2012 proved to be another one of those years tough on quail in many areas of the state. While many of us thought that the drier spring helped produce one of the best quail hatches in recent memory, our hopes were soon dashed when the dry spring turned into the drought of a lifetime.
For those areas not received enough rainfall in July to keep vegetation going, the drought took its toll on the insect population so necessary to fuel the engine that turns a quail chick into an adult bird. 90% of a quail chick’s diet from hatching and into the colder fall months consists of insects. By the end of July in Osage County where I live, the nights were eerily quiet with the lack of insect chitter chatter. If you walked most fields during the daytime there were no insects to be seen. Our friends in Texas noted that their insect biomass dropped 98% when their 2011 drought hit and they suffered nearly an 87% drop in quail numbers.
While there are bright spots in Missouri, several of those appear to be connected with decent July rains that may have keep vegetation and insects going through the last heat wave in early August. Portions of Gasconade County right next to Osage County had some decent July rainfall according to NOAA weather statistics. And I have reports from landowners there that their bird populations were up or at least stable. While in Osage County, we were losing white oak in the timber from the heat and dry.
We can see the same thing looking at portions of the Missouri bootheel and Northwest Missouri’s Livingston County, which had some of the best quail populations in the state this fall according reports from hunters. They had some decent July rains.
To add insult to injury, the drought burden was temporarily eased for many parts of the state when Hurricane Issac ended August with three days of cooler temperatures and rain. Unfortunately, we know that some new broods were lost during this time due to a radio-collared quail project we have in Southwest Missouri. Quail chicks cannot regulate their own body temperature during the first few weeks of their lives and if they get wet and cold they could perish. We also know that we will lose those quail chicks if they are not out feeding in the cold wet vegetation, but staying dry under their mother. If they don’t feed for 3 days, they will weaken and likely not have enough energy to forage once the vegetation dries out.
On my own farm, I knew of two quail broods that had hatched as early as late May. I continued to see them up through the last week of July, right before the last wave of 100 degree plus heat hit us. I have not seen the birds since. Whether they moved someplace where they could find more insects or perished I cannot say. However, during October, I canvassed the neighborhood conducting early morning covey counts and found three coveys about 1 mile from my farm. Whether these birds came from my farm or not will never be known.
With talk of continued drought into the summer of 2013, there is hope that the heat and dry experienced in 2012 will not be as severe this time around. And yes I am frequently accused of being an eternal optimist - quail enthusiasts need to be!!!