Questions From a Northwest Missouri Landowner On Wet Quail
BWQ Farm Asks
I thought I would shoot you a couple of questions that I've never really had answered to my satisfaction. I'll start with one for now; it concerns excessive rainfall. We've had two wet springs in a row (I loved your comment about Nate wearing rubber knee boots at the landowner workshop on my farm last month).
What exactly are the hazards from rain to quail? Is it simply wetting of the chicks or washing out of nests in high water? What does research tell us? And the kicker? Can we do anything about it? For example, I try to make sure my edge feathering is not in the ditch but on high ground. Nesting habitat is usually open, so even if bigger clumps of grass with wider blades are provided (more protection?), will hens select them? Is the problem that the hens really don't have a chance to learn from experience? Their first nest may be their only nest. Why do they pick grass in low ground susceptible to flooding when higher ground seems better (to us)? I think Stoddard wrote that he was unsure why hens chose the nesting site they did when what he felt was better was not used. Any new insight? Thanks again for your efforts.
Missouri Quail Guy Response:
I think the overriding threat of excess rainfall relates to wetting of the chicks because the hen can’t brood them all well enough to combat hypothermia. Young chicks can’t thermoregulate (at least not well) until they’re a couple weeks old (maybe when they start replacing natal down with contour feathers?).
But certainly some nests are lost to flood waters when hens nest in waterways, terrace bottoms, etc. Then we have extreme summer floods like those in parts of Missouri in 2007 and 2008, where even areas normally well above the flood zone are inundated. Do you remember those 4- to 8-inch rains or the 20-inch rain in western Missouri in June 2007?
Other biologists have observed flooded nests after periods of heavy rain. In some cases the nests were partially hatched, and in others they found pheasant and quail eggs floating in nearby ponds. I have observed other ground-nesting bird nests "washed out" after a heavy thunderstorm. In my opinion there's not much we can do about the weather except provide ample brooding, nesting and shrubby cover.
Many studies of ground-nesting upland birds (quail, partridge, grouse, turkeys, etc.) have done correlative studies relating cool, wet weather to reduced production of chicks. Little if any study of hypothermia, but chicks are vulnerable during the first couple weeks of life because plumage is not fully developed, small body size, etc. Despite the fact that hypothermia and drowning are lethal, they occur relatively infrequently and thus don’t have a major effect on quail behavior (i.e., habitat selection, species’ "learning" and ultimately passing on their genes).
The wildlife monograph that Roseberry and Klimstra wrote in 1975 summarized nesting data from 1952-1966 at the Carbondale study area. Out of 863 nests followed, only 26 were thought to have failed due entirely to weather (3 percent of the sample and 4.5 percent of all nest failures). Fourteen of those 26 lost were blamed on heavy rains, and the others were lost to excessive heat/drought (don't forget the other extreme can also be tough on quail). They assumed that the few nests lost to flooding related to the moderately rolling terrain at the site. They also found that quail generally did not build nests in low, poorly drained areas. They found drainage to be excellent or good at 76 percent of 1,009 nest sites, fair at 19 percent and poor at only 4.7 percent of the sites.
Also, in this study and others they found that production was higher in cool, damp years than in hot, dry years. While we have had a lot of rain the past couple years, parts of the state have received more reasonable amounts in 2009--a little here and a little there and not one big gully washer. However, some parts of the state have been hit hard again by summer monsoons in 2009. The occasional monsoon has to be tough on nests and young birds, especially 20 inches!
I don't know why a hen selects one site over another. I think nest sites are selected based on structure and proximity to good brooding cover and predator avoidance. Quail do choose sites with greater than 12 inches of herbaceous vegetation and with woody cover, both of which reduce predation and rain reaching the nest or chicks. Several research projects have shown that quail often select nesting sites close to an edge (change in habitat types). The change in habitat--an edge--is normally from nesting cover to brooding cover or nesting cover to shrubby cover.
Biologists tracking the radio-collared quail at Davisdale and Locust Creek conservation areas observed nest locations in the middle of brooding cover. In many cases the birds were selecting small clumps of undisturbed grass in the middle of large areas of brooding cover (close to an edge). I've seen nests in clumps of little bluestem, on the edge of a rank grass stands, in a clump of dead fescue in someone's front yard, in a patch of weeds next to gravel road, in a clump of grass on the edge of an idle food plot, in a disked fire line full of cheat, in a clump of dead grass with a locust sprout in the middle, and along the edge of a county road in a clump of orchard grass. In every case the nests were close to some sort of edge--brooding cover, shrubby cover and woody cover. The picture below is of a quail nest in a patch of grass in the middle of some edge feathering. The best thing a landowner can do is maximize edge by providing good nesting cover close to brooding cover and shrubby cover. This can be accomplished a number of different ways:
- Strip-Disking - provides undisturbed areas for nesting in close proximity to disturbed areas (brooding cover). Disk in the late fall for best results. The picture below is a good example of strip-disking, but make the strips 50 to 75 feet wide (the one in the picture is too narrow).
- Patch Burn Grazing - often done for grassland bird habitat management (picture below). Provides ideal nesting and brooding cover for bobwhite quail and many other grassland birds. Difficult to implement on cool-season grass pastures. In native warm-season grass plantings and native prairie this grazing technique creates excellent habitat structure for nesting and brooding. Patch burn grazing systems usually have an abundance of short woody growth (sumac and blackberry) which should provide excellent nesting cover.
- Maximizing Shrubby Cover - Twenty percent of a bobwhite's home range should be in shrubby cover. Shrubby cover provides critical loafing cover for young quail during the summer. Quail often nest close to shrubby or woody cover.
- Long, Linear Food Plots - creating long food plots is a great way to increase edge and place some brooding cover close to nesting cover. "Flip-Flopping Food Plots" is a great way to increase edge.
- Prescribed Burning - is a great way to maintain brooding cover in woodlands and grass fields. If feasible, consider dividing fields into different burn units to place nesting cover close to brooding cover.
- Eradicate Tall Fescue and Smooth Brome - rank stands of grass provide little nesting or brooding cover for quail. Controlling fescue and brome will leave room for more desirable plants and plant growth (structure). In other words, bare ground close to clump-forming grasses.
- Logistical Habitat Management - It is also important for landowners and land managers to minimize the amount of quail habitat work they do in areas that frequently flood. That's right, don't do a lot of quail habitat work in theses places. There's just some places we don't need to be doing in quail habitat work. Flood plains that frequently flood are one great example. Instead, focus your efforts elsewhere. If all you own is bottomland ground you might want to consider taking up waterfowl hunting. That doesn't mean you can't do some quail habitat work, but don't be surprised when Mother Nature wipes out all your hard work. For example, part of our farm is in river bottom that occasionally floods. We only do a little quail habitat work in the bottom. All we have done is establish a CRP filter strip and some edge feathering (this part doesn't even flood). The picture below is the filter strip and edge feathering. Most of our work occurs in the upland fields.
The duck guys are pretty happy these days. There might be a negative correlation between the happiness of duck enthusiasts and happiness of gallinaceous bird enthusiasts. I’m hoping for a light, steady rain instead of a 4- to 8-inch monsoon! In summary, having good habitat is the best defense against weather and predators. However, we'll never be able to control Mother Nature, including predators.
Great questions and keep them coming.
Many thanks to Beth Emmerich, Tom Dailey, Scott Sudkamp and Bill White for their major contributions to this article.