Imagine if you were half the size of your thumb and had to catch insects the first 14 days of your life to survive. Sound impossible? For the millions of newly hatched Missouri quail chicks this is a reality. Insects are the most important food item for quail chicks. Insects make up 80 to 95 percent of a chick’s diet during its first three to four weeks of life. The tiny chicks must be able to maneuver through vegetation and catch insects to survive. A Missouri CRP study found that only 33 percent of quail chicks survived until fall. Less than half survive the first two weeks of their lives. This is why it is important to provide proper brood habitat to get young birds through this critical two-week period.
Good brood habitat consists of any plant community that attracts an abundance of insects. This plant community must provide an overhead canopy and bare ground for ease of movement. Bare ground is extremely important. If quail chicks can’t maneuver through vegetation to catch insects, their only source of food, they die. How much bare ground is needed? Fifty percent bare ground is ideal. As much as 75 percent bare ground is fine as long as there is an overhead canopy.
Now is the best time to walk your farm and find out if you have good brood habitat. Kick a softball through what you consider brood habitat. The softball should roll several feet, bouncing off the vegetation before stopping. If it is hard to see the softball as it rolls through the brood habitat, you have adequate canopy coverage. The canopy coverage protects the chicks from predators and provides a shaded area while foraging for insects. Examples of good brood plants that attract insects include a mix of ragweed, desmodium, foxtail, croton, partridge pea, clover, alfalfa, annual lespedeza, sunflower and no-till crops. Basically any plant community that attracts insects and has bare ground and an overhead canopy will provide good brood habitat. Remember, the key to insect abundance is plant diversity. More plant diversity equals more insects. The more plant diversity, insects and bare ground you have, the more quail-friendly your farm will be.
Brood habitat can be created by burning, disking, chemical setback and grazing. Even a weedy food plot works well. No matter which management practice you choose, your goal is the same. You want to create bare ground and promote weeds and insects. The timing of these management practices will give you different vegetation responses. Experiment with different practices and timings. Don’t manipulate more than one-third to one-half of any given field. If you plan to manage for brood habitat on CRP ground, you must do so during specified dates. Contact your local FSA office before implementing any management practices on CRP.