A Texas Quail Story

Once eyeworm infections reach extreme levels, quail begin to disappear—losses of 90 to 95 percent in a matter of months in our research transects has been observed. In addition, quail sustain some losses from vision impairment. I have read hundreds of reports of and seen with my own eyes quail flying into trees and buildings, killing themselves.

The caecal worm locates in the intestinal area of the quail’s cecum, which helps break down fiber acquired from seeds. Our investigation revealed that it is more than 91 percent related on the DNA level to the ascarid or the roundworm that can infect dogs, and if left untreated in canines, it reduces energy and stamina, and can result in hair loss and death. We found that infection levels rarely exceed 300 caecal worms because we believe quail with that level of infection are generally dying.

These parasitic infections take their greatest toll on a quail’s immune system, which makes the birds more susceptible to disease and predation.

ACROSS THE ATLANTIC, IN SCOTLAND, red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica) is a highly desired game bird, just like bobwhites. These birds are very close kin to willow ptarmigan and have often experienced extreme boom-and-bust cycles, such that in some years there was no red grouse hunting, which not only disappointed the hunters but also limited the resources for managing the moors for grouse and future hunting.

The red grouse is so important economically that a research team was formed decades ago to evaluate treatment of the bird. The researchers ultimately blamed parasitic infection for causing the downturn in populations, and blame fell specifically on caecal worms, although of a different genus. Ultimately, researchers found a drug treatment that could be administered in the natural behavior of the red grouse, which ingest grit each day to aid in digestion.

Scottish scientists identified a way to offer drugtreated grit to red grouse and found that within two generations of adults teaching the young to go to treatment sites, they were able to sustain active treatment, which reduced if not eliminated parasitic infection in the wild grouse. Among red grouse in Scotland, boom-and-bust cycles are a thing of the past, and nearly every year offers good red grouse shooting. This was a remarkable achievement by a Scottish research team led by Dr. Peter Hudson, with whom I had the pleasure of co-lecturing a quail-management symposium years ago at the Dallas Safari Club.

Once our team in Texas identified the impacts of parasites on wild quail, we concluded that we should follow the lead of Scottish researchers. In other words, we decided to implement science and technology to enhance quail conservation and not just employ the old tactics of “manage the habitat, and the birds will come.”

AFTER IDENTIFYING PARASITIC INFECTION IN TEXAS QUAIL AND WITH THE WORK OF SCOTTISH RESEARCHERS PROVIDING INSPIRATION, the WTL began evaluating methods of delivering a drug treatment to wild bobwhites that would exclude exposing the treatment to nontarget species.

We also began communicating in 2013 with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the concept of developing a medicated feed treatment for wild bobwhites at the landscape level. This was a relatively foreign concept for the FDA, since they do very little, if any, drug-registration work for wildlife. In fact, there was no registered drug treatment for wild birds of any kind.

We initially started with a small dog kennel that incorporated ground-entrance holes, which allowed quail to enter and leave the unit. We tried various attractors to encourage the quail to enter and found that an electronic digital quail covey call, invented by Ronnie and several colleagues, proved very effective. The system evolved through fi eld trials, and what we have now is a highly specialized platform known as QuailSafe, which offers the medicated feed at the height of a quail, eliminating, for the most part, songbirds and any small mammals from exposure to medication. The treatment can kill all stages of caecal and eyeworm infection from infective larvae to adult worms.

The FDA was impressed with our preliminary results, which led to a series of meetings. In fall 2015, we began the process of registering our medicated feed treatment for bobwhite with the FDA. We are running several demonstrations with the medicated feed on various ranches at this time, and have seen significant success. Wild quail— bobwhite as well as native scaled (Callipepla squamata) or blue quail—can be easily treated for parasitic infection with medicated feed. This treatment is highly effective in significantly reducing, if not completely eradicating, parasitic infections. In fact, we have hard data showing that with only a week of ingesting the medicated feed treatment, the transfer of parasite eggs in quail feces can be completely eliminated, which breaks the life cycle of the deadly and destructive parasites.

Early in our research, I discussed with Rick Snipes that it would probably be impossible to treat all the wild quail on a property for parasitic infection. However, if we could treat a portion of the population, sustain them, and prevent losses of 90 percent as we saw in 2010, that should bode well for a better outcome in sustaining wild populations in terms of population statistics. In the regions of our demonstration ranches, some landowners have suffered losses of more than 90 percent, but populations began to rebound within a year or so instead of three to five.

We now have data to demonstrate that we can effectively treat wild bobwhite quail at the landscape level. We are still working out the details, but with the integration of the electronic quail-covey e-caller on the QuailSafe, a rancher with only one delivery system will be able to reach out 360 degrees for a quarter- to half-mile radius.

I WILL NEVER ARGUE THAT HIGH-QUALITY HABITAT, including feeding areas, nesting areas, and escape cover, is not critical for wild bobwhite quail management. It is not, however, the total solution, as demonstrated by a sustained 50-plus years of decline in the United States. Just as the farming industry, by the use of science Texas Quail and technology, has improved dramatically over recent decades—160 bushels of corn per acre is not that unusual these days, compared with less than 100 in the 1970s—why can’t we think the same way with wild bobwhite quail management? We need to stop hanging on to the old dogma of “habitat only,” which has proved insufficient and, in my opinion, has led to a dramatic decline of this iconic game bird. I’m very appreciative of the organizations—such as the Rolling Plains Quail Research Foundation, Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension Service, Park Cities Quail Coalition, and Texas Tech University—that have provided significant support in the development of the science to conserve and sustain wild bobwhite quail and the hunting tradition for generations to come.

Ronald J. Kendall, PhD, professor of environmental toxicology and head of the Texas Tech Wildlife Toxicology Laboratory, is a research scientist with hundreds of papers published in scientific journals, a lifelong quail hunter, and the owner of five Llewellin setters.