by John Davis
Where Have the Quail Gone?
Mysterious decline in quail population prompts the largest research project of its kind.
Operation Idiopathic Decline: The Disappearance of Quail
Operation Idiopathic Decline is a research project dedicated to finding out why the bobwhite quail population is declining in West Texas.
The well-worn, topless Jeep pulls out of the carport by the horse barn and starts down a dirt trail flanked by sage and mesquite.
As the wheels bounce over the sandy terrain of his 6,000-acre quail ranch in Stonewall County, Rick Snipes starts out seeking the familiar and iconic bird call. The ranch sits in an area known for some of the nation’s best quail hunting.
Only 7:30 a.m. and already the air hangs heavy with heat on this bright, June morning in West Texas–a harbinger of the strangling temperature to come. Weathermen have warned to prepare for 105 degrees on this day, and Snipes wonders how lucky the group will be at tracking its quarry.
He pulls into a meadow and shuts off the engine. Sitting silent for a bit, the bird rings out, and heads turn to detect its location.
“That’s a beautiful sound,” Snipes says as he scans the ground. The call is close, and the brown-and-white bird appears from the grass close to the Jeep. Numbers have improved slowly this summer, both on his ranch and in other parts of the state. But they’re still nowhere near the anticipated bumper crop of 2010 that seemed to almost vanish prior to the opening day of hunting season.
In June of that year, Snipes said so many quail called in the mornings that he couldn’t even tell how many were in the area. For the past 20 years, the former insurance executive cleaned up his over-grazed patch of Big Country and sculpted it into the perfect quail habitat. It seemed all his hard work paid off, and he awaited an excellent hunting season in October.
Snipes travels by Jeep over rough terrain in search of the elusive bird.
That never happened.
By August, the silence was deafening. The bobwhite had evacuated Snipes’ feathered Eden. Stumped and concerned, he checked with other ranchers around him. They, too, had lost their birds. It made no sense, he said, because his carefully planned ranch had sustained so many bobwhites only a few months prior.
Soon, hunters, landowners and state officials realized they had a population crisis on their hands. Throughout the Plains region of Texas, Western Oklahoma and even into Kansas, quail had flown the coop. Some estimated between 70 and 90 percent of bobwhites had disappeared.
Not only did this mean bad news for the birds, but also rural areas that cash in during quail season would feel the negative economic impact. Quail hunters in Texas spent an average of $8,600 dollars in pursuit of quail in 2010, and half of that was spent in the destination county, according to a Texas A&M Agrilife Extension survey of quail hunters in Texas.
The Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch (RPQRR), of which Snipes was a founding member and is now the current president, responded to the crisis. The ranch’s foundation receives private donations from quail hunters and Park Cities Quail, a Dallas-based conservation organization.
West Texas quail numbers mysteriously plummeted in 2010, prompting the largest quail disease research project in the U.S.
The organization originally was conceived to fund science that would help landowners better manage the quail on their property. Then, studies done in 2009 and 2010 at the research ranch found high levels of parasitic worms prior to and during the population decline. That prompted the ranch’s foundation to recruit scientists from Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Texas A&M-Kingsville Universities to discover other possible causes that might play a role.
This culminated in a historic effort to examine the role of diseases and parasites in the decline of quail.
Dubbed “Operation Idiopathic Decline” as a nod to doctor-speak for a decline of “unknown cause,” the ranch’s foundation has given a total of $2.75 million to fund the project. About half the proceeds have gone to The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech.
Scientists began looking for answers on 35 ranches or wildlife management areas located in 25 counties in West Texas and 10 in Western Oklahoma, as well as at the RPQRR’s 4,700-acre ranch near Roby. Project organizers estimate the total coverage area of this study includes about 19 million acres of land.
In the past two years, scientists have collected data from 647 birds. While the answer remains elusive, some of the factors they discovered in the largest quail research project ever undertaken have surprised them and landowners alike.
The good news is that populations in most areas have appeared to make a small rebound during the summer of 2013, the scientists say. Results from this summer’s collections and research could be the most telling of the three-year effort.
