In my work as a private land conservationist, I frequently work with landowners interested in managing their property for quail. Every farm is different, and often even the plants are different (especially across the quail’s range in North America), but areas with good quail numbers have one thing in common: structure. As I tell the landowners, it’s great if you know a handful of plants beneficial to quail, but if you’re not a botanist, don’t sweat it. Just learn to recognize and manage for structure. If you’ve got the right structure, chances are high that the right plants will be present.
But what is good habitat structure for quail? There are several basic habitat needs of quail, whether we’re managing (or hunting) them in Missouri, Florida or western Oklahoma. Quail need grass clumps for nesting, diverse weedy areas for brood rearing, woody cover for thermal protection, loafing and predator escape, and abundant patches of bare ground mixed in with it all. Those of you currently managing quail habitat probably know this already. But how much of each habitat type do we need and what do they look like on the farm or landscape? A great starting place is the Missouri Bobwhite Quail Habitat Appraisal Guide, published by University of Missouri Extension. If you don’t have this publication, contact your local PLC or find it online at https://mymdc.mo.gov/+CSCO+0h756767633A2F2F4A726F5A6E7679++/owa/-CSCO-3h... to download a free copy or find instructions for purchasing one. In perusing this guide, you will find the recommended percentage ranges of each of these habitat components:
These numbers are a helpful starting point, but it can be difficult to visualize how much these numbers represent on the ground, especially if we have many interspersed small patches. The following should help give you some rules of thumb and mental pictures that you can apply in your management endeavors.
Bobwhites typically nest in residual grass clumps from the previous year. Nesting cover should be at least 12 inches high. Research in Missouri and Iowa suggests that quail prefer to nest in these grassy areas up to 50 to 75 feet from some edge, such as a road, crop strip or food plot, disked strip, etc. For this reason, it is important to manage herbaceous nesting areas to provide ample nesting opportunity throughout the field, especially on large fields such as many enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Unmanaged CRP fields, even if planted to warm-season grasses, tend to have moderate to poor nesting suitability because bobwhites rarely venture far into solid stands of grass to nest. Breaking these large fields up with disk strips, herbicide strips, patch burns, or food plots will improve access to the field interiors for nesting. But be mindful that narrow strips may provide easy meals for nest predators. A hungry raccoon, skunk, or possum is much more likely to find a nest full of eggs in a strip 15 feet wide than in one 100 feet wide. Optimum strip width in plantings heavily dominated by grasses is around 150 feet.
On the other hand, fields with low grass clump densities in a matrix of weedy cover are mostly “edge” as far as quail are concerned. In these instances, birds have easy access to the entire field as all nests are within good brood habitat. Proximity to brood habitat is very important, since the parent and chicks will leave the nest soon after hatching and the chicks will need insect-rich feeding areas that offer easy mobility. At the 2006 Gamebird VI Symposium, researchers from South Texas reported that bobwhite nest productivity peaked at a grass density of only 400 clumps per acre. Put another way, this amounts to just one clump per 100 square feet or a single grass clump in a square 10 feet per side! The rest is bare ground, brushy cover, and lots of wildflowers and legumes. Some of you may be thinking, “That’s Texas. It doesn’t apply to my area.” But remember, quail habitat structure is what’s important. Similar evidence was indicated in Missouri when radio transmitters were placed on quail to see how they used available habitat on two conservation areas actively managed for quail. Weedy fields with scattered grass clumps were found to be quite attractive to nesting bobwhites. I suspect that in the Midwest, most fields considered to have good nesting cover have way too much grass and not nearly enough weeds and bare ground. If you have some fields of warm-season grass but the birds aren’t responding like you expected, then perhaps most of the field is “interior” and not available as good nesting cover.
