Don Willis of St. Joseph, a landowner in Andrew County, once believed that the major reason quail numbers were declining on his property was predators. He changed his mind when he attended a quail management workshop and learned that others were dramatically improving quail numbers by improving quail habitat on their farms.
Encouraged by their success stories, Willis started burning and light disking and installing food plots.
"I was disking after a burn one evening, and before I left the field, I had pheasants scratching around in the disked area. The next evening I had a covey of quail dusting in the same area. That made a believer out of me," Willis said.
In a few months, Willis increased his quail population from two coveys to five coveys on just 100 acres.
"I had a better hunt on my own farm one day last fall than I did in a three-day Kansas hunt," Willis said.
One of the most common beliefs is that predators are eating all the quail. As Willis discovered, the main reason quail populations have declined is a lack of proper habitat. A survey of landowners at a quail field day showed that 60 percent of the participants were managing their land for quail. Not surprising, those same 60 percent were seeing more quail on their property.
It's hard to convince many landowners that their farms have changed dramatically over the last 20, 30 or even 50 years. They insist their property is the same as it always was and that the quail decline must be due to an increase in predators.
On the farm where I grew up 30 years ago, the fencelines were weedy, and the hedgerows had very little grass growing underneath. When a tree fell, weeds would spring up, and you could count on finding a covey close by while hunting.
Today, those same fencelines and hedgerows are choked with brome and fescue. Weeds don't have a chance in the mat of grass. Of course, you won't find quail there anymore.
To show that things are not the same down on the farm as they were, I examined aerial photos from the 1970s and compared them to present-day photos. Each time saw huge increases in the amount of tree cover in fencelines and drainages. A full canopy of trees now covers canopy of trees now covers areas that once had scattered trees. That's good for deer and turkey, but not so good for quail. If you look at most fencelines and draws, you'll discover that most trees are less than 30 years old.
Wooded fencelines and draws not only crowd out quail friendly shrubs and weeds, but they also provide an advantage for quail predators. A Florida study showed that certain snakes concentrate on quail nests closest to wooded areas. A Mississippi study found that quail near trees were most susceptible to avian predators like great horned owls and Cooper's hawks. The invasion of trees into quail habitat also has provided additional food sources and dens to such predators as raccoons, opossums, and skunks.
But are predators really the reason for the record-low numbers of quail? Research from North Carolina shows that predator control alone has little effect on quail populations. However, the same study shows that quail numbers triple when habitat is managed in a quail-friendly manner. Several food-habit studies of mid-size predators, including bobcats and coyotes, indicate that these animals eat more raccoons and opossums than they eat quail. Their eating habits might actually benefit quail.
Quail are well adapted to deal with predators. Their habit of roosting in a circle, with each bird facing outward, helps keeps the birds warm in winter, but it also helps ensure that most of the covey will escape if danger threatens. Males may incubate or care for the broods while the hen re-nests. Quail chicks instinctively freeze and melt into the vegetation when predators approach.
Quail can co-exist with predators, but they cannot overcome the loss of their habitat to trees and brome or fescue. They need shrubs, open ground and a diversity of plants. Without those elements, you won't have quail.
By managing quail habitat, you can make it a harder for predators to find quail. We can take the fencelines and draws that are choked with brome or fescue and turn them into areas with weeds, legumes and quail-friendly grasses. We can convert tree-choked fencelines and draws back to the weedy, shrubby habitat that quail require.
Brome and fescue are great for erosion control and some pasture applications, but the unintended spread of these grasses into fencelines, under shrub thickets and under hedgerows has harmed quail populations. Several herbicides are available to help convert these grasses to better wildlife cover. Prescribed burning three or more years in a row, if enough fuel is present, will produce similar results.
Trees are beneficial on many landscapes, but the invasion of trees into former quail habitat has had some unintended bad consequences for quail. Trees have crowded out shrubs and weeds, further damaging the quality of quail habitat.
Wooded fencelines and draws can be restored for quail by dropping the trees with a chainsaw. Using a bulldozer is not recommended. Stumps of undesirable trees should be treated to prevent resprouting. Leave valuable lumber and wildlife food trees uncut. If you do cut them, their stumps can be left untreated. Weeds and the shrubs should come back in a very short time. If brome or fescue is present under these trees, those grasses should be eliminated.
There also is a widespread belief that turkeys eat or kill quail. No known study of quail or turkey in the past 60 years has turned up evidence of a quail being eaten by a turkey. Biologists examine turkey crops throughout the year, study radio-collared quail and monitor quail nests with video cameras. If turkeys kill or harass quail, surely some hard evidence would have turned up by now. It hasn't.
Of course, there are always rumors of someone knowing someone else who shot a turkey with a crop full of quail chicks, but nobody directly knows the person or people who claim these things.
The long-term increases in turkey and deer populations are not the cause for the decline in quail. They do, however, indicate the reason for the decline. More tree cover on the landscape is helpful to deer and turkey, but detrimental to quail. If you want more quail, you need more shrubs and weeds.
On my farm, I have increased my quail population by 600 percent through annual management activities. I have eight coveys on 60 acres. The most dramatic results came along one 600-foot fencerow, where I knocked down all trees younger than 30 years old. I also sprayed a 30-foot swath through the brome and fescue. That summer, I had an estimated 60 to 70 quail chicks brooding in that fencerow.
A free quarterly newsletter, "The Covey Headquarters," can help you find out more about restoring quail on your land. This newsletter brings the latest in quail research and habitat management success stories to you. To subscribe, write to The Covey Headquarters Newsletter, 3915 Oakland Ave, St. Joseph, MO 64506 or email <Bill.White@mdc.mo.gov>.
Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler