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 restoration programs are well underway on several conservation areas in the Ozarks.
Two of the areas, White River Trace Conservation Area in Dent County and Cover Prairie Conservation Area in Howell County, are already showing the benefits of extensive woodland and shrubland management.
At White River Trace, for example, at least 114 bird species, many of which have habitat requirements similar to quail, have been spotted. These species include Bell’s vireo, loggerhead shrikes, prairie warblers and field sparrows. In addition, red-headed woodpeckers have substantially increased in number.
Fire is as important as rainfall to woodland natural communities. Department biologists rely on fire on White River Trace and Cover Prairie to open the woodland overstory. This allows the sun’s rays to reach the ground, encouraging the growth of grasses, wildflowers and legumes. The grasses supply nesting cover for quail hens, while wildflowers and legumes offer abundant food for quail throughout the year. Insects, critical to quail chicks during their first few weeks of life, also increase among the ground cover.
Biologists time burns for the results they wish to achieve. Fire in summer and fall promotes forbs and weedy plants that quail use, while fire in late winter and spring stimulates native grasses, controls woody plants and reduces tree canopy cover. Most portions of managed woodlands are subjected to fire at least once every three to five years to prevent the accumulation of excessive fuel.
The result of these artfully applied fires is a patchwork of burned and unburned areas. The unburned areas provide refuge for wildlife during fires. They also serve as usable habitat until the burned areas regrow and as islands of vegetation to help reseed burned areas.
Monitoring of the woodlands following fire management has shown increases in fall abundance of quail on both White River Trace and Cover Prairie. Quail hunters are applauding these management successes.
Woodland management at Peck Ranch Conservation Area, deep in Carter County, has different habitat goals, but it’s also increasing quail numbers.
Long ago, the area contained many short leaf pine and mixed pine-oak stands. After clearing, indiscriminate burning and being subjected to free-ranging livestock in the late 1800s and early 1900s, these stands gave way to closed-canopy forests consisting primarily of short-lived scarlet and black oaks. Quail and other birds of open woods disappeared.
The mature oaks are now dying. This provides an opportunity to restore the diverse pine-oak woodlands that once dominated by clearing some of the areas and planting pine trees among the remaining oaks.
Short leaf pine seed is a favorite food of bobwhite quail, and the oak trees provide a dependable source of carbohydrates that quail and other wildlife species require during late fall and winter.
Prescribed fire is an important component of restoration here, as it is at White River Trace and Cover Prairie. It encourages growth of valuable herbaceous plant cover.
Quail whistle counts on the restoration areas and visitor reports indicate that the management is already showing success. Although no coveys were known to be on the area four years ago—before restoration—several coveys have been observed during the past year.
Quail numbers may decrease slightly as plant succession proceeds from an early successional stage to open woodland, but quail should continue to flourish as long as open woodlands can be maintained.
Although the Missouri Ozarks now contain relatively little of the prime open woodlands that once supported large numbers of quail, efforts are underway on public land to restore as much of this valuable habitat as possible.
Biologists are optimistic that, with restoration of woodland landscapes in the Ozarks, Missouri citizens will see an increase in the numbers of quail and other species that depend on these natural communities. As one biologist put it, “If we build it, they will come.”
To learn more about managing quail on your land, go online at missouriconservation.org/landown/quail.
For a free publication on quail management, write to MDC, "On The Edge," P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102 or e-mail email@example.com.
Learn how to conduct a prescribed burn. Your regional MDC office can give information on prescribed burn training in your area (see page 1 for regional office phone numbers). You will learn how to use fire to accomplish management goals, how to write a burn plan and techniques to conduct a burn safely.
If you don't feel comfortable doing the burn yourself, hire a qualified conservation contractor to do it for you.
Prepare a burn plan and stick to it. The plan should outline what you want to accomplish with the burn, the conditions needed to conduct the burn safely and what resources you will need. If the conditions of the burn plan cannot be met on the day of the burn, postpone it.
Prepare for the burn. Put in fire breaks, gather needed equipment and make arrangements with the appropriate number of people to help out.
Check the weather. Fire behavior is largely influenced by weather and can become dangerous when humidity drops and wind speed increases. Call off the burn if the weather forecast doesn't match your burn plan.
Prior to the burn, contact your local fire department. Check if burning is permitted and be sure to tell them the specifics of your burn plan: where you will be burning, for how long and in what type of fuel. Notify neighbors of your plans to burn.
If the fire escapes your control, contact your local fire department or MDC office immediately. You can be held liable for damages to neighboring land and structures if your fire escapes.
Opening the forest canopy allows sunlight to reach the forest floor. This stimulates growth of shrubs and grasses, creating favorable habitat for quail and other wildlife. Prescribed fire is just one of the techniques you can use to accomplish this. Your local private lands conservationist, forester, conservation agent or wildlife biologist can recommend others (see page 1 for regional office phone numbers). Here are several you might consider:
Edge feathering is a great way to provide escape cover for wildlife. Cut trees in a strip 50 feet wide around the forest perimeter. Leave the tops of the trees for cover. Within a few years, weeds and shrubs will grow through the downed trees, creating ideal habitat.
Timber stand improvement (TSI) is the process of thinning the forest of poorer trees, leaving less competition for those remaining. Many use TSI to obtain firewood and improve timber quality, but it also creates small gaps in the forest canopy.
Timber harvest is a cost-effective way to create quail habitat. Trees can be cut for firewood or sold for lumber. In small forests, consider using group cuts. If your forest is more extensive, you might use small clear cuts. Both will create patches of habitat for quail and other wildlife
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