How Do Predators Impact Quail Populations?
Department quail biologist Beth Emmerich shared with me some facts about predators and quail: “The subject of predators is frequent in the discussion of any game bird, and quail are no different. Quail are very low on the food chain and are subject to predation from various critters including bobcats, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums, hawks, owls and snakes, just to name a few. Predation is a fact for all small-game species, which have adapted to high mortality through high reproductive output. Intensive predator removal studies have been conducted on large quail plantations in the Southeast. Furbearer species are classified as vermin there and may be trapped year-round. Trapping is very time- and labor-intensive, and different species must be targeted at different times of the year. In addition, a reduction in one type of predator often results in increases in another type of predator. For example, removing larger mammalian predators would lead to an increase in the smaller mammalian predators (reducing coyotes may lead to an increase in nest predators, such as raccoons, opossums or skunks). One study concluded that thinning out predators increased the cotton rat population so much that they destroyed more quail nests that predators ever did.
“Large-scale predator removal, say in an entire township or county, is impractical and cost prohibitive. On the other hand, predator removal at the farm level is more feasible. A study in North Carolina concluded that the quail increases they saw were not worth the cost of trapping. They trapped every year for three years and focused their effort on spring, when pelts have no value. They found they had more quail when they planted field borders on the study area than they did with just trapping. The use of trapping as a management tool, within the bounds of the law, is a personal decision for each landowner. Again, without suitable habitat, birds are indeed more susceptible to predators.”
To support what Beth said, my son and I recently quail hunted with some friends in Osage County. We found at least four coveys and maybe five. This many coveys and yet a local trapper had taken three coyotes, three bobcats and two red foxes off this farm in the last two weeks. This is on a 120-acre farm. What made it possible for this many coveys to thrive in spite of high predator numbers is the habitat management our friend is doing on his property. He burns some of the farm each year, he has converted all his fescue to native grasses and wildflowers and the timber has been managed to remove cedars and thin the canopy. This has caused a dramatic increase in plant diversity AND quail numbers on the farm.
The evidence does not support blaming low quail numbers on predators, when proper habitat management can improve quail number so dramatically.