Missouri once had so many bobwhite quail that people trapped them for sale to East Coast markets. In fact, settlers in the mid-1800s recorded daily catches numbering in the hundreds—an astonishing number by today’s standards!
Quail were even abundant in the heavily wooded Ozarks. That’s because fires, natural or started by people, maintained open woodland communities. Grasses, wildflowers and legumes flourished in these woodlands, providing food for quail, as well as excellent cover for nesting and shelter.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a naturalist who traveled extensively through the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks in the early 1800s, described these woodlands:
“A succession of hills of moderate elevation, covered chiefly by oaks without underbrush. A tall, thick and rank growth of wild grass covers the whole country, in which the oaks are standing interspersed, like fruit trees in some well-cultivated orchard, and giving to the scenery the most novel, pleasing and picturesque appearance.”
This general picture of the Ozarks is echoed in historical Government Land Office survey notes and in the writings of hundreds of early travelers to the area. These travelers also reported large numbers of quail. For example, Aldo Leopold, the widely professed “father” of wildlife management, describes days of quail hunting and evenings of quail dinners in journal entries from his time in Current River country in 1926.
By the end of the 20th century, however, quail numbers in Missouri and throughout the bird’s natural range were showing a long-term decline.
The drop can be traced to the loss of critical grassland and woodland natural communities. The numbers of many species of songbirds, woodpeckers, reptiles, amphibians, plants and insects that depend on these types of habitat also have declined. In fact, one of these species, the red-cockaded woodpecker, has disappeared from Missouri, and many others, including Bachman’s sparrow, are now endangered.
Open woodlands provide exceptional habitat for quail. The tree canopy in woodlands reduces snow and ice accumulations and blocks the cold wind. Beneath the tree canopy, the grasses and forbs provide the nutritious and diverse food sources and the protective cover critical to bobwhite quail.
Conservation Department biologists know that the only way to increase quail numbers in Missouri’s Ozarks and improve the lot of the many species that need habitat similar to quail is to restore woodland natural communities.
It’s easier to say you’re going to restore habitat than to do it, especially when the habitat required normally takes hundreds of years to develop naturally. However, accelerated woodland