Land Stewardship
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Cacti and Quail: A Prickly Paradigm

This story was originally published at wild-wonderings.blogspot.com in January 2010. For the most up-to-date information, please visit our website at nri.tamu.edu.

When debating the relative and absolute merits of some plants, I am often thrust in the role of public defender. It might be broomweed, mesquite, cedar, or sandburs. The pariah du jour is prickly pear, several species of which occur across Texas. You don’t need a photograph to conjure its image.

Prickly pear serves as a succulent version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the plant’s reputation can be quite different in the Brush Country versus the Rolling Plains. South Texas ranchers tend to see “pear” as drought insurance-their more northern counterparts typically just see it as a pain. The former sees the advancement of the Cactoblastis moth as a threat, while the latter can’t believe the USDA is trying to slow its advance towards Texas. As the graffiti on the back of the men’s room door at a burger shop in Grape Creek opines “where you stand on an issue usually depends on where you sit.”

A prickly paradigm indeed.

My perspective on prickly pear has evolved over the past 25 years. Back in 1985, my son Travis (then 5 years old) accompanied me on a rabbit hunt in southwestern Oklahoma. Neither his footwear, nor his balance, was up to the task, and repeatedly he was trapped amongst a prickly pear patch. As I pulled spines from his shins for the third time, he whimpered to me “Daddy, why did God make cactus anyway?”

It would be 20 years before I could answer him. Maybe the good Lord is a quail hunter.

Through various research efforts in north and west Texas, we’ve observed that (1) quail often select prickly pear for nest sites, even when more conventional bunchgrass is available (and especially when it is not due to drought or overgrazing!) and (2) nests situated in prickly pear generally survive at higher rates (sometimes up to twice as high) than their grass counterparts.

Bobwhites with purple faces attest to the cacti tuna’s seasonal importance as food and water. Prickly pear is also a staple in the diet of white-tailed deer -it’s nearly always in the “Top 3” plants of deer diets in west and south Texas.

I offer 4 perspectives on cactus relative to quail habitat and quail hunting:

  1. Cactus affords nesting sites that can buffer impacts of overgrazing and drought,
  2. Cactus can serve as refugia for desirable grass species (i.e., a governor against overgrazing), and
  3. Larger mottes of pear serve as “storm shelters” when a Cooper’s hawk is your main storm in life.

Which leaves us with these management guidelines for quail and cactus:

  1. If you can manage cacti with prescribed fire (alone), that regime is likely more quail-friendly than herbicide-only. Fire alone doesn’t kill much pear (perhaps 20% using winter-fires, perhaps 75% using summer-fires), but does a good job on tasajillo (turkey pear) and tends to stimulate forbs important for seed-production. Alternatively using a prescribed burn before spraying allows you to reduce chemical rate (when using picloram) by one-half, thus minimizing liabilities associated with the heavier rate while reducing costs.
  2. Spraying in strips or using Individual Plant Treatments (i.e., with an ATV) to create a cactus-studded landscape seems logical, but again their impacts on quail numbers have not been researched.

One of the main concerns about controlling prickly pear with herbicides from a wildlife standpoint is that of “forb shock”, i.e., a suppression of forbs for some time period following application. The debate revolves around (a) how long such forb shock lasts (months post-treatment), (b) whether or not such vegetation changes affect game populations, and © if so, how much and for how long.

Another undesirable is that picloram kills hackberry trees, which are among the most wildlife-friendly of woody plants. As the carpenter warns “measure twice and saw once.”

At the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch, we have mucho pear, too much to suit a bird dog for sure. My dogs just run the roads anymore-are they wimps, or just savvy? We’re developing a plan of attack to strategically remove cacti while minimizing impacts on hackberries. The ranch is dissected with abundant roads, which results in a landscape characterized by “polygons” ranging in size from four to forty acres.

Each of the polygons has been mapped for prickly pear (a score from “0” [no cactus] to “3” [dog-hair thick]) and hackberry trees (same score of relative abundance). In 2010, we’re set to test various herbicides with/without winter- and summer-burns. Riparian areas (where hackberry abundance is greater) will be burn-only. We’ll evaluate boomless nozzles and helicopter applications as ways to be creative with the pear control efforts. Over the next couple of years we’ll monitor forb and arthropod response to the treatments.

One of the puzzling scenarios at RPQRR is that where prickly pear is most dense, so is Texas wintergrass. Which came first I don’t know, but the pattern is pervasive across the Ranch. On March 16, 2009 we burned some of these areas. The Texas wintergrass was tinder dry, and the fires were much hotter than one would’ve predicted given the fuel loads.

We’re also evaluating “patch-burn-grazing” as a quail-friendly approach to prickly pear management. The objective is to see if a small herd of (Angus) cows will selectively graze freshly-burned cacti enough to provide a measure of biological control. At this point in the research, it does not appear that the cows are consuming enough cacti to be effective at controlling the cacti. This winter, we’ve added some “Tiger Stripe” Brahma X Hereford crossed cows to our herd to evaluate breed differences in cacti consumption.

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At the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, our work improves the conservation and management of natural resources through applied research. nri.tamu.edu