The Skeleton Crew

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.

3 thoughts on “The Skeleton Crew”

  1. Arkansas lost its quail before I was born; victim to habitat change and a likely avian virus from the chicken industry that they’ll never acknowledge. According to my old-timer friends, the quail crashed out in 1982 and 1983, when I was in pre-school. Nowadays all that’s left are planted game farms, and the local Quail Unlimited banquets have become an excuse to bring in pole dancers. Losing your birds affects more than you; you lose a whole culture and never know it’s gone, unless–like me–you listen closely to the guys who sit on the back rows of church. Be glad there are still some birds, and pray for rain.

  2. Its been way too long since I’ve flushed a wild covey and that bothers me when i think about it.

    Hope yall get the rain soon. Seems its always too much or too little when it comes to fish,birds, and farming.

  3. Yep, I grew up in East Texas and ’82 was about the time when our last wild coveys died out–right before I left for college. Clean farming and Coastal Bermuda grass were our downfalls, there.

    Oddly, though, you can start bumping wild coveys, today, only 50 miles west of there (as soon as you get out of the farm country). I’m hoping that the West Texas ranchers can keep us in birds. As long as they don’t drastically change their range management practices we should be okay (if it rains).

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