Bobwhite Quail Habitat Management
Quail populations have been declining across much of eastern North America for well over 70 years. This decline has been the result of changes in land management. Farms are no longer small 50 or 100 acre plots of land with weedy fencerows, weedy crop fields, and weedy odd areas. Farmers no longer burn old fields and pastures to maintain their diversity. Long gone are the diverse native grass and wildflower fields used for grazing. No longer are woodlot canopies open with diverse understory.
In the modern landscape everything is bigger and cleaner. Bulldozers have removed the fencerows between small ten and twenty acre fields. Corn and soybeans are now "weed free" with little value to wildlife. Fire as a tool for managing land has been suppressed or totally eliminated from the landscape in the eastern United States. The invention of the bush hog or rotary mower now means that no piece of land has to go "to weeds" it can all now be manicured frequently to maintain the appearance of a lawn.
General Habitat Needs
Quail utilize a variety of different plant succession stage throughout the year ranging from recently disturbed ground to open woodlands. Early plant successional stages are the most important, however. Habitat quality will usually begin to decline about three to six years following soil disturbance. The result is that later successional grasses and woody plants replace sun-loving, food-producing annuals as well as perennials. Good interspersion of habitat types is essential due to the low mobility of quail.
A covey of quail (10-11 birds) needs about 40 acres of properly structured habitat (see below). Over a particular area of landscape, whether on one property or multiple ADJACENT properties, a sustainable population of quail needs no less than 1,000 and preferably more acres of quality habitat. This is the concept of usable space that is critical to restoring and maintaining quail.
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Quail need cover to meet four aspects of their survival: escape/thermal protection, nesting, brooding, and night-roosting. The other obvious need is food which is supplied when you properly provide and maintain all of the other cover structures. When planning your habitat project the optimum setting for quail is to find all 4 of these cover types in one 40 acre field. If a field is managed properly all 4 cover types can easily be created and maintained interspersed within the field. This provision will supply all necessary habitat needs for one covey of quail in the winter. If this arrangement is not possible to achieve, then you must either expect no success in maintaining quail or you need to have more than 40 acres to meet the needs of a covey. Also, see Space Needs above.
ESCAPE/THERMAL COVER: Quail need good escape and thermal cover to get away from predators, escape cold winds, and the hot sun. Typically this escape cover is met by woody plants which include shrubs such as American plum, Chickasaw plum, smooth and fragrant sumac, black berries, rough-leaf dogwood, and silky dogwood. It may also be met by young cedar, Virginia pine, short-leaf pine, white pine, and loblolly pines. Additional temporary escape cover can be created by building brush piles throughout a field or along fencerows. Native grasses and forbs can also provide escape and thermal. The natural camouflage of quail allows it to blend in with native grass clumps and shrub thickets reducing visibility to avian and ground predators. However, woody plants provide the best protection to quail aerial predators such as hawks.
Native warm-season grasses have tall upright stems and elevated leaves which effectively reduce wind speed, modify humidity and evaporation extremes. The native grass plants hold little moisture during winter months and thereby reduce the humidity at or near ground level. The dark colors of the dry grass tend to add warmth by absorbing the sun's rays. There upright stems reduce wind speed. These three factors during winter reduce the effects of wind chill on quail.
While cover on most properties is inadequate, the landowner must bear in mind that too much cover can be as bad as too little! Extensive areas of dense sod and dense thatch layer will not permit growth of needed forbs and shrubs. Dense native grass stands can be virtually impossible for quail to move around in which increases their exposure to predators. Even in areas of heavy snow fall, where quail require heavy cover for protection from winter weather and predation, a good pattern of cover, scattered throughout a 40 acre field, is generally sufficient. In areas with less severe winter weather, the need for dense cover is not as great. Normally, undisturbed herbaceous, grassy-woody growth is sufficient for the birds.
Important: Woody escape cover should be situated so that in any given portion of the field a quail does not have to go more than 100ft to reach it. This woody cover is called a thicket or covey headquarter.
NESTING COVER: During the nesting season a quail hen needs a nesting location that contains residual vegetation from the previous year. This protective cover is usually found in clumps of native grasses such as broomsedge, Indiangrass, and big and little bluestem that grew the previous year. If good nesting cover is not present, it is a relatively simple matter to provide it. It can be created through planting native grasses or proper management of an old field. The clump pattern of these grasses is important as very dense grass is not usable for nesting.
