Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Grassland Birds

I just finished writing an article on the status of bobwhite and blue quail in Texas. One of the biologists I interviewed referred me to the National Audubon Society report, "2007 State of Birds." Very depressing. The northern bobwhite quail ranks first on the list of declining common birds, down 82 percent since 1960. In general, grassland birds are faring poorly due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Northern shrike and eastern meadowlark populations have declined more than 70 percent.

Felicity Barringer wrote about the list in this past Friday's New York Times.

In Texas, bobwhite numbers declined about 75 percent between 1980 and 2003, and I'm sure they're still slipping. Most of the losses occurred in the increasingly urbanized eastern third of the state. Quail are holding steady in those vast, sparsely populated strongholds, the Rolling Plains and South Texas Plains.

On the upside, I learned that Audubon Texas employs a full-time biologist, Jason Hardin, to lead its Quail and Grassland Bird Initiative. In addition to habitat work and landowner education and support, the initiative has the added benefit of building goodwill between hunting and non-hunting members of the conservationist community.

Now back to local doom and gloom. North Texas - particularly the Dallas area - is the fastest growing region in the state. Boosters gleefully shout that the area's population will likely grow from 7 million to about 13 million over the next 50 years, supposedly necessitating all sorts of destructive water projects. Of the original 12 million acres of Blackland Prairie, which includes the Dallas area, only a few thousand remain unplowed and undeveloped. No doubt hundreds of thousands of acres of semi-wild prairie - decent grassland bird habitat - remain in the form of marginal farmland, vacant lots, green belts, wildlife management areas, and so on. Outside of management areas, refuges, and Corps of Engineers land around reservoirs, few of these tracts are larger than 100 acres. And they're disappearing under slabs and parking lots ever day.

When we moved to Plano in 1983, bobwhites, northern harriers, kestrels, and meadowlarks were common sights in the open spaces around neighborhoods. Our first spring here, bobwhite cocks sometimes perched on our backyard fence and whistled for hens. Lowe's and Walmart now cover a big part of that covey's home range. I haven't heard a bobwhite whistle in Plano in 20 years. I can't remember the last time I saw a harrier or meadowlark in the area. But boy do we have grackles and house sparrows.

I wish I could be more optimistic, but I predict that the grassland bird decline will continue. Whatever habitat can be preserved or restored will be offset by more strip malls and subdivisions. Here in Collin County, new malls are going up while others sit empty. Developers develop.

"Economic growth," has moved alongside Education, Our Future, and Our Children. The idea has become unassailable. Raise so much as an eyebrow and you're a crank, an elitist, or worse.

We moved here from Kentucky, a fact that's pointed out to me nearly every time I raise my concern about unchecked growth. Others have a right to settle here too. I don't dispute that. You get transferred, change jobs, or graduate from college, so you move. Few people have anything against wildlife and open spaces. I suspect most never think about them, especially not in terms of suburban growth.

But at some point, we'll have to decide what kind of world we want to inhabit.

I take that back. We're deciding right now. Problem is, most of us haven't paused long enough to realize it.


Matt Mullenix said...

Henry I hunt 6 months a year, 4 or more days per week, in potential quail habitat in Louisiana. I have flushed exactly one covey in 10 years.

Reports from longtime residents routinely include bobwhites as part of the local fauna. And a friend from New Orleans used to hunt them within the city limits in the 60s.

Being from North Florida and South Georgia---big traditional quail cultures---and a former researcher on a quail predator (the Cooper's hawk), I can tell you that even encreasing avian predation (theorhetically documentable) can't hold a candle to habiat destruction in accounting for declining quail populations.

If our subdivisions and stripmalls don't kill them, our vast, efficient monocultures will clean up the rest.

I catch a small number still in Amarillo and hope they can hang on up there!

Henry Chappell said...

Matt, the areas here in Texas that still have lots of quail also have lots of avian predators. I've never bought the predation theory so beloved by hunters who really don't understand game bird ecology - and who want a handy excuse to kill predators. Yes, there's a lot of predation, but given good habiat, quail are very prolific. If a skunk or badger destroys a nest, the hen will try again and again until she's successful or runs out of time.

I think you'll be catching quail around Amarillo for a long time yet. I don't worry much about them on the plains, where there are huge, unbroken tracts of excellent habitat. But at the rate they're declining, bobwhites may be extint in much of the the South in a few decades.

What a shame.