One of my earliest recollections of experiencing exciting and unique urban wildlife occurred when I was a young boy. I grew up in Lewisville at a time when it was still a very small town. In the mid 1970s, Lewisville still had significant areas of undeveloped land and a number of unpaved dirt roads.
One afternoon my family was driving down McGee lane, which was unpaved at the time. We had just passed the Old Hall Cemetery and crossed over the railroad tracks, when my dad slowed to a stop. There in front of the car was a covey of Northern Bobwhites crossing the road one right after the other. The last to cross was a proud mama hen with a line of a dozen or so chicks following behind her.
That was an exciting observation for me. I remember it as a defining moment of sorts. It is probably fair to count this as one of the seminal inspirations for DFW Urban Wildlife and all of its offshoots.
As I got a little older and began spending more time outdoors, I could usually be found down by Prairie Creek, exploring the surrounding woods and fields. Bobwhites were ubiquitous as the time. I remember hearing their distinctive “Bob-Bob-White” call often. I recall flushing groups of these quail with some regularity—a shocking experience if you were not aware there was a covey nearby!
By the mid-1980s I was off to college, and my time spent outdoors was abruptly abbreviated as my priorities faced an necessary realignment. Looking back at those days, I cannot recall clearly when was the last time I observed Bobwhite Quail in the metroplex. Sometime in 1983, when I flushed a covey near my aunt’s house in Sanger, is the last encounter I can remember with clarity.
Something happened in the intervening years, and the quail population declined precipitously. Not just in North Texas, but all across their historical range. I remember reading one of the first articles about the phenomenon sometime in the early 1990s. The decline of Bobwhite Quail in North Texas occurred within a narrow window of just a few years. These days Bobwhite Quail are considered expatriated from the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex and almost all of North Texas as well.
The dramatic reduction in Northern Bobwhite number went hand-in-hand with a similar drop in numbers for a couple of other key species of North Texas wildlife as well—box turtles, thirteen-lined ground squirrels, and meadowlarks most notably.
There is much speculation about the cause of this decline. Some people point to habitat lost due to urbanization. Others believe habitat change caused by the introduction of new farming practices is responsible. Some are sure the ongoing invasion of North Texas by the Red Imported Fire Ant is the key factor. Pesticides and predation are also sometimes referenced as causes.
To me the answer remains a mystery. There are expansive parcels of land in the metroplex that are essentially unchanged from the way they were in the 1970s. For some reason they could support quail then, but they cannot now. It also seems intuitive that ground nesting birds like Northern Bobwhites would be particularly vulnerable to fire ants. This is especially so at hatching time when opening eggshells—and the goo they contain—would be like ringing a olfactory-dinner bell for hungry ants. But there are a number of ground nesting birds that continue to do well—and even thrive—here in Dallas/FortWorth. Killdeer, Common Nighthawks, vultures, and many species of duck come to mind right away.
So, how do you explain the dramatic drop in Northern Bobwhites? I think the best way to discover the answer may be through a reintroduction effort.
Programs designed to reintroduce any species can be challenging. Many require a steep learning curve before success can be achieved. Nature can lay waste to even the best made plans, but it is through the successes—and failures—that we learn the most. That is one of the reasons I get excited about efforts to reintroduce Bobwhite Quail. Whether these efforts succeed or fail, they are likely to shed important light on the root cause of the Northern Bobwhites decline. The lessons learned may be invaluable.
In Dallas/Forth Worth, I am aware of only a couple of ongoing Bobwhite Quail reintroduction efforts. One of the newest is taking place on the Connemara Meadow Preserve right here in Allen, Texas.
The Connemara Meadow Preserve is the flagship land parcel managed by the Connemara Conservancy. The Connemara Conservancy Foundation is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization whose mission is stated thusly:
Connemara’s mission is to help farmers, ranchers and other landowners as well as developers and local governments protect and conserve important tracts of remaining open space. In addition, Connemara is committed to educating current and future generations on the important role that open space plays in improving our quality of life.
The history of the conservancy and the meadow is interesting and important. Here is how it is described on their website:
For more than three decades, the Connemara Conservancy has been at the forefront of land conservation and environmental education in Texas. From family farms to conservation-minded residential developments, Connemara works with farmers, ranchers and other landowners as well as city officials and forward-thinking developers to protect over 6,000 acres of land throughout North Texas. Our service area covers four different eco-regions in 57 counties: Blackland Prairie, Post-Oak Savannah, Cross Timbers and Rolling Plains. In addition, thousands of students, families and organizations participate in our restoration and environmental education programs each year.
The Connemara Conservancy was founded in 1981 by Frances Williams and her daughter, Amy Monier, as one the first land trusts in Texas.
