I have been leaving the house around 4 AM each morning to conduct breeding bird surveys in a north Missouri Quail Focus Area. Watching the moon and mist give way to the sun is an experience I don't witness enough. A good friend recently shared with me the lyrics of the old John Denver song "Summer". It describes perfectly what I have been embraced in each morning as I sit in the country along a secluded gravel road waiting for the quail, pheasant and songbirds to wake up.
On these mornings, I join dozens of volunteers in seven states piloting a national effort to inventory habitat conditions and bird populations within quail focus areas. A quail focus area is an area where quail habitat management is intensified through incentives and assistance to landowners or it may be public land specifically managed for quail. I sit for a few minutes at a randomly selected point listening for bird songs, record what I hear, then move on to the next point. We compare what we find in the focus area to a similar area outside the focus area that is not being managed for quail by the landowners. The results are telling the same story that we have been touting for several years regarding Bobwhite Quail. "It's the habitat!"
While volunteers just finished conducting surveys this weekend, initial indications from our Missouri focus area are showing as much as 3-4 times more quail in the focus area than outside it. However, even within the focus area, we see the absence of quail at those few survey points surrounded by sod-forming grasses like tall fescue or Reed’s canarygrass. Many of the survey points outside our focus area have no quail calling. While inside the focus area it is not uncommon to have 5-7 birds calling per point. The best site consistently has recorded 25 quail calls. While the best site outside our focus area recorded 8 birds calling.
We will be back in October to survey quail covey calling in these same locations. Habitat is the key to quail restoration! And if you want to hear John Denver's version of "Summer", it is on YouTube and iTunes. Adding your own quail whistle is optional.