Many of you have likely planted native grasses in the past with only moderate success. You may feel that you have plenty of brushy cover (see the next section if you think you really do!), but quail numbers aren’t where you hoped they would be. Perhaps the problem lies with your brood habitat. In my experiences, good brood habitat is the most often overlooked component of good bobwhite cover. To put it simply, quail need weed patches, and lots of them. Think about the “good old days”. How weedy were the pastures and cropfield edges you used to hunt? Before we had Round-up Ready® weed technology, cropfield edges were full of ragweed, pigweed, foxtail and wild sunflower. Prior to 15-foot bush hogs and air conditioned tractor cabs, many farmers didn’t mess with the ragweed and croton that came up in the pasture in late summer. Sure, we had more brushy hedgerows back then, but we also had a lot more weedy cover everywhere: the old barnlot, road ditch and fallow field. Patches full of annual weeds with a bare ground understory are a major ingredient in the recipe for quail production.
The optimal situation is the one described above under Nesting Cover: scattered grasses for nest construction in a matrix of weedy cover disturbed every few years to keep it weedy and open at ground level. Remember, 40 to 60 percent of the home range should be composed of weedy brood habitat. When nesting and brooding cover are combined in the same field, this mixed habitat type could comprise 70 to 80 percent of the home range. Management techniques to produce good brood and nesting habitat include disking (especially fall disking), prescribed burning, herbicide application to perennial grass stands or monocultures, and field fallowing. These management techniques should be applied every two to three years to keep brood habitat in the desired condition. An often overlooked or even denounced method for producing good brood habitat is grazing. Certainly areas can be overgrazed to the detriment of bobwhites, but used carefully, the cow can be an excellent habitat management tool, and one that doesn’t require diesel fuel.
Can crop fields fill the brood habitat role? Maybe. If minimum till or no-till is employed, there might be enough insects and other invertebrates in the crop residue to provide the energy and protein demands of a growing chick. Quail chicks are unlikely to find enough to eat in conventional till systems, especially in corn. This does not imply that broods won’t be found in crop fields. A canopy of soybeans or even corn can provide good shade and overhead cover, but may not harbor enough insects to meet the chick’s dietary demands. With conventional till systems, it is important to have a strip of unmowed weeds (or a quail-friendly field border like CRP practice CP33) around the field edge for foraging.
Five to 20 percent of the bobwhite’s home range should be comprised of low growing woody cover (shrubs, vines, downed tree structures, etc.) often called covey headquarters. No problem, right? Well, when we break these numbers down into per-acre densities, I’ll bet you’d be surprised how much is needed to be optimal. And I’ll bet most of you don’t have nearly enough of it.
First, consider the size needed. While quail may use patches of brushy cover as small as a bushel basket, past research and experience suggests that likelihood of consistent use increases with size until patch size reaches 1,500 square feet or so. Beyond that size threshold, use doesn’t seem more likely. Fifteen hundred square feet is big. Most folks think of a brushpile or something the size of a pickup. A good covey headquarter should be the size of two or three buses parked side by side.
Once we realize how big our covey headquarters need to be, we need to know how many are required. Here’s where it gets surprising. Consider the lower threshold of 5 percent woody cover. An acre is 43,560 square feet, and our covey headquarter is 1500 square feet. One covey headquarter would thus cover a little more than 3 three percent of an acre. Two covey headquarters per acre covers almost 7 percent of the home range, barely enough to surpass the minimum of 5 percent. On a 40-acre farm, we would need 58 1,500-square-foot covey headquarters to reach the 5 percent minimum. If you installed two covey headquarters per acre, you would need 80 covey headquarters on each 40-acre tract! This is the lower end of the optimal range. Do the math, and you’ll see that to provide 20 percent brushy cover on a 40-acre tract, you would need 232 covey headquarters! I’d bet a good bird dog that very few reading this have anywhere close to 20 percent of their quail habitat in well-distributed brushy cover. Those of you who have ever hunted western Oklahoma or West Texas take note: this is exactly what good quail range out there looks like. Clumps of plum, skunkbush sumac and shinnery oak are everywhere so that a covey is never more than a stone’s throw from escape cover. Remember, the plant species doesn’t matter, but the structure does. We should have patches of brushy cover so that a quail is never more than 50 yards in some direction from brushy cover, no matter where it is in the field.
I hope that by breaking these habitat components down, I’ve helped you develop a better mental image of what your quail cover should look like. For assistance on your project, contact your local wildlife biologist or private land conservationist.
Habitat is the Key!