Ahead of her time, in the mid-1970s Frances became concerned that her family’s farmland on the border of Allen and Plano was in jeopardy of succumbing to urban sprawl moving north from Dallas. When lights of a new Plano football stadium were erected within sight of the family’s farm, Frances realized that development was inevitable. As growth from Dallas surged north and consumed more and more of the Texas landscape, she knew future generations would have less and less access to open spaces.
Finally, when a young child visiting the family farm couldn’t identify a pecan, Frances decided it was time to act.
Long a conservationist and political activist, Frances felt that it was her responsibility to preserve, for the public good, at least some of the land that had given her family so much pleasure. With her daughter, Amy, she began researching ways to preserve and protect the land.
After traveling throughout the United States to study what others had done in similar situations they decided to establish one of the state’s first land trusts.
In December 1981, Frances established the Connemara Conservancy. The conservancy was presented with a gift of 72 acres of family land along Rowlett Creek, thus protecting it in perpetuity. To many friends and acquaintances, it seemed a strange decision. With Montgomery Farm surrounded by thousands of acres of open farmland they questioned why Frances would make such a decision. But Frances knew better.
In order to attract “city folk” to enjoy the country, Frances and Amy organized sculpture shows, concerts and other events on the Connemara Meadow. People came from across North Texas to enjoy the open spaces of Connemara.
From that beginning, Connemara has grown to become one of the state’s recognized leaders in land conservation and environmental education, now protecting more than 6,000 acres of open space. And decades later people young and old continue to come to the original 72-acre Connemara Meadow – attracted to an oasis of beauty and serenity in the midst of suburban sprawl where they can be at one with nature. Just as Frances had envisioned they would.
Bob Mione is the meadow manager at Connemara and it is his vision that is guiding the Norther Bobwhite reintroduction effort. I first spoke with Bob in Late February after reading about his Bobwhite Quail initiative on the online. Bob was gracious enough to speak with me at length and even offered an invitation to meet him at the meadow for a first hand look at his quail operations. It was an invitation I was happy to accept!
I joined Bob at the meadow in Allen on a brisk March morning. I followed along as he led a tour of the preserve for a group of budding Texas Master Naturalists from the Blackland Prairie chapter. Bob took us all around the meadow describing the interesting and ongoing prairie restoration efforts as we went.
When we arrived at the quail enclosure Bob gave us all a brief overview of his Bobwhite project. Bob’s vision is to do continuous reintroduction over an extended period of time. Because Bobwhite Quail need time to learn the ins and outs of a new environment, Bob plans to release his quail incrementally through the use of a “Call-back” pen. This kind of pen comes equipped with a special one-way door that is designed to allow released quail to re-enter the enclosure from the outside only. This way a select, small group of birds can be released everyday to explore the immediate area. They will be able to discover crucial water supplies and the best places for foraging and roosting. The hope is they will use this time out of the enclosure to hone their survival skills, and learn how to stay alive. At the end of the day, the released birds can return to the safety of the enclosure, encouraged to return by the birds that are still in the call-back pen.
Over time, the ratio of the birds being released to those who stay behind will change so that more and more birds are let out everday. Eventually the entire covey will be released to sink or swim on its own accord. After a brief pause, as a nod to the intense summer heat in Texas, a new set of birds will be brought in, and the whole process will start again in the fall.
Bob’s reintroduction effort began with just a handful of quail. Working with roughly 15 birds, Bob reports that there are already promising signs. When I last spoke with Bob, he was pleased to let me know that he had released four quail the day before, and that all four had returned to the holding enclosure overnight. Good news!
But, the effort has not been without challenges. Bob discovered that the released quail were more than happy to simply cuddle up with their pen-mates through the enclosure’s hardware cloth walls—without ever actually re-entering it. As long as the birds could see each other and manage a little physical contact, they were not motivated to use the one way door to get back inside the pen.
To solves this problem, Bob worked with a few of the quail to ensure at least some new how to use the one-way door. Then Bob installed a visual and physical barrier along the bottom of the quail enclosure to block the view of the birds inside. The released bobwhites could still hear their friends inside the pen, but without being able to see them, they became motivated to re-enter the pen using the one-way door.
Connemara Meadows provides what is likely excellent bobwhite habitat. As the name implies, there plenty of open fields on this property. Each is bounded by bottom-land woods and/or tree rows following historical fence lines. Water features at Connemara include Rowlett Creek and a pond or two. The quail should do well here in this varied habitat.
I will check in with Bob every now and again to see how things are coming along. Afterwards I will post an update here on DFW Urban Wildlife to help keep you informed. Stay tuned!