Love of the Hunt
Rick Snipes raises bird dogs on his ranch in West Texas.
For Snipes, nothing beats quail hunting. Inside his home, photos and paintings of bird dogs line the walls. On one table, a lifelike carving made from one piece of wood portrays a hawk sitting on a fence post, quail in talon.
“Most of the people whose friendship I really value I met through a dog, a bird or a shotgun,” Snipes joked as he sat in the shade of his porch.
For him, it’s not so much about the bird as it is about the hunt and the relationship between man and dog. Snipes also raises bird dogs and has a kennel with 10 pointers and one setter.
“The magic for a quail hunter is the dog,” he said. “The bobwhite has an endearing characteristic, which is that it usually will hold for the dog. Bobwhites exist in a covey. So when you find one, you find 15 or 20, and they behave for a bird dog and that is what makes the bobwhite special.”
Reared in South Carolina, Snipes grew up hunting quail. That was back when quail populated the state in numbers large enough to be hunted, though. Since that time, the birds have vanished due to human encroachment and habitat change.
That loss of habitat and hunting opportunity is what drove Snipes and his wife to buy a ranch in the Rolling Plains of Texas. Here, save for the barbed wire, cattle and loss of the buffalo, the land has remained relatively unchanged, and vast numbers of the birds thrived.
“By September, we had no birds to speak of. For every 100 birds we expected to have, we had four or five birds.”
– Rick Snipes
“The ranch, when we first bought it, was probably typical of West Texas ranches in the Rolling Plains in that it was characterized by ‘subsistence agriculture,’” Snipes said. “It was radically overgrazed and overgrown with brush in certain places. But at the same time, birds were everywhere. What that tells you is that we were living in a rainy period. A nice rainy spring forgives almost all poor land management, it seems. What we did was look at the ranch and say, ‘What can we do to make it a better habitat for quail and for people?’”
He started by taking every cow off the land for six years and allowed the native grasses to flourish. He thinned some of the brush, which in turn freed up more water for the grasses. Then, he kept a small herd of cattle to graze at high intensity for short periods to emulate buffalo.
The practices worked amazingly well, he said.
“The number of birds on this ranch defies belief most of the time,” he said. “From 2001 to 2008, we averaged finding five coveys an hour in good weather or bad weather, and the birds were eating purely natural feed. That is remarkable in this day and time.”
For 2010, it looked like an unprecedented crop of birds inhabited Snipes’ ranch. Each morning the air rang with their calls, and Snipes couldn’t wait for hunting season.
“By September, we had no birds to speak of,” he said. “For every 100 birds we expected to have, we had four or five birds. So we said to ourselves, like anyone would, ‘What in the world happened here?’ Rather than just being quail hunters who owned a ranch, we were fortunate enough to be in the position to do some research. We knew for sure it wasn’t habitat, we knew for sure it wasn’t weather, so what was left was disease or parasites.”
Dale Rollins, a former national quail-calling champion, mimics the call of the bobwhite.
RPQRR researchers release radio-marked bobwhites into the wild. Photo courtesy of RPQRR.
Call to Action
Dale Rollins, director of the RPQRR and a professor with Texas Agrilife Research, sits in the back of the Jeep and mimics the distress call of a fledgling bobwhite.
The former national quail-calling champion waits less than a minute before a male comes to investigate. Puffing up to protect his young, the bird approaches the vehicle closely looking for the problem.
These birds aren’t just specimens to him, but part of a way of life, he said. Rollins has researched the birds since 1978.
“I was raised in Southwestern Oklahoma,” Rollins said. “One of my earliest memories of quail is when I was just 5 years old. We lived south of Hollis, and about this time of year, there was a bobwhite quail whistling its iconic song. My mother said, ‘You hear that? That bird calls its name. ‘Bob-white.’ And it’s been calling to me for the last 53 years. They were the only game we had in Southwestern Oklahoma at that time. So, my personal life and my professional life have been guided by quail and quail hunting. I find myself as a researcher that is a hunter first and researcher second. The same skills can make you a good hunter and researcher.”
