Quail Habitat: Putting the Numbers in Perspective
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!