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Stop Zombie Quail!

Jan 29, 2009

Jack didn’t have a crystal ball, but the writing was on the wall. Missouri's landscape was changing for bobwhites.

Over the years, bobwhites have experienced a slow decline due to habitat degradation and destruction. The occasional ice storm, blizzard or flood helped speed up the decline or eventually wiped out isolated populations. Dr. Fred Guthery describes isolated populations in his book "On Bobwhites" as “zombie quail,” which can result in “graveyard habitats.”

“Zombie quail” is an isolated population that is only one or two bad weather events away from being wiped out. These isolated coveys are usually restricted to small patches of good habitat surrounded by massive areas of poor habitat. For example, I have a "zombie quail" population on my family farm in Osage County. The farm is a 140-acre island of good quail habitat in the middle of a quail desert (overgrazed fescue pastures and big oak/hickory forests).

If the farms around us stay the same, our “zombie quail” population will always be one major weather event (ice, snow, rain, drought or flood) away from giving us “graveyard habitat.” In other words, if our quail population is completely wiped out by an ice storm there might not be any birds nearby to repopulate our island of good habitat. Even though the habitat looks great, there are no birds, which gives us "graveyard habitat."

The weather we have experienced in Missouri the past two years has probably created more “zombie quail” populations and “graveyard habitat” in places. Over the past five years our farm has gone from one, two, five, two and one covey, respectively. The dropoff from five to two and then one is likely related to the hard winters and the fact that we have a "zombie quail" population. In the meantime we’ll keep on managing for quail. We still have an incredible rabbit population (proof in the picture below), deer hunting has never been better and we are starting to see wild turkeys around the farm even though we only have about 10 oak trees on the entire place. The turkeys really like the farm for nesting and brooding habitat and deer use the farm for bedding cover.

image of harvested rabbitsFortunately today there are still good pockets of quail habitat scattered across Missouri and more being created every day. I think we'll eventually see a recovery in these places. We just need a break from the weather and a good hatch.

These pockets of good habitat range in size from one or two farms to large private land Quail Focus Areas where several landowners in a defined geography are working to restore habitat for bobwhite quail. With help from conservation partners and landowners, Department biologists have identified 34 private land Quail Focus Areas in Missouri. Most focus areas are 30,000 to 40,000 acres in size, but some are even larger because of widespread landowner interest. The purpose of Quail Focus Areas is to work with private landowners to improve habitat conditions in these targeted landscapes. Checkout out the Covey Headquarter Newsletter for details on Quail Focus Areas. We are highlighting two focus areas in each issue.

Does targeting habitat work make a difference? You bet. Last year Department biologists conducted fall whistle counts on farms located in two Quail Focus Areas and on farms outside the focus area. Within these focus areas landowners have established and maintained a considerable amount of habitat. Outside the focus area there's been some habitat work, but the work isn't as concentrated as in the focus area. To no surprise we found quail densities twice as high inside the focus area compared to farms outside the focus area. Concentrated habitat work makes a difference! Other good examples of concentrated habitat work have occurred in at least two Missouri counties. I hope you have heard about Cass and Scott counties. These two counties were the first counties in the nation to achieve habitat goals identified in the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. Since 2002, landowners in these counties have restored thousands of acres of habitat for bobwhites. Landowners in Scott County have restored more than 7,000 acres of habitat, while in Cass County more than 15,000 acres have been created since 2002!

image of quail huntersThink all that habitat work has made a difference? You bet. Back in December, a southeast Missouri quail hunter found seven coveys while hunting in Scott County. Not too bad if you ask me. We've been receiving several good stories from Scott County for the past three years.

We heard similar stories from Cass County before the 2007 and 2008 ice storms and summer floods. Cass County has been a bulllseye for bad weather. For example, on June 30, 2007, most of Cass County received 20 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. I don't have to tell you what that did to the quail. I recently talked with Andy Carmack, private land conservationist in Cass County, and it sounds like bird numbers are starting to recover. On some farms bird numbers have already recovered to 2006 levels.

The benefit of having large areas of suitable habitat, like in Cass and Scott counties, is quail are more likely to rebound from devastating weather events. Landowners outside of focus areas shouldn't be discouraged. You can still provide excellent quail habitat and still have excellent results. Many of the success stories we receive come from Missouri landowners who are from isolated patches of good habitat. Our hopes are more people will become interested and these small patches will grow into large ones. In the meantime, Department staff are going to concentrate their efforts on landowners in the 34 Quail Focus Areas. Landowners outside of focus areas need not worry, Department staff will be there to help you too.

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