In June, Department staff and volunteers were leaving their homes around 5 AM each morning to conduct breeding bird surveys in a north Missouri Quail Focus Area. On these mornings, they joined dozens of volunteers in seven states piloting a national effort to inventory habitat conditions and bird populations. This national pilot project is coordinated through the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. The seven states are testing a combination of bird and habitat monitoring that will eventually be used by the 25 states with bobwhite quail. The aim is to correlate bird population response to habitat improvements in a coordinated multi-state effort. These surveys are taking place in a designated quail focus areas (QFA) in each of the pilot states.
A quail focus area is an area where quail habitat management is intensified through incentives and assistance to landowners. The Departments' ten year quail plan focuses our attention on these QFAs. Many of our QFAs were developed with the introduction of the Department's quail plan in 2004 and have received our concentrated attention ever since.
Surveyors sit for a few minutes at a randomly selected point listening for bird songs, record what they 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!"
For Missouri's contribution to the pilot project, we have chosen to survey 5200 acres of private land in northwest Missouri where quail habitat management has been intensified through incentives and assistance to landowners by Missouri Department of Conservation staff and Quail Forever volunteers since 2005. Private landowners in the QFA have installed habitat improvements such as15 miles of edgefeathering, over 770 acres of quail-friendly grass and wildflower plantings, and used prescribed burning on 200 acres each year. These practices were implemented through USDA Farm Bill programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and through funding provided by the 2C Chapter of Quail Forever and the Missouri Department of Conservation. Technical assistance was provided to landowners by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Our surveys indicate over 5 times more male quail were calling in our focus area than the nearby control. There were also more of the key declining grassland songbirds like dickcissels, eastern meadowlarks and field sparrows in the focus area. These were not all of the songbirds calling in the area, but key species we are looking for in our focus area. Now in our second year of surveying we have seen the quail numbers jump 50% higher in the QFA than last year. Songbirds were also higher in the QFA. All species declines in the control where no habitat management is done.
During our survey we had several listening points where there were so many quail and songbirds calling that it was hard to keep track. Looking around these points, it was evident that habitat improvements had taken place. But even within the focus area, we saw the absence of quail and songbirds at those few survey points surrounded by fescue or Reed's canarygrass.
We have always been confident that quail habitat management improves songbird populations, and this survey provided the evidence at least during the breeding season. Habitat is the key.