg shells that was ultimately traced to the pesticide DDT. Other situations where habitat might be secondary includes native species that are displaced by an exotic counterpart that has some sort of competitive advantage, or a plant that grows fine in its habitat but has a troublesome dependency on a highly specialized pollinator.

Alfred S Jackson’s specific land management recommendations for the Gene Howe WMA included keeping much of its habitat well supplied with the woody cover and early successional vegetation that the bobwhite quail requires. Fire is an option here and in the 1960s the use of prescribed fire was just beginning to be recognized as an important land management tool. Another option recommended by Jackson that in retrospect represents bad land management is planting rows of Russian olive trees and discing the land in between. The Russian olive is a tree originally from central Asia that now has displaced many grasses and native trees within the Great Plains and has proven difficult to eradicate once established. The grey green foliage of this short shrubby tree takes on a particularly ghostly presence at night under the moonlight and unfortunately such a scene is all too common.

In closing out this account of the bobwhite quail at Gene Howe WMA consider that this small bird is non-migratory and lives in a particularly harsh environment. If some January evening you check the latest weather report and see that a fierce blizzard is roaring through the Texas panhandle consider that somewhere beneath the snow drifts a covey of quail are huddled together. This covey most likely will survive the many days of freezing weather, disperse in the spring and despite being constantly preyed upon most likely will reproduce many times over by late next summer. Long may such coveys of quail continue to do so in the rolling plains of west Texas.