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Oklahoma Quail Numbers Back to 10-Year Average

This year’s Quail Roadside Surveys in Oklahoma show a decline from last year in the number of observed birds. But last year was one in which rainfall, temperature and habitat all combined to create ideal conditions for quail reproduction, resulting in a tremendous quail crop.

“We are on the backside of a boom cycle that started in 2014, after a record drought in 2011 and 2012,” said Derek Wiley, upland game biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “Quail cannot maintain historically high levels every year. Eventually what goes up must come down — but the sky is certainly not falling.”

Quail populations are historically cyclical; bird numbers often boom for several years then decline based on factors including habitat and weather.

A more-accurate assessment of the health of quail populations is not based on year-to-year comparisons, but rather on longer-term averages that better account for the natural boom-bust cycles, biologists say.

The take-away from the 2017 surveys is that the declines simply reflect quail population numbers that have returned to around their 10-year averages in most regions of the state.

“We are sitting right at the 10-year average. That last two years was a boom, and now we are back down to average.”

Wiley said there is little cause for concern among hunters or biologists. “It is not something to panic about. Even ‘average’ in Oklahoma is much better than in most states. There are still parts of the state that hold good numbers of quail.”

Wiley cited several factors that likely have played a role in this year’s lower bird counts:

In the southwestern region, there was hardly any rain in the crucial spring months, likely decreasing quail production.
In the northwestern region, cool and wet conditions likely delayed nesting, which decreases quail production.
Later nesting, a result of weather conditions, tends to be less productive overall than earlier nesting. (Wiley was getting reports of chicks on the ground in early October, which is late compared to a normal breeding season.)
Summer rains created heavy roadside vegetation in many regions, making birds more difficult to see and count during surveys.

Plus, Wiley said his experience tells him that observations this year have been lower than they should have been, meaning more birds could be out there on the landscape than what the surveys suggest. Biologists will get a better idea of the real population numbers after hearing reports from quail hunters this winter.

The state is divided into six regions for roadside quail surveys. In the August survey, the average number of quail seen in a 20-mile route was slightly above the 10-year average number in four of the six regions. But in every region, the number of quail declined from last year. Statewide, the August quail index (3.38) was 41.2 percent below the 28-year historic average (5.56).

The Wildlife Department has conducted annual roadside surveys in August and October since 1990 to track quail populations across Oklahoma. The survey provides an index of annual population fluctuations. Surveyors report the number of quail observed to create an index of quail abundance (number of quail seen per 20-mile route) and an indication of reproductive success. Surveyors drive 83 routes in 75 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties. Some larger counties have two routes.

“There will always be ups and downs, even with prime habitat and good weather conditions,” Wiley said. The overall health of the quail population still hinges on habitat and weather year after year, he said.

Quail hunting season in Oklahoma will run from Nov. 11 to Feb. 15, 2018. For complete regulations, refer to the “Oklahoma Hunting and Fishing Regulations Guide” available at www.wildlifedepartment.com, in the “OK Fishing and Hunting Guide” mobile app for Apple and Android, or in print at license dealers statewide.

Despite what surveys indicate, hunters are urged to get out in the fields, enjoy the beauty of nature, and learn for themselves how good the quail hunting is this year.