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Counting Quail

Oct 20, 2011

The weatherman is calling for frost tonight, and Old Glory is waving proudly in a brisk northwest wind. After a hot, dry summer and early fall, the weather is beginning to match the calendar and folks are starting to talk hunting.

If you read my post last week and took a look at the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative’s recent State of the Bobwhite report, you know that quail are in dire straits across their range. Although Missouri has fared better than some states, we continue to log a steep population decline.

We track state and regional quail population trends with a roadside census. Each August, conservation agents count quail along 30-mile routes that wind through 110 Missouri counties; only highly urbanized Clay, Jackson, St. Louis and St. Charles counties are not surveyed. The 2011 census reports a statewide index of 1.4 quail per 30-mile route, which is 36 percent under last year’s index of 2.2. Viewed across longer periods, 2011 results are 52 percent below the five-year average and 56 percent below the 10-year average.

Roadside census results closely match other statewide measures, including the North American Breeding Bird Survey and Missouri quail harvest estimates. The long-term trend information these counts provide is important to biologists, but there are limits to how we should apply the results. After all, there is no statewide quail population in any practical sense.

When viewed at a finer scale, roadside census results show differences among regions of the state that may result from weather patterns. For example, 2011 counts in Northwest Missouri are up 63 percent compared to last year. Quail counts in the Mississippi lowlands, portions of which sustained severe and extended flooding, show a 92-percent decline over the same period.

The roadside census does not capture smaller scale population changes that result from how land is managed. It also doesn’t capture local success stories--examples of positive quail response to habitat management that occur on both private and public land across the state.

Fall covey counts are a better approach for estimating local changes in quail abundance. These counts are useful at the farm scale, and MDC biologists conduct them to determine quail density on our Quail Emphasis Areas. Fall covey counts begin in mid-October. Observers begin their counts 45 minutes before sunrise at pre-determined locations across an area. Some coveys are flushed to provide estimates of average covey size and overall bird numbers. Covey counts aren’t foolproof, but offer a practical means for estimating local bird numbers and understanding the effectiveness of annual habitat management efforts.

Covey counts can’t begin until coveys form in early to mid-October, making it difficult to gather results from around the state and report them by the start of quail season. However, I can share what some managers are seeing during ongoing covey counts. The following observations are not final results, but they capture the fact that quail populations vary widely across the state and indicate that favorable weather and good management have combined to produce some good hunting prospects this fall.

  • The picture with this post was taken by Resource Assistant Chez Kleeman at Bois D’Arc Conservation Area (CA) in Greene County. He flushed a covey on Oct. 11 that included sparrow-sized birds that could barely fly. In addition to this evidence of successful late-season nesting, Bois D’Arc staff report their quail numbers are up this year!
  • Dave Hoover, manager of the Seat CA in Worth County, told me their counts are slightly better than the last year, with evidence of a good hatch for all ground nesting birds. He also cautions that overall numbers remain low due to extremely poor weather conditions from 2007-2010. Some parts of the state need two or three consecutive years of good production to see populations bounce back to levels that were common prior to 2007.
  • Staff from Whetstone Creek CA in Callaway County and the William White area in Lincoln County report that their counts are running about half of what was observed last fall. Heavy snow which lingered throughout much of last winter in parts of central Missouri may have hit some local populations pretty hard.
  • Private Land Conservationist (PLC) Mike Gaskins passed along that landowners in Dent and Shannon counties are seeing late-hatched quail and turkey broods in recent weeks.
  • PLC Nathan Mechlin calls 2011 a good quail production year for Clinton, Caldwell and Daviess counties, with both quail and turkey brood sightings up from previous years. Those results are spotty, as landowners in some areas report seeing very few birds.
  • Phil Sneed manages Poosey CA in Livingston County. He reports hearing coveys in new locations; an encouraging sign of good habitat conditions. Average covey size on Poosey is 11 to 12 birds, with a couple 20-bird coveys. Phil also reports that some birds were still too young to fly well, so portions of north Missouri have seen late nesting success as well.

latequailchick_10-18-11.jpg

Man's hand holds a late-season quail chick
Late-Season Quail Chick

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