Bobwhite covey call count draws CASNR students to area ranches
Away from the day-to-day routine of student life, Rowdy White rolls down the highway in the wee hours of the morning, traveling to one of many Quail-Tech Alliance ranches in search of quail calls. In the dark silence, just as the sun tips the horizon, the Texas Tech University senior listens for the distinctive koi-lee sound of a bobwhite calling in the distance.
On hearing those first calls, White said, "There is soon a chorus of calls from all directions. In population boom years, such as this year, it can be difficult to keep track of all of the individual calls. It's a good problem to have."
Texas Tech's White is one of a dozen individuals from the university taking part in an annual survey, known as the fall covey count. It's all part of a long-term study led by the Quail-Tech Alliance, a partnership between Quail First, a non-profit organization, and Tech's Department of Natural Resources Management.
The group's aim is to estimate the number of bobwhite quail across a massive area encompassing the Rolling Plains eco-region. Hoping to re-build the bird's numbers, the project focuses on a 38-county region, encompassing more than 22 million acres.
In each of these counties, one anchor ranch is selected to serve as the main site of research for five years. Participating ranches include iconic names such as Guthrie's Pitchfork Ranch, Vernon's W.T. Waggoner Ranch, Collingsworth County's Mill Iron Ranch and Archer County's Circle A Ranch.
White explains that the bobwhite's call is made by one or two members of a covey, normally in the few minutes between dawn and sunrise. Only one person is able to listen at a single point per day. At that point White and some 12 other students from Tech's College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources mark a data sheet, estimating the covey's location.
"Participating in our covey call counts allows our undergraduate students a chance to get real world experience beyond the class room," said Brad Dabbert, Quail-Tech Alliance Research Project Director and the Burnett Foundation Endowed Professor of Quail Ecology in Tech's Department of Natural Resources Management, on the student's involvement.
Once the bobwhite calls are recorded, maps are used to determine the number of birds per acre on each ranch, ultimately determining a region-wide population. "We use the information to better understand how the population numbers are doing over time, and how each ranch's average can vary year to year, as well as variability in the region-wide coverage we obtain," said Matthew McEwen, the Department of Natural Resources Management's Quail-Tech Alliance Research Facility Supervisor.
A key goal of the Quail-Tech Alliance is to slow the decline wild quail population in Texas. That's done by conducting research and demonstration projects which center on covey counts, as well as on investigating the potential benefits or detriments of supplemental feeding, understanding the factors that influence over-winter survival of adults and summer-to-fall survival of the brood, and refining the way prescribed burning, brush modification and livestock grazing are used as tools of habitat management, among other topics.
Back on the ranch after all the quail calls have died down, White packs up his equipment and begins the drive back to Lubbock with his fellow students. "We all talk about what we saw and heard. Often we'll stop and eat breakfast and during the conversation over coffee, I realize what great people I am surrounded by."
Written by Callie Hawkins
CONTACT: Brad Dabbert, Burnett Foundation Endowed Professor of Quail Ecology, Department of Natural Resources Management, Texas Tech University at (806) 834-1248 or firstname.lastname@example.org
1121NM16 / PHOTO: Rowdy White
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