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Texas Bobwhites

Texas Bobwhites
A Guide to Their Foods and Habitat Management

This field guide to the seeds most commonly eaten by northern bobwhites will help hunters identify likely places to find coveys of quail, while landowners and rangeland managers will use it to learn how to conserve and improve bobwhite habitat.

Series: Ellen and Edward Randall Endowment

September 2010
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294 pages | 5.75 x 8.25 | 288 color photos, 92 range maps, 2 drawings, 3 tables, 2 graphs |

Northern bobwhites are one of the most popular game birds in the United States. In Texas alone, nearly 100,000 hunters take to the field each fall and winter to pursue wild bobwhite quail. Texas is arguably the last remaining state with sufficient habitat to provide quail-hunting opportunities on a grand scale, and Texas ranchers with good bobwhite habitat often generate a greater proportion of their income from fees paid by quail hunters than from livestock production. Managing and expanding bobwhite habitat makes good sense economically, and it benefits the environment as well. The rangelands and woodlands of Texas that produce quail also support scores of other species of wildlife.

Texas Bobwhites is a field guide to the seeds commonly eaten by northern bobwhites, as well as a handbook for conserving and improving northern bobwhite habitat. It provides identifying characteristics for the seeds of 91 species of grasses, forbs, woody plants, and succulents. Each seed description includes a close-up and a scale photo of the seed and the plant that produces it, along with a range map. Using this information, hunters can readily identify concentrations of plants that are most likely to attract quail. Landowners and rangeland managers will greatly benefit from the book's state-of-the-art guidance for habitat management and restoration, including improving habitat dominated by invasive and nonnative grasses.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction: Why This Book Is Needed and Why It Is Important
  • 2. Food Habits and Nutrition of the Northern Bobwhite
  • 3. Common Seeds Eaten by Bobwhites
  • 4. Northern Bobwhite Habitat Management and Restoration
  • 5. Exotic Grasses: A Growing Problem for Northern Bobwhites
  • Appendix 1: Other Plant Species Seeds Reported in Northern Bobwhite Diets in Texas
  • Appendix 2: Other Wildlife That Utilize Seeds Eaten by Northern Bobwhites
  • Appendix 3: Common and Scientific Names of Plants and Animals Mentioned in Text
  • Glossary
  • References
  • Index

Jon Larson is a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Timothy E. Fulbright, Leonard A. Brennan, Fidel Hernández, and Fred C. Bryantare with the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University–Kingsville. Fulbright is a regents professor and is Meadows Professor in Semiarid Land Ecology. Brennan holds the C. C. Winn Endowed Chair for Quail Research. Hernández is an associate professor and holds the Alfred C. Glassell, Jr., Endowed Professorship of Quail Research. Bryant is the Leroy G. Denman, Jr., Endowed Director of Wildlife Research.


Northern bobwhites are one of the most popular game birds in the United States. More than 100,000 hunters pursue bobwhites each year in Texas. Scientists at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute frequently receive packets of seeds that hunters have removed from bobwhite crops along with a query as to what plant species produced the seeds. Interest of hunters and the general public in the food habits and ecology of bobwhites is something that we would like to encourage with this book. Conservation of both wildlife and the habitat they depend on for survival will be enhanced by greater understanding by the public of the ecology of wildlife.

Maintaining quality northern bobwhite habitat is economically important to Texas landowners and to the Texas economy in general. Texas ranchers with good bobwhite habitat often generate a greater proportion of their income from trespass fees paid by quail hunters than from livestock production. At the time of this writing, landowners commonly gross $10–12 per acre from quail hunting, with even greater amounts for quality habitat with large numbers of birds. In addition, hunters in Texas spend around $1.5 billion annually on trip-related expenses, equipment, and other items associated with hunting. Thus, availability of good bobwhite hunting in Texas benefits a wide variety of business interests in Texas.

The objective of this field guide is to provide a pictorial guide to the seeds commonly eaten by northern bobwhites in Texas. The authors hope that interest in what constitutes good bobwhite habitat among hunters and nature enthusiasts will be enhanced by this guide to the identification of seeds eaten by quail.

