Drought conditions rightfully dominated small-talk throughout the long Missouri summer this year. How did the Extreme Drought, as it came to be categorized by various drought tracking indices, impact quail habitat and numbers across the state?
The story really began with the unusually warm, dry end to 2011. The winter of 2011-2012 was a non-event compared to what Missourians usually experience. Unseasonably warm temperatures and scarce snowfall likely improved quail survival, as compared to most winters. The mild winter gave way to an early spring, with March 2012 being the warmest on record for Missouri. Plant emergence and development, covey breakup and nesting all ran about three weeks ahead of normal by most accounts.
Then came summer: The entire Midwest experienced the warmest and driest March-August period, and the fourth most severe drought as measured by the Palmer Z Index, behind 1936, 1934 and 1988. However, observations across the state indicate quail fared pretty well. It is clear that the cumulative impact from four consecutive wet, cool springs (2008-2011) was harder on quail than this extreme summer. In fact, Missouri’s Bootheel, our driest region this year, posted the biggest quail population increase according to recent roadside surveys; although this may partially be due to the fact that significant areas were idled from production due to flooding during 2011.
Quail managers recently shared their perspectives of how the drought affected quail habitat and numbers going into fall. Some consistent observations of interest to quail hunters include:
- Grass and shrubby cover as well as hard and soft mast production is much reduced.
- Crops are generally poor, with some yields expected to be 75% below normal. Much corn was harvested as silage. Milo fared better than corn, but we plant relatively little of it anymore. Soybeans are a mixed bag depending on whether your location received any of this summer’s widely scattered showers.
- Food plots are also in poor condition but scattered, late summer rains produced a flush of ragweed, foxtail and other annuals which will provide food resources into winter.
- Although greatly reduced forage production hurt livestock producers, the drought suppressed overly thick grasses (think CRP and ungrazed grassland) and improved brood-rearing habitat.
- Although managers were unable to conduct prescribed fires this summer, dry conditions allowed them to actively manage areas that remained too wet during recent years.
Nesting and Production
First nest attempts fared well by all indications, as dry conditions favored successful incubation; again, a welcome departure from recent wet years. Later nests may have been more impacted by hot, dry conditions. However, radio telemetry results from pilot study sites in southwest Missouri show that the intense heat did not directly kill eggs; the hatch there was good. Results from that pilot study did confirm the loss of a late-hatched brood due to heavy, lingering rains from the landfall of Hurricane Isaac in late August.
Managers rank brood-rearing habitat as ‘Good’ statewide. Drought conditions limited vegetation growth and helped maintain essential bare ground. Brood-rearing habitat on grasslands is shorter and thinner than normal. Despite dry conditions, insects, an essential high-protein food source, remain plentiful. Most managers believe that fall cover will also be in ‘Good’ condition.
Anticipated Quail Numbers
Initial predictions for quail numbers are more varied across the state, but Department managers agree the anticipated number of coveys will be, ‘Fair to Good’. Statewide, managers anticipate a ‘Fair’ quail hunting season – although it appears there will be hot spots in the southeast and southwest parts of the state. Fall covey counts are getting underway, and better estimates will be available in a few weeks.
This has been a broad look at how the ongoing drought (yes, things have greened-up nicely, but this drought is far from over across much of Missouri) may impact quail season prospects. Over the next couple of weeks I will dig deeper into observations from specific parts of the state – the outlook is certainly better in some places than others - and share results from our August roadside census and fall covey counts.