My family owns a piece of arid ranchland in Maverick County Texas. When it rains, down there, it rains quail. When the pasture grasses reach the truck bumpers, and the grasshoppers billow from the bar ditches in clouds, we’ll have covey counts that’ll make an undisciplined pointer blow a gasket.
As of today, however, our county is now entering month 30 of the Mother of all Droughts. Normal rainfall in our area is 28 inches. So far this year we’ve had 6 inches. Last year we had 4.5. This past summer we had 80-plus days over 100 degrees. We sold our cattle back in June when our stock tanks went dry. When (if) we buy back in, we’ll pay twice what we sold them for. Two months ago, most of the Texas drought map was colored orange and red. You probably heard about it on the news. Since then, most of the State has gotten a good soaking; but not Maverick county.
Over Thanksgiving my family gathered at the ranch to hunt whitetails and stuff ourselves with food and football. Quail weren’t even mentioned and no one brought a shotgun. On Saturday I was sitting in a deer blind and looking for a fat doe to put in the freezer. It was warm and windy and dry, and a fat doe was looking like a tall order. About thirty minutes before sunset, a cock bobwhite staggered out of a clump of withered prickly pear and began pecking aimlessly in the blowing dust. A bit later he was joined by another cock and three hens. It was a sad scene. They were skinny and disheveled and they looked oddly out of place; they reminded me of Mad Max and his band of post-apocalypse refugees. Two birds enter; one bird leaves.
The weather dweebs are calling for an El Nino year–and it does appear that the rain patterns are shifting (slightly) in our favor. Will that little five-bird covey make it through the winter with scant forage and no screening cover from bobcats and avian predators? Will this be the drought that finally eliminates bobwhite quail from Maverick County? Over the past thirty years I’ve seen these birds bounce back from severe droughts. They’re prolific little bastards when range conditions are good, and a few timely spring rains can kickstart a fury of whistling and nesting.
For now, though, we wait. We watch the radar and we hope Al Gore was wrong. We fondle and admire our shotguns and we thumb through the gear catalogs. We pay our ad-valorem taxes and we feed our dogs and we tell them to hang on. We consider buying a package of shrink-wrapped pre-marinated quail from the grocery; but that would suck, so we don’t.