Call O’ the Bobs

Wild bobwhites are all but gone in most of Texas except in the Rolling Plains and parts of South Texas.

My three favorite sounds in Nature are coyotes yapping at dawn and dusk, screech owls calling, and bobwhite quail whistling.

Oh, there are others: whooping cranes whooping, sandhill cranes trumpeting overhead, great horned or barred owls in the brush, and tom turkeys gobbling. And, as I was growing up, the sound of my mother calling me to supper as I explored the edge of the Big Thicket behind our house. Sadly, I only hear my mother in memories, and haven’t heard a bobwhite in several years.

About 20 years ago, Fred Guthery, renowned quail biologist, formerly at the Cesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville (now at Oklahoma State), told a group of outdoor writers that wild bobwhite quail would be gone in 15 years. That was a long way off, and I don’t think anybody was really worried. Seen or heard any quail lately?

A number of reasons are advanced for the catastrophic decline, including fire ants, nest predation by coons, skunks, possums, cats, and other critters, along with drought and floods. Birds of prey pick off more than we know.

One afternoon, photographing from an elevated box blind, I noticed a hawk at a distance heading my way. I took several pictures until it was too close to focus. Only then did I realize it hadn’t seen me huddled behind the camera and intended to come through the window. At the last instant, I waived my hand and it veered away. In the excitement, I dropped a film container. As I reached to pick it up, I noticed that the floor was littered with small bones. I was in HIS hunting stand! That’s where some of the quail on the ranch had gone, and it looked like he hadn’t obeyed the bag limit!

One of the most plausible reasons mentioned in Guthery’s doomsday quail forecast was fragmentation of land into smaller tracts. He and other quail biologists say that bobwhites need large areas of land undisturbed by human activity. And there is less of that each year.

Wild bobwhites are all but gone in most of Texas except in the Rolling Plains and parts of South Texas. I regret that. Some of my most memorable times have been on quail hunts. But not to be forgotten are also times just sitting on the porch listening to a bob calling for a mate.

The first couple of years I lived and worked in the Brush Country, the quail population exploded like the human inhabitants did recently when technology taught oil men how to frack South Texas shale formations. Driving some of the back roads, you harvested a few (QUAIL, not oil men) with your vehicle. On 755 heading from Rachal to Rio Grande City one morning, quail hit the windshield, the outside rear view mirrors, and, of course, the grill. My boss and I agreed that we could have gotten a limit by hanging a crab net out the window!

Hunting was unbelievable. I even had to go to the doctor later over a suspicious lump near my shoulder. He said it wasn’t serious, just the result of a constant irritation. I said it must be from shooting a shotgun. He remarked that I would have to shoot every week for that to occur. I confessed to him that I fed my family with an old Winchester 16-gauge pump. After quail season, the lump went away.

Those days are over – at least for now. Biologists are studying ways to improve habitat and perhaps bring them back. A quail article in the TPW Outdoor Annual a few ago was entitled, “Just Add Water.” Several years of steady spring rains and moderate summers could do wonders.

Let’s hope. And pray.

John Jefferson Photography

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