Sprinting through the brush, or rising in a burst of flight, scaled quail are an iconic species of the grasslands of the Trans-Pecos.
Their populations have steadily declined since the 1980s. Alpine’s Borderlands Research Institute is studying that decline, and, in the process, gaining new insight into these gregarious creatures of the Southwest.
The scaled quail, or blue quail, is one of four quail species found in West Texas – but, west of the Pecos, it’s by far the most common. Level grasslands are its topography. A mature bird stands 5 to 8 inches high, and weighs about as much as a baseball. It gets its name from the scaly appearance of its breast and back feathers.
Sociability is perhaps the quail’s most striking feature. Scaled quail live in coveys, of six to 20 birds.
The quail have the sense not to fight the desert sun. They’re crepuscular – feeding at dawn and dusk, and sitting out midday in the shade of a mesquite or other shrub. This group “loafing,” as it’s called, also protects the birds from predators.
As spring ripens, in April, quail courtship begins. Males woo potential mates with warbling calls.
Ryan Luna is leading quail research at the Borderlands Research Institute.
“You’ll hear it in the morning, sometimes in the evening,” Luna said.
The songs work their charm, and females select their mates. From the communal scrum of the covey, the birds split off into pairs.
In choosing a nesting site, the quail proves herself a true desert native. The skirt of a sotol plant is the preferred site, Luna said. The quail may also nest in a lechuguilla, or in a prickly pear or other cactus.
“It will be where you can’t see it,” Luna said. “It’s going to be concealed somehow, and more often than not, there’s going to be something sharp and pokey around it.”
The female can store sperm from a single copulation to fertilize multiple eggs, and she lays an egg each day. With a dozen eggs, she will sit on the nest. Twenty-two days later, the chicks are born.
Chicks typically arrive in June or July. If summer rains are abundant, the pair may have a second clutch.
The quail have sustained themselves on seeds, tubers and cacti through the winter. But the work of parenthood calls for protein. In spring and summer, the breeding pair fills up on ants, grasshoppers and beetles.
Within days of their birth, the young join in the bug hunt.
“These guys kind of hit the ground running,” Luna said. “They’ll be just little button quail, the size of the end of your thumb, and as soon as they dry out they’re able to run.”
Soon, the quail return to their sociable ways. In September or October, the pairs and young convene in what are called “super-coveys.” For a month, they mingle in groups of 100 or more. As winter nears, the big group splinters into new, separate coveys. Parents and offspring separate, insuring genetic diversity.
BRI researchers attached tiny radio beacons to quail. They’ve mapped the quails’ use of habitat. Luna said a covey typically has a home range of about 1 square-mile. The range is centered on a gently sloping area, with woody cover for loafing.
Quail populations fluctuate with wet years and drought. But there’s been a sustained decline since the early 1980s.
The BRI is in the early stages of its research, and the causes of the decline remain mysterious.
Predation could be a factor, Luna said. It’s the consensus of the region’s mammals that quail are tasty, as are their eggs. Quail are prey to coyotes, bobcats and rattlesnakes. Skunks, raccoons and bull snakes consume their eggs.
As predator-control practices and land use in the region have changed, predator populations have increased. Historically, overgrazing also reduced the cover that quail need.
Luna said he is hopeful the BRI will be able to identify causes of the decline. Then, the institute could advise landowners on how to better support their quail populations.
“I’m guessing there’s not one smoking gun,” Luna said, “but a lot of pieces that fit together, that are driving the populations down.”