Sustaining quail populations in West Texas served as the impetus for creating the RPQRR, he said. Established in 2007 while quail numbers in the region were still high, the assembly of landowners and quail hunters realized the overall decades-long population declines from the Atlantic Coast to East Texas served as a cautionary tale.
In their 2007 State of Birds report, the National Audubon Society ranked the northern bobwhite quail at No. 1 on a list of common birds in decline, citing an 82 percent drop from 31 million birds in 1967 to about 5.5 million at the time.
In Texas, the bobwhite decline averaged 5.6 percent a year between 1980 and 2003, with a loss of 75 percent. Blue quail have declined 66 percent during the same period with a 2.9 percent loss per year.
Quail hunting and hunters in Texas also have declined precipitously with only 50,000 hunters bagging about 500,000 quail in 2010 compared to 98 million birds bagged by 321,000 hunters in 1960, according to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.
Researchers analyze quail tissue to identify the cause of the population decline.
The research ranch, formed in the nick of time it would seem, serves as a laboratory to devise and evaluate land management schemes aimed at enhancing bobwhite abundance.
When the RPQRR began operating, Rollins and others worked on the various factors that affect quail health. The team studied the impacts on quail caused by small mammal populations, insect populations, predators and other factors.
“We wanted to learn what happens to the quail system,” he said. “When you pull on one of the quail ‘strings,’ what happens to the others? All of them are intricately interwoven. The research ranch is unlike any other property in the U.S. because it is dedicated solely to the research of bobwhite quail. Everything here points to quail.”
Then the crash came, and the team was stumped. The drought in 2009 could have contributed to some decline, but the rains of 2010 seemed to have revived population counts. It did for a time, he said. Then the bottom dropped out. People began calling Rollins by December, saying they had found dead quail on their properties.
“Finding a dead quail out in the pasture is a little like finding a needle in a haystack,” he said. “They don’t last very long. I probably got 10 reports of folks finding a dead quail that December. That raised our antennae that maybe it was happening more than we think.”
With the number of birds plummeting, the RPQRR shifted gears and funded Operation Idiopathic Decline to discover some answers. In the project, researchers from TIEHH, RPQRR, Texas A&M and Texas A&M-Kingsville collect and share data with colleagues at other institutions.
Rollins said such a huge project could not have been accomplished without adequate funding, the academic expertise from the three universities and logistical support. Many landowners permitted scientists access to their lands for research. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation proved a valuable partner for study sites in the Sooner State.
Normally, when researchers study population decline, the mantra is to look solely at the habitat.
Operation Idiopathic Decline Search for the Smoking Gun - Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
Dr. Dale Rollins with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service discusses the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch's new disease research dubbed "Operation Idiopathic Decline" and the role of disease in declining quail populations. Video courtesy of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
Meet the Researchers
Steve Presley is an associate professor of immunotoxicology, countermeasures to biological and chemical threats at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University.
Ron Kendall is a professor of environmental toxicology at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University.
Dale Rollins is director of the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch (RPQRR) and professor with Texas Agrilife Research.
Rick Snipes President of the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch (RPQRR).
However, Snipes, Rollins and others suspected more than environment had caused the rapid decline. Not every part of the state experienced the same problems from the drought. On Snipes’ ranch, where every available resource quail need still abounded, habitat shouldn’t have been the problem. The team wanted to discover if disease or toxicants might have played a role.
Snipes and Rollins met with Steve Presley, an associate professor of environmental toxicology, and Ron Kendall, director emeritus at TIEHH and professor of environmental toxicology. After touring the facility and discussing the scientific talent base available, Snipes said if Texas Tech would build the lab, the RPQRR would fund the program, donating $550,000 into the lab itself.
TIEHH’s unique attributes as a lab dedicated to environmental toxicology made it the perfect place to study what may be impacting the quail, Snipes said.
“The lab at Texas Tech was a seismic advance from where we started,” he said. “A centralized receiving lab where sampling could be coordinated and tissue samples could be collected, catalogued, archived and disseminated to the researchers was essential.”
