If you’re interested in botany, you might recognize two plants with the Latin genus name Ambrosia. Ambrosia artemisiifolia and Ambrosia trifida are common foods of the bobwhite quail. And if you’ve read much mythology, you might recognize the genus name, Ambrosia, as being the main course at Mount Olympus—it was the food of the gods. If you don’t recognize the Latin names above, I bet you recognize the common names, if not the effect they’re having on people’s sinuses right now. Ambrosia artemisiifolia and Ambrosia trifida go by the common names of common ragweed and giant ragweed, respectively. If the layer of yellow pollen covering the hood of your truck didn’t tell you these native plants are pollinating now, then perhaps itchy eyes and a runny nose did. They are two of the most common causes of hay fever in the fall. But while they might cause misery for humans, all that pollen suggests something else to the bobwhite: lunch (and breakfast and dinner too!). Plenty of pollen insures that plenty of seeds are made.
I’m not sure how ragweed attained such a regal genus name. I don’t know anyone who eats it, or even has tried it, but to a quail, the title is certainly well-earned. Both ragweeds are very important seeds in bobwhite diets, and the plants themselves provide good habitat. Researchers in Kansas studied the levels of metabolizable energy available in several commonly eaten quail foods, including giant ragweed and western ragweed (a look-alike cousin to common ragweed), corn, milo, soybeans, sunflowers, Korean lespedeza, acorns, sumac and smartweed. They found that the seeds of giant ragweed contained more metabolizable energy per unit weight than any other seed tested, including the commercial grains. Western ragweed and corn tested about the same. Because of the high energy content and potentially high seed production, ragweed is regularly consumed by quail and other seed-eating birds.
Want a really good food plot for quail that doesn’t cost much? Grow a patch of ragweed. Few Missouri soils don’t have ragweed in the seed bank. Disturbances such as disking or burning often produce an abundance of these plants and plenty of free, high-energy seed. Best results are usually achieved by conducting this disturbance in the fall. A disk run along the edge of a brushy creek or hedgerow in October will set the banquet table for quail the following year. To provide plenty of ragweed each year, plan your disking in alternating, side-by-side strips, so that you’re not burying all the food by disking the same strip in the fall, where all the seed was produced that year. And don’t overlook the value of ragweed as brood habitat too. Besides the benefit of such high-energy seed, stands of ragweed attract lots of bugs and are open at the ground with a dense, leafy canopy.
Pay attention to where you find quail coveys early and late in the day (peak feeding periods) this fall. There’s a very good chance you’ll find yourself standing in a ragweed patch when those little brown bombs explode into flight.