The task of arriving at the species to include in this field guide was a difficult one. Bobwhites eat the seeds of hundreds of different plant species, and ranking the importance of each species is somewhat subjective. We reviewed scientific journal articles, popular articles, and other literature describing food habits of bobwhites in Texas. We used the common names in the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service plants database ( in the text; we also provided alternative common names of plants that are widely used. Each species of seeds listed in studies of food habits was ranked based on volume or mass (weight) of the seed and the frequency at which the seed occurred in bobwhite diets. Many species listed in the field guide may be locally or seasonally important, but overall, we feel that we have a representative list of seeds that are important to bobwhites in Texas. Because the seeds were photographed at high magnification, and because many of them have detailed features, we recommend using a magnifying glass to assist in proper identification in the field. A glossary at the end of the book provides definitions of technical words used.

Bobwhite populations are declining by 3–4% per year in Texas. This decline is, at least in part, a result of continuing habitat loss and degradation of remaining habitat. A second objective of this field guide is to detail management actions to conserve and improve northern bobwhite habitat. Proper management of bobwhite habitat and restoration of bobwhite habitat where it has been destroyed are critical to the survival of the species. Habitat restoration, in particular, will become increasingly important to conservation of northern bobwhites in the future. Planting of, and invasion by, exotic grasses looms large as one of the major factors causing degradation of bobwhite habitat, and it stands as a major obstacle to restoring northern bobwhite habitat. We have included a chapter detailing this threat and the state-of-the-art management approaches to dealing with it.

Each fall and winter, sometime between the end of October and the end of February, nearly 100,000 Texans take to the field with shotguns in hand to pursue the bobwhite quail. Quail hunting in Texas, as any quail hunter will tell you, is serious business. Aldo Leopold stated, more than seven decades ago, that quail are grand-opera game. Texas is arguably the last remaining stage where sufficient habitat remains to provide quail-hunting opportunities on a grand scale. While good quail hunting remains in surrounding areas of Oklahoma, as well as parts of the Midwest and on private hunting properties in the Southeast, none of these areas comes close to providing the millions of acres of quail habitat and hunting opportunities that remain in Texas.

A great deal of planning, organization, and management underlie the factors that result in a successful quail hunt. At a minimum, hunting dogs must be trained, habitat must be managed, and shotguns must be cleaned. And this is before any quail hunting takes place. When you add up the costs of owning or leasing land, managing that land to produce an annual crop of quail, and the rest of the resources needed to support an operation, such as a hunting camp, vehicles, horses, and so on, quail hunting in Texas is an enterprise that pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy of our state.

When quail end up in the quail hunter's bag, examination of the birds can tell the hunter a great deal about what they were doing earlier that day. This is because quail store the foods that they eat in a small but expandable sack called a "crop," located in the upper part of their chest cavity. During the fall and winter, most of the foods eaten by quail are seeds, and these seeds are stored in each bird's crop, usually twice a day—once in the morning after they leave their night roost and once in the afternoon or evening before they return to their roost. By quickly accumulating a large number of seeds in their crop during a foraging bout, the birds can then return to the safety of denser cover and process or digest their food away from view of the numerous predators who want to make a quail one of their daily meals.

Removing a quail crop and opening it to inspect its contents reveals a window into the life of that bird because it provides a direct record of what it had eaten earlier that day. However, the seeds of various plants eaten by quail, to the untrained eye, can be mysterious at best, or completely incomprehensible at worst. This is because the things—mostly seeds—that quail eat are usually totally unknown to humans.

This is why this book is needed, and this is why it is important. Any quail hunter in Texas can use this book as a field guide to identify the seeds that quail have eaten and then make the modest leap in logic toward knowing the plants that have provided these seeds.

By allowing quail to tell us what they have been eating, this information allows us, in various ways, to understand the components of their habitat that provides the foods that sustain them through the winter months. What quail eat changes with the seasons, of course. However, by giving the quail hunter a window into the winter diet of their quarry, which is what this book does, the hunters not only gain increased knowledge and perspective of these animals, they also gain knowledge of the plants that are important to sustaining them.

A final key point to realize is that the habitat that produces quail also supports scores of other species of wildlife in the rangelands and woodlands of Texas. By knowing what quail have eaten, people can then make an important and educated step toward conserving the habitat that sustains not only quail, but also many other species of wildlife that are a key part of the culture and heritage of all Texans.


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