With RPQRR’s funding and a staff of three faculty, three staff members, 11 full-time graduate students and 18 additional researchers from different colleges participating, Kendall and Presley said the quail lab made Operation Idiopathic Decline more focused and capable of finding answers.
“The quail populations in West Texas, which has been very important as a species of interest for hunting, have dropped precipitously over the last few years,” Kendall said. “We do not think it’s entirely habitat- or weather-related. We think it’s some parasite, disease, contaminant or something to cause such a dramatic drop. In some parts of the Rolling Plains of West Texas, there may be up to 90 percent or more drop in populations. Historically, this area has been one of the great bastions of quail populations in the nation and in Texas.”
Presley, a zoonotic disease researcher in charge of the central receiving lab and disease studies at TIEHH, said researchers at Texas Tech haven’t found a silver bullet yet. But they don’t expect to find just one. In 2009, scientists at Texas Tech discovered some quail populations had exposure to West Nile and Newcastle disease viruses. He suspects many factors culminated the decline.
“With this funding, we’re going to expand the scope on our quail population screening for diseases spread by insects and ticks,” he said. “Diseases, such as West Nile virus, may compromise quail health enough that they don’t reproduce as well or can’t escape predators as well. We’re going to expand our research to determine if quail decline is related to arthropod-borne disease.”
Senior scientists and graduate students trap and collect an array of data from bobwhites during August and October each year, Presley said. Most are weighed, measured and have blood drawn and other samples collected. About a quarter of birds sampled are sacrificed and flash-frozen for complete necropsy back at the central lab in Lubbock.
“The central lab has a fleet of mobile laboratory trailers that we send out with the teams,” he said. “All of the samples have a code to identify where they came from and the date collected. Sacrificed birds are necropsied at TIEHH to assess general physical internal condition. All the organs are extracted, examined and weighed.
So far, scientists have found interesting evidence of lead, mercury and pesticide residue in some of the tissues, Kendall said. Heavy metals in the bodies of the quail could cause lowered immune systems. That, paired with parasites and viruses, could be responsible.
“Lead in the femur bone and mercury is being seen in some of the quail muscle tissue,” he said. “In many of the birds, we see the residues of DDE, which is the residual of DDT. These are some of the early signals of the things going on. One of the most interesting things that we’ve seen is the presence of eye worms, which are parasites that occupy the eyes of quail. What is interesting is that we see a significant number of the quail in the Rolling Plains with eye worms. In South Texas, almost none are seen. There are various investigations going on to see what this means. We’re getting reports of quail flying into fences and flying into buildings or hitting cars, and a lot of times we’re seeing eye worms. These worms could impair the birds’ ability to escape from a predator or find food.”
Rollins said scientists also found high numbers of cecal worms in the lower gut of the quail. While these parasites aren’t thought to be overly dangerous, the unusually high numbers found in birds from the study could impair digestion, especially in the winter.
More science is needed, Presley said, though he thinks the data collected will be able to answer what has caused the recent drastic population decline and also may help scientists understand the decades-long slope in quail numbers.
“Operation Idiopathic Decline’s initial phase was a three-year survey to go out and trap quail, analyze tissue and then move to another phase of research.” he said. “The ultimate goal is to try to identify what is causing the decline, what is causing it over the past 20 years. We want to look at it and determine if disease is playing a role. When we find that, then we can take the next step, which is how can we limit that disease, toxicant or parasite. Once you know what the problem is, you can address it.”
The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH)
The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) develops environmental and health sciences research and education at Texas Tech and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
The institute's goal is to position Texas Tech as an internationally recognized force in the integration of environmental impact assessment of toxic chemicals with human health consequences, framed in the context of science-based risk assessment to support sound environmental policy and law.
Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch (RPQRR)
The mission of the RPQRR is to provide land managers, and other stakeholders, with timely, relevant technology and management schemes for enhancing quail populations in the Rolling Plains of Texas, and to sustain Texas’ wild quail hunting heritage for this and future generations.
Learn more about RPQRR at www.quailresearch.org.
John Davis is a Senior Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University.