Quail Hunter for Life
of quail here and nationwide,” said Elsa Gallagher, a wildlife ecologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Gallagher is one of the coordinators of the Missouri Quail Plan. This is the state’s manifestation of the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, a nationwide plan focused on quail recovery. “In Missouri, brood-rearing, nesting and escape cover are the most limiting factors,” she said.
Changes in farming practices and land use are factors that have heavily influenced Missouri’s quail numbers over the years—to both good and bad effect.
When settlers first began to tame the rugged Missouri landscape, farming was the best thing that could have happened to quail. Crop fields and the waste grain left behind due to inefficient harvesting methods provided bobwhite populations with an abundant food source. The weedy, brushy areas that grew up on the borders of the fields in areas that were untellable became prime areas for nesting, brood-rearing and escape cover.
These environmental changes were welcomed by a bird whose annual life cycle is precarious. Clutch losses from predation and from nest desertion (often caused by heavy rain or severe drought) run high. Nesting failures are common. Few quail live beyond 14 months, and many hens fail to survive long enough to reproduce.
But the female quail that do survive are prolific egglayers. If a clutch is repeatedly destroyed or hens are forced to leave the nest, many will often re-nest several times. Second broods may sometimes be produced by successful early nesting hens. As a result of this resiliency, quail populations can thrive if weather and habitat conditions cooperate.
The land-use practices that created abundant habitat continued in many parts of rural Missouri until well into the 1900s, and the state’s quail population flourished as a result.
In recent decades, farming practices have become much more efficient. Fields are fewer, which means less ground is being worked. Where there are crop fields, many stretch from fence row to fence row with either thin or nonexistent borders in between. The result of these changes is much less habitat available for quail. Walker’s own rural memories are a microcosm of the changes that took place statewide.
“Back when I started hunting, everybody had a tomato patch, a cornfield, a watermelon patch or some kind of field where they tilled the soil. Every farm had them—small farms, big farms, all of them did. It seemed like then, late in the year, weeds would come in after you harvested