By: Val W. Lehmann

Type: General Entry

Published: November 1, 1995

Texas has abundant quail. The best-known and most widely distributed species is the bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), which occurs in virtually all counties east of the Pecos River. Minor differences of coloration identify three separate races: the eastern bobwhite (C. v. virginianus) of the eastern pine woodlands, the plains bobwhite (C. v. taylori) of the Panhandle and lower plains, and the true Texas bobwhite (C. v. texanus) of the remainder of the state. In addition to having the widest distribution, bobwhites are the most numerous quail. In a long transitional belt between the ninety-eighth and ninety-ninth parallels, animals and plants of the humid east meet those of the semiarid west. In this zone and in territory to the west are two additional quail-the Arizona scaled or blue quail (Callipepla squamata pallida) and the chestnut-bellied scaled quail (C. s. castanogastris). Chestnut-bellied quail, the adult males of which have distinctive dark chestnut breast patches, occupy the Rio Grande plain from Brownsville northward to the vicinity of Del Rio. The Arizona subspecies inhabits desert shrub and shortgrass habitat to the west and north. The Gambel's quail (Callipepla gambelii ignoscens), the desert quail of northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States, is at the easternmost limit of its range in a narrow strip of desert shrub and irrigated farmland bordering the Rio Grande from about the ghost town of Lajitas northward to El Paso. Southwest Texas is also home for still another quail, the Mearns or harlequin quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae mearnsi). The Mearns quail, evidently never abundant in Texas, presently occurs only on a few small ranches northeast of Del Rio.

Early wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold, the "father of game management in North America," termed the bobwhite the least mobile of American game and stated that most live and die within a quarter mile of where they are hatched. Subsequent studies have shown, however, that rangeland bobwhites are more mobile than first thought; banded individuals have been recovered up to sixty-five miles from initial capture sites. It is clear, however, that bobwhites and most other quail spend fall and winter in "covey ranges" or "covey territories" that generally are fifty acres or less in size. Twenty-five to thirty birds occupy a feeding territory, and the number of coveys an area can support depends upon the number of habitable territories it provides. The habitat needs of quail include woody cover provided by low-growing shrubs or vines for protection from enemies. When flushed, bobwhite burst into flight and seek cover again within a quarter of a mile. Scaled quail and Gambel's quail do not fly as readily, but prefer to stay on the ground and run. The Mearns quail flies even less frequently. When threatened, it remains still and relies on its camouflage coloring. Quail also need food in the form of seeds, greens, and insects, and require surface water if watery foods such as succulent plants and insects are not to be had. Scaled or desert quail that live in the grasslands of the Trans-Pecos or in the prickly pear and mesquite country of South Texas (see CACTI, and MESQUITE) need much less water than other species. Herbaceous growth provides cover for foraging, roosting, and nesting. Bobwhite and scaled quail breed from March to October. Gambel's and Mearns's quail breed in the late spring and summer months. Adult birds lay ten to fifteen white or buff-colored eggs in nests built on the ground, in the undergrowth along fences and hedgerows, or in ground depressions sheltered by yucca and bush. Gambel's quail may use holes or hollows vacated by other animals. Early agriculture provided quail with plentiful food and cover; modern farming, forestry, and ranching do not.

For most Texas quails, the future is hardly promising. The Mearns quail, intolerant of heavy grazing and particularly of grazing by sheep and goats, is almost gone in Texas, its most eastern habitat, though it remains unendangered farther west. The Gambel's quail, confined by nature to a narrow strip bordering the upper Rio Grande, is endangered by ever-increasing hunting. Scaled quail, their welfare contingent on the presence of a diversified flora of desert shrubs and cacti, have decreased wherever brush control has occurred. In the Rio Grande plain, brush control of one kind or another has been applied virtually everywhere. Changes in land use-the substitution of pure stands of pine for mixed stands of pines and deciduous trees in East Texas; the replacement of native food-bearing forbs and grasses with nonfood-bearing exotic grasses in Central and South Texas; and wide use of chemical herbicides and pesticides-have vastly reduced both the quantity and the quality of the quail's habitat. A rapidly expanding human population leaves fewer acres on which quail restoration is practical. But there is hope. As quail habitat and numbers have declined, the economic value of quail, particularly bobwhites and scaled quail, has increased. Quail hunting rights have risen in price from three dollars to seven dollars an acre annually. As a result, increasing numbers of ranchers now incorporate the needs of wildlife into their land-use programs. When most do, the future of quail will be assured.

Val W. Lehmann, Bobwhites in the Rio Grande Plain of Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1984). Harry Church Oberholser, The Bird Life of Texas (2 vols., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1974). Principal Game Birds and Mammals of Texas (Austin: Texas Game, Fish, and Oyster Commission, 1945).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Val W. Lehmann, “Quail,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 24, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/quail.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1995