Quail Management FAQs
Why are quail declining?
Missouri's bobwhite quail numbers peaked in the 1950s and '60s then began a steady decline. This is because the patchwork of small farm fields with a broad array of annual crops and forages created ideal conditions for bobwhites: shrub thickets, bare ground, fields with a diversity of grasses, forbs, legumes and crops, and ungrazed woodlots.
Is it true that turkey eat baby quail?
A single Florida study from the 1930s noted an instance of turkeys destroying quail eggs. No biological study since has documented turkeys damaging quail nests or feeding on chicks. Turkey researchers have not found a single quail chick or egg fragment while examining thousands of turkey stomachs. In addition, scientists monitoring quail chicks fitted with radio transmitters and watching quail nests via remote cameras have yet to catch a turkey in the act. Given that literally hundreds of studies of wild turkey food habits and predation on quail have been conducted over the past 80 years, the lack of evidence is remarkable. The logical conclusion is that turkey depredation on quail is exceedingly rare, and that turkeys have no direct role in the decline of quail.
Why have turkeys seemingly replaced quail in many areas?
Among the changes that have hurt quail, one that relates to turkeys, is the increase in wooded land. Missouri has gained nearly 2.5 million acres of woodland since the early 1970s. These new woodlands are generally not large stands of healthy, mixed forest that provide valuable wood products or homes to forest interior songbirds. Much of this increase is comprised by small stands of less desirable trees such as cedar, Siberian elm or locusts that have encroached into once-open areas. Along with this expansion of wooded cover, turkeys have colonized parts of the state that were formally bobwhite strongholds, particularly in the traditional prairie landscapes of western and northern Missouri.
Turkeys and quail share some habitat needs, such as grass for nesting, weedy areas for feeding and row crops and acorns for winter food. However, the trees that turkeys require for roosting can spell trouble for quail. Quail need low-growing tangles of brush and briars for protection from predators and the elements. Tall trees shade out this beneficial woody cover over time and provide strike points for predatory hawks and owls.
Why aren’t we doing more to control predators?
Whether as egg or adult, quail exist near the bottom of many food chains. Fewer than half of quail nests produce chicks, and more than 90 percent of those losses are to predators. In a study of north Missouri farm landscapes, avian predators took 29 percent of quail with radio transmitters attached, and mammals took an additional 26 percent. Although these losses appear alarming, quail have tremendous reproductive capacity. Given good weather and suitable habitat, quail typically bounce back from even devastating losses in one to three years.
- High annual losses to predators should not be misunderstood to mean that predation is responsible for the decades-long quail decline. Landscapes with good habitat often have high numbers of quail, as well as high numbers of many potential predators.
- Although southeastern U.S. quail plantations practice predator control and habitat management, such efforts are cost-prohibitive on a large scale. Predators are necessarily more mobile than their prey, and quickly recolonize an area after control efforts cease, making any gains temporary at best.
- Many predators prey on quail, but no one predator eats quail exclusively. As a result, there are myriad predator-prey scenarios and no easy predator management solution. Controlling one or two predators will likely only result in increased opportunities for other predator species. For example, assuming one could find a legal means to drive hawks and owls from a landscape, the result would likely be an increase in the number of small rodents, snakes, skunks and feral cats which, taken together, eat a significant number of eggs and adults. Likewise, targeting larger mammals like coyote or bobcat could favor mid-sized mammals such as fox, raccoons or opossums. Indeed, if one set out to eliminate quail losses to predators it might prove necessary to continually control at least a dozen species; not an affordable or palatable option for conservation-minded folks.
- As with the weather, a practical approach to dealing with predation is to consider it a factor largely beyond our direct control and a normal part of quail biology. The good news is that good habitat management can limit the success of individual predators. Practices that return patchiness to the landscape are a step in right direction. Maintain nesting habitat in large blocks rather than narrow strips to help confound the success of nest predators, and fell tall trees to enhance edge habitat to reduce potential perches for hawks and owls. Maintain patches of dense, brushy cover through edge feathering or shrub planting to provide essential escape cover.