BROODING COVER: After successfully hatching out a nest a quail hen or male will take their young to habitat that the chicks can move, feed, and hide in. This habitat is much different then habitat of shrub thickets and denser stands of native grass that may be used during the fall and winter. Brooding cover should consist of lots of bareground and native forbs. Bareground allows the chicks to move around and hunt for insects. The native forbs attract insects such as ants, leaf hoppers, flies, and grasshoppers, and provide thermal protection. Two of the best plants for attracting ants are partridge pea and wild senna. Both have nectar areas specifically developed to attract ants. The brooding cover should also have clumps of native grasses scattered about, but it should be less than 40% of the vegetative cover. The best brooding cover is really a complex structure that provides both nest sites and food sources for young broods. The prevents quail parents from having to move their broods very far from chick foods and reduces the chances that chicks will be killed by predators or die from exposure to heat.
NIGHT ROOSTING COVER: Quail prefer roosting cover which provides lateral concealment. For quail, the risk as night is largely from ground predators such as foxes or coyotes whose approach they need to detect in enough time to run away. Too dense overhead cover, while protective against hunting owls, limits the ability of quail to detect ground predators. The roost is usually located in rather open, "clumpy" vegetation away from the dense or tangled escape cover. The birds rely on their concealment color and remaining still to avoid detection. Roosting cover must also provide some level of thermal cover to allow birds to better maintain body temperature while in a covey circle.
Important: Do not plan out your habitat project with roosting cover in one portion of the field or in one field, escape cover in another, nesting, in another, and brooding in another. This only increases the exposure of quail to predators, extreme hot and cold temperatures, and increasing energy requirements and increases stress on the birds. This stress eventually will result in the loss of more quail on your property and could eventually lea d to fewer and fewer quail.
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A variety of good foods must be available in or near escape cover. Birds should be able to walk under good cover (not compelled to fly) to their feeding grounds. Simply an abundance of food is not enough; it should contain a diversity of nutrients with high-protein food been higher on the list when needed. This diversity of nutrients is best met by a very diverse field with wildflowers, berries, woody plants, and annual plants. Simple plots of agricultural plants such as corn are insufficient sources of essential nutrients and can best to characterized as dire emergency foods. Also, soybeans of any variety should never be planted in an area that you expect to have quail as they present the risk that quail be exposed to toxins that affect their reproduction.
NATIVE FOODS: Quail eat some plant material and insects in season, but rely principally upon fruits or seeds. Seeds of annual weeds provide about 80 percent of the bird's diet; those of perennial forbs, legumes, and shrubs provide the remaining 20 percent.
Native foods that have good nutritional value for quail to survive the fall and winter on include:
1. Native lespedezas (Round-headed Bush Clover, Hairy, and Slender bush clover)
2. Ragweed (Giant and Common)
6. Beggartick (Bidens spp.)
8. Native sunflower (annual and perennial)
9. Beggar's Lice (Desmodium spp.)
10. Partridge Pea
Insects are also important for quail. They provide a ready source of protein for quail from spring through fall. Native grasses and wildflowers are very attractive to insects, so creating pollinator habitat or a field rich in a diversity of wildflowers (forbs) can be very important for the survival of quail.
Important: Food plots are not habitat management. Your time is better spent managing your old field habitat with the proper use of strip disking, prescribed fire , and interseeding to create a diversity and abundance of native foods that will be produced year after year.
For additional information on creating escape, nesting, brooding, roosting cover, and creating more food see our sections on Thicket Establishment, Edge Softening, Hedgerow and Thicket Renovation, Old Field Management, Native Grass and Forb Management for Wildlife, Native Grass and Forb Management for Forage and Wildlife, Strip Disking, and Prescribed Fire.
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The daily water requirements of quail are usually met through the moisture derived from green plants, food, insects, dew and snow. Under normal conditions, surface water is not required although it is readily used by the birds.
Surface water of streams and ponds become increasingly important during periodic drought periods. During the more severe drought years, quail production and fall coveys are often confined to those areas near open water. The development of good cover near existing water sources such as streams, springs, and farm ponds, should be considered throughout each 40-acre unit of a project area where these features occur.
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Where on your property?
