Johnny Quailseed

A Texas conservationist spreads the word about bird habitat restoration.

Jim Willis (left) and Garry Stephens stand in quail habitat. They say at least 300 to 500 clumps of bunch grass per acre provide suitable nesting cover, Image by Karl Wolfshohl

You have likely heard stories about Johnny Appleseed, a character based on a real nurseryman named John Chapman. Chapman introduced apples to a large part of the Midwest and northeastern U.S., and Ontario in the early 1800s. Jim Willis is taking a similar approach for quail in Texas.

Raised in rural Louisiana, working as an analyst in the rice industry and always an avid quail hunter, Willis wondered in the 1990s where all the birds went.

“I used to come to a hunting lease out here,” says this resident of Cat Spring, Texas. “The hunting club was getting smaller and smaller as quail numbers declined, but I knew that this was once good quail country and could be again. Fire ants weren’t the reason we were losing quail, even though that’s what people were saying. We could look in the mirror and see the biggest problem.”

Willis believed the main culprit was habitat loss as people converted native prairie to houses or to pastures, which are overstocked. In many instances, invasive woody cover like yaupon, cedar and Chinese tallow trees further reduces habitat. The toll has been high. Less than 1% of Texas and Louisiana’s original 9.5 million acres of tallgrass prairies exists today.

In 2000, Willis set out to reverse this trend, starting with the 220-acre ranch he jointly purchased with a friend, the late John Webb.

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Aided by a Conservation Innovation Grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), he and his partner used herbicides followed by prescribed fire to kill out the imported grasses.

Quail Feed. They planted native grasses in late spring. They also planted 3,000 sand plum trees for cover and forbs in the form of wildflowers to attract insects. Ninety-five percent of a baby quail’s diet is insects.

When renovation on his ranch started in 2000, there were just a few scattered quail. Five years later, Texas A&M researchers counted a very respectable number: one quail per acre. They also discovered 31 grassland bird species were using the place, and pollinators such as monarch butterflies had become prominent. Soil health had improved, too.

Willis works closely with the landowners he’s convinced to devote acres for bobwhite quail habitat. His biggest success, he figures, has been a wildlife corridor 150 yards wide and seven miles long. The narrow strip of native prairie grasses, shrubs and wildflowers connects his ranch to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, taking in a string of five ranches along the way. In all, the corridor attached 2,000 acres of habitat to the 10,000-acre prairie chicken refuge.

Willis and his nonprofit Wildlife Habitat Federation (WHF) have made their mark. A map of southeast Texas is dotted with WHF projects benefiting the habitats of quail, songbirds, butterflies and other small animals. WHF has even gone urban in two cases, planting sites at the Texas Medical Center for the MD Anderson Cancer Center and two parks for the City of Houston.

Gathering Seed. WHF gathers its own native seed. To get enough local ecotypes at a fair price, WHF has its own seed harvester.

“After harvesting local native grass, wildflowers and other forbs, we dry the seed in special wagons and send it to a commercial seed dealer to be cleaned, analyzed and bagged,” Willis says. The seeds are shipped to local landowners or stored in cold-storage units.

“You have to have a diversity of plant life to benefit all classes of wildlife,” says Garry Stephens, a biologist and WHF program director. He joined the federation in 2016 after 29 years with NRCS. “We’re not establishing a huntable population of quail here. We’re doing things that benefit other parts of the environment probably more than the quail. But, the quail are here, and they’re a symbol that it’s healthy, and people are into that.”

Success came slowly. For instance, it took a year for the native prairie plants to begin thriving. Willis and other members of WHF also have learned that cover crops and multiple herbicide treatments are needed for killing out bermudagrass.

Initial renovation costs vary but may range up to $500 to $600 per acre, not including periodic prescribed burns for maintenance. Several organizations may cost-share the expense, including Texas Parks and Wildlife, NRCS and private conservation groups, reducing expenses substantially. WHF is making headway one ranch at a time.

Willis is encouraged by the success of the work. “Right now we’ve got little postage stamps of conservation in 15 counties,” Willis says. “We have to fill in the blanks.”

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