Does the weather really have that much of an impact on quail?
If you think we get more rain than we used to, you’re right. Not only have the past four years been extremely wet, long-term weather data show that Missouri and much of the Midwest have experienced an unprecedented wet period since the early 1980s. These records also indicate that significantly more rain has fallen during peak quail nesting and brooding periods in recent years. What does this mean for quail?
- Wet nesting seasons can dramatically reduce chick production, as rainwater pooling in the bottom of a nest cools the eggs from below and kills the chicks developing inside. In addition, young chicks cannot regulate their body temperature for a couple weeks after hatching, so they must stay dry to survive. If a hen manages to keep the rain off her brood during a downpour, water pooled on the soil surface may still kill them.
- Beyond direct mortality, increased precipitation makes habitat management more challenging. Woody plants are favored by high rainfall, and even beneficial native grasses can quickly become too thick and rank to be useful to quail. The time interval between management treatments–-such as burning, disking or grazing-–needed to maintain good brooding habitat becomes shorter with increased rainfall, requiring more effort just to keep up.
- When habitat is poor, weather impacts are magnified. Quail surveys show that, despite the weather, quail numbers remain higher on areas with ample habitat, so management is especially important during periods of unfavorable weather.
- Although we can’t control the weather, we can adapt our efforts to fit increasingly wet conditions. The best approach may be to focus on maintaining good brood cover–-weedy areas with sparse grass and ample bare ground. Consider grazing, disking, spraying or modifying the timing of prescribed burns to setback thick grasses and favor broadleaved plants. Two or more such treatments in consecutive years may be necessary to get ahead of the impacts of too much rain. Maintaining idle areas, instead of planting grasses on areas where erosion is not a concern, may also help.
Why isn’t MDC doing more to help quail?
More than 90 percent of land in Missouri is privately owned, so private landowners are the key to improving habitat for quail. MDC Private Land Services staff work with more than 23,000 Missouri landowners throughout the state to help them achieve their land-use objectives in ways that enhance the conservation of Missouri's natural resources. Of these 23,000 private landowners, about 17,000 receive assistance from MDC with quail restoration and quail habitat. We have literally hundreds of landowner success stories. The most success seems to come from southeast Missouri, where the spring rains have not been as intense the last several years. Our surveys show that in spite of weather issues in the rest of the state, landowners who manage for quail still have more birds than landowners who do not manage their property for quail.
- In addition to technical assistance, such as habitat-management planning, MDC provides about $500,000 in cost-share funds to private landowners that go directly to quail habitat needs.
- MDC also works with several partner organizations to help deliver an average of $280,000 in matching funds directly for quail needs.
- MDC staff help private landowners apply for the more than $150 million in funds through USDA Farm Bill programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Conservation Buffers for Upland Birds (CP 33).
- MDC supports more than 30 private-land quail focus areas, where we offer additional cost-share opportunities and services, such as loaner equipment to help create quail habitat.
- MDC works with partner organizations, including Quail Unlimited, Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation and Quail and Pheasants Forever, on quail restoration.
- Our research shows that the vast majority (96 percent) of landowner partners are very satisfied with the assistance MDC staff provide, and 98 percent find it very helpful
- The Department intensively manages 19 of our conservation areas specifically for quail. Quail populations on these areas are again affected by weather, but they are also affected by intense hunting pressure early during the hunting season.
What can I do to help quail?
- If you’re a landowner, call your local MDC office and ask to speak to your private land conservationist.
- Join a quail-related conservation group such as the Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, Quail Unlimited, Quail Forever or the Conservation Federation of Missouri. Most offer advice or funds for quail restoration projects.
- If you’re a parent, get your kids outside and teach them about nature. Go to a conservation nature center and visit conservation areas whenever you can.
- If you’re a teacher, get involved in our Discover Nature Schools Program.