April 13 was the first day this year that I heard the rooster quail’s “bob, bob-white” call. By now, most of you should have heard your first call of the year as well. Hearing this most welcome of birdcalls always makes me ponder the conditions they will face during the nesting and brood-rearing seasons. As with most small game species, bobwhites have a very high annual population turnover, so this summer’s production will have a major impact on covey numbers this fall. Do you know much about quail nest ecology? Through 80-plus years of study, wildlife researchers have made some surprising discoveries about this popular gamebird’s reproduction.
Not all hens are monogamous
For many years, biologists and researchers believed that bobwhites were always monogamous. But since the advent and popularity of radio telemetry studies in the 1970s, it’s become clear that that’s not always the case. With radios, we’ve been able to identify and follow individual birds within a population. What we’ve discovered is that many hens mate with several roosters. Furthermore, telemetry revealed that hens sometimes mate with one rooster, lay a nest full of eggs and leave it with that rooster to incubate. Then they mate with another rooster and lay another nest full of eggs, this time staying to incubate the eggs. Even when hens stay with the first clutch they lay, we now know they may nest a second time after hatching their first brood. This breeding strategy helps explain quail’s sometimes remarkable population increase.
Nest site selection
What does good nesting habitat look like, and where in that habitat is a hen likely to nest? Researchers have found that prime bobwhite-nesting habitat is somewhat sparsely to moderately vegetated with forbs and scattered shrubs and brambles. Dense sods and areas with thickly matted duff layers are rarely used. Nests are most often made from dead grass stems and leaves, often in clumps of warm-season grasses. Most nests are built within 50 feet or fewer of a field edge or trail, often within 10 feet. The interiors of large, unbroken grasslands are rarely used. Light to moderate grazing does not seem to bother bobwhites or hinder nesting, and where grass stands are thick, grazing may actually improve nesting conditions. Note that many CRP fields provide large, unbroken tracts of thick grass with years of accumulated duff – not a prescription for good nesting habitat.
Laying, incubation and hatching
A bobwhite hen lays her first egg within a few days of nest completion. Most often she lays one egg per day until the clutch is complete (13 to 14 eggs on average). Once all the eggs are laid, the hen (or rooster, in some cases) begins incubation. For the next 23 days, the parent incubates, leaving only for brief periods to eat. They turn eggs daily to prevent embryos from sticking to the shell. Since incubation of all eggs starts at the same time, chicks all hatch within a few hours of one another. From the time a hen initiates nest building to the time eggs hatch takes 47 to 55 days. Because quail chicks are precocial - they hatch fully feathered, mobile and ready to forage - they leave their birthplace with the parent soon after hatching. At this point, nesting habitat has served its purpose and good brood habitat (weeds!) becomes essential for cover and insect foraging.