In an ideal word every square foot of your property would be managed for quail. Unfortunately in the real world you probably need to continue earning an income from your property whether through growing a crop or raising livestock. You may think that you have no areas to manage for quail on your property, but you may be surprised. Examine your property in 40 acre units which we will call quail blocks. It is small enough to work with and it is large enough to support a covey of quail if conditions are right. In very favorable circumstances, intensive management of a quail block may provide additional covey headquarters and eventually a higher number of birds. The reason we are looking at blocks of habitat for quail is because small strip of habitat provide little value and increase predation.
Quail blocks will be the best way to measure the potential of your property. If you break your property into 40 acre blocks and each 40 acre block meets all of the needs of a covey of quail as described under cover and food management then you can assume if everything else is equal you could support 1 covey of quail.
Management for quail should be directed at habitat management practices that will produces the most amounts of "weed" seeds, fruits, berries, and insects in close proximity to woody shrub cover and herbaceous cover. The first step in quail management on any tract of land is to make a specific plan for that particular acreage. A large-scale map showing all land use activities can be used to show existing habitat and to indicate the areas where specific practices are to be applied. A small sketch map is an alternative and will often serve the purpose. Let us look at your property
Do you have at least one 40 acre pasture, old field, or crop field that you can set aside to create quail habitat in? Do you have a 40 acre old field containing shrubs sapling, native grasses, and forbs? Do you have a woodlot or pines that you could manage for quail? Quail will utilize woodlots and pines that are managed as a savanna or open woodland. By opening up the canopy of your woodlot or pines you can increase the herbaceous vegetation and increase shrub cover and their value for wildlife and quail. For additional information check out our sections on Open Woodland Management, Pine Savanna Restoration, and Oak Savanna Restoration.
When managing for quail you also need to look at your property and how it fits into the surrounding landscape. Quail prefer to walk rather than fly from place to place. If you own 100 acres in a hostile landscape for quail which means that quail cannot easily walk around your property or your neighbors you will never be able to restore quail to your property. If you only have one covey block (40 acre old field block) on your property or covey blocks scattered around your property, quail will be very isolated and not survive very long. You will need to try and create connectivity between you planned quail blocks and either other quail blocks on your property or your neighbors.
Quail need secure areas to travel through from one covey block to another. You can create these corridors through planting or proper maintenance of existing fencerows or by creating a native grass, forb, and shrub buffer in crop fields or pastures along fencerows or brushy draws. These buffers should be at least 50 feet wide with thickets scattered throughout to create safe cover for quail to move through. For additional information check out our sections on Managing Cropland with Wildlife in Mind, Edge Softening Techniques, Thicket Establishment, and Wildlife Corridor and Fencerow Establishment.
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Let us assume a landowner has 200 acres. After looking over a map of his property and talking with a biologist, he determines that he has 1 existing quail blocks. This means that he hast one 40 acre block which contain all the escape, nesting, brooding, and roosting cover needed by quail throughout the year. He knows that if he improves or maintains these quail blocks he has or can support at least 1 coveys of quail or approximately 10 quail on his property.
He determines that on his property he has another area that is an existing woodlot which covers a little over 40 acres. The woodlot has a number of mature oaks and hickories, so he decides he wants to turn it into a quail block by restoring it to an oak savanna. However this quail block is isolated from his existing block by a large crop field with no fencerows or brushy draws for connectivity.
He knows that he can enroll the crop field borders in the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program CP33 Quail Buffers program . By enrolling his field edges into CP33 and planting a mix of native grasses, forbs, and shrubs he can create a corridor between his existing quail blocks. He now knows that after the establishment of the new quail block he will potentially have 2 coveys or 20 birds.
Based on the information he has learned about quail habitat management and the need to look at land surrounding his property, he studies his neighbors' property using aerial maps to determine if they have any quail blocks. Using the quail block method he determines that in the landscape surrounding his farm there are at least 6 more quail blocks. With some tweaking and additional improvements they could potentially be connected with his new and existing quail blocks. By working with his neighbors he is able to create corridors between all of the existing quail blocks and add 2 additional quail block on his neighbor's property.
With our landowners efforts he has gone from 2 quail blocks on his property and 8 on his neighbors' property. This means that the between his and his neighbors' property there potentially are 10 coveys or 110 quail. After talking with the biologist he learned that the corridors that were created to connect the quail blocks will provide some habitat for quail and may support a few birds, but it is unlikely that the quail will stay very long in these corridors as there will be less food and increased pressure from predators due to their narrow design.
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National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative
On the Edge: A Guide to Managing Land for Bobwhite Quail
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