Making a Home in the Rolling Plains

The air is cool and dry with the usual Lubbock breeze blowing. The colors are beige, brown and more beige. Residents of Lubbock and the surrounding counties are probably familiar with landscapes of this category. Visitors to the region might be unimpressed with what seems like such a barren ecosystem. However, this region of Texas serves a purpose with both ecological and economic value: it provides habitat for quail.

“I think we’re in a really good spot because we’re right on the edge of the Rolling Plains,” said Brad Dabbert, Ph.D., Burnett Foundation Endowed Professor of Quail Ecology in the Texas Tech University Department of Natural Resources Management.

Dabbert works with the Quail-Tech Alliance, a research organization at Texas Tech that focuses on quail conservation in the ecoregion referred to as the Rolling Plains, situated in the northwestern portion of Texas, including the eastern half of the Panhandle. Quail-Tech’s research largely focuses on the species northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), which, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife, has been spotted in every county in the Texas Panhandle. Lubbock is located right at the margin of this region and is home to Quail-Tech’s research facility just north of Texas Tech’s main campus.

The facility houses important research equipment, flight pens and significant acreage of native rangeland that provides quail habitat. However, Quail-Tech’s research is not confined to this facility or even to Lubbock County. According to Dabbert, Quail-Tech partners with between 20 and 25 ranches in the Rolling Plains. These are referred to as their “anchor ranches.” As the name implies, the goal of working with these private landowners is to “anchor” habitat that is suitable for healthy quail populations.

“As we monitor things, they can learn from each other, and we can learn from them,” Dabbert said.

The partnerships involve listening to landowners’ observations and integrating that information with scientific research conducted by Quail-Tech on the properties. All work for these partnerships is done on privately-owned land.

“It’s a unique agreement that they have to let us have access to their quail populations,” said Matthew McEwen, full-time manager at Quail-Tech.

Managing for quail conservation in the Rolling Plains has implications that go beyond just the quail populations themselves. The research and management by Quail-Tech has significant impacts on both the environment and society.

According to Dabbert, these impacts are twofold. One important factor is they are an indicator species, meaning their population conditions are indicative of the habitat quality.

“Having healthy quail populations is basically the end product of having healthy grassland ecosystems out here,” Dabbert said.

Another positive impact of managing for quail conservation is it boosts the local economies in rural communities. When the populations are healthy, quail hunting drives visitors to these small towns, generating business for restaurants, hotels and gas stations. Additionally, landowners can profit from leasing their properties to hunters. For these reasons, keeping the quail populations healthy and stable is a goal of Quail-Tech.

“We’re trying to find ways to make them more sustainable, and we have been able to do that to a certain extent,” Dabbert said.

Some of the techniques for managing these populations are developed on the anchor ranches.

“We have some of the most famous ranches in Texas involved,” Dabbert said.

Perhaps the most notable of these is the Four Sixes Ranch, where Quail-Tech has been able to experiment with various management techniques, including supplemental feeding. Dabbert said supplemental feeding has been one of Quail-Tech’s biggest successes. By providing supplemental feed to the quail populations, they have been able to increase adult survival rates by an average of 22 percent. Such an increase is important because it means 22 percent more hens will nest that year.

“What we have done, instead of just being reactive and kind of watching what happens with quail populations, we’ve tried to actually do experiments to see if we can basically make the lows not as low and the highs higher,” Dabbert said.

Additionally, Quail-Tech’s practice of supplemental feeding has been able to reduce weather-related mortality. During the heavy snowfall of 2014, quail that did not receive supplemental feed suffered a 50 percent mortality rate, while those that did only experienced a 9 percent mortality rate due to improved body conditions, such as sufficient fat deposits.

“Having healthy quail populations is basically the end product of having healthy grassland ecosystems out here.”

Researchers cannot depend on supplemental feeding alone to save the quail populations as other needs must be managed as well.

“One thing I want to emphasize is supplemental feeding won’t work without proper habitat management,” Dabbert said.

He compared the matter to people wanting a “quick-fix pill” for weight loss, rather than exercising and eating right. If quail populations are to be managed sustainably, wildlife biologists must also manage for the vegetation component of their habitat. Quail-Tech plans to analyze what type of vegetation the birds use for cover by looking at percentage of woody cover and vegetation height. This is where technology comes in.

Rowdy White, a graduate student and full-time biologist at Quail-Tech, works with GPS transmitters and a drone to analyze the quail’s habitat use during the winter. After bobwhites are trapped, they wear GPS transmitters as backpacks, allowing White to track their locations upon plugging the data into a computer software.

“These are all actual locations where a bird had been,” White said, gesturing to red dots on the computer screen.

Once this information has been acquired, White then flies the drone over the locations where that bird had been and captures aerial images of the vegetation. The images are of high enough quality for White to identify some individual plant species.

White said as he finishes the project, he hopes it will give insight to researchers and landowners on the type and amount of woody cover used by quail.

Much of this is conducted at Quail-Tech’s research facility, where large buckets sit next to the quail coops and flight pens. The buckets contain native grasses, such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), which were propagated by researchers. Wind continues to blow across a landscape of beige, brown and more beige. With the help of Quail-Tech, this region will continue to be an important home for quail and other wildlife.

Senior technician
Cresten Sledge, Texas Tech student, is a senior technician at Quail-Tech.
Flight pens and huts
Quail-Tech’s research facility in Lubbock includes a flight pen and some huts.