I’ve long heard accounts of the gobbler someone’s neighbor’s friend shot that had several quail chicks in its crop. The hunter who shot this mythical bird is never named, which is just as well because spring turkey season ends well before the first quail chicks hatch, making him or her an out-of-season turkey poacher. Still, like so many “urban legends,” this one makes for good coffee shop talk because it persists in some areas.
The tale of the quail-gobbling tom springs from false conclusions drawn about very real population shifts for these two species. Until recently, the range and number of Missouri turkeys had expanded tremendously. That this expansion occurred during the same period that brought our steepest quail decline was proof enough to some that turkeys must eat quail, or at least compete with them for resources. Turkey populations have declined dramatically in parts of Missouri, largely in response to poor weather during consecutive nesting and brooding seasons, with no widespread increase in quail. Perhaps it’s time to take stock of the real reasons why quail have declined.
Bobwhite numbers peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, and then began a steady decline. The high quail numbers we once enjoyed resulted more from how we used land than from any purposeful management to favor them. The patchwork of small farm fields planted to a broad array of annual crops and forages across much of Missouri created ideal conditions for bobwhites. In times past, grazing was less intensive, burning was more common and farm boys cut sprouts with axes and sawed posts from hedgerows. The way we used the land provided a nearly ideal level of habitat disturbance for quail, cottontails and other species that need a diversity of early-successional cover.
Subtle shifts in how we manage the land have unfolded across decades. The result is a simplified landscape that lacks the patchiness quail need to thrive. Entire townships are today dominated by huge fields of soybeans and corn, or intensively grazed pasture. Consider that tall fescue, a resilient grass commonly managed such that it provides no beneficial habitat, expanded during this period to cover an estimated 17 million acres in Missouri, nearly a third of the state. Open lands and old fields have given way to woodland that provides little usable cover, and unmanaged hedgerows benefit predator over prey.
Beyond our farms, rural Missouri has been fragmented to make way for suburbs and homes on small parcels, where potential habitat has been turned to more park-like settings. Abundant quail and rabbits are no longer the happy coincidence of how we manage the land. Today it takes purposeful management, proactive investments of time, money, sweat and concern to create and maintain islands of suitable habitat that support quail populations.
Back to That Quail-Gobbling Tom
A single Florida study from the 1930s noted an instance of turkeys destroying quail eggs. No 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 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 turkeys have no direct role in the decline of quail.
So, why did turkeys seemingly replace quail in many areas? In 1980, longtime MDC Quail Biologist Jack Stanford warned that quail populations were headed downward due to habitat loss. 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. Turkeys colonized parts of the state that were formally bobwhite strongholds along with this expansion of wooded cover, 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 on insects 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 perches for predatory hawks and owls.
Factors Beyond Our Control
In addition to shifting land use practices, factors beyond our direct control impact quail and other upland wildlife.
If you think we get more rain than we used to, you’re right. Not only have the past four years been extremely wet, but 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 show 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. Saturated soil beneath 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 ground 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 to be useful to quail. The time interval between management treatments, such as burning, disking or grazing, that is 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.
We can’t control the weather, but we can adapt our efforts to 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 set back 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.
Retired MDC Quail Biologist Tom Dailey often said, “Death dominates quail life.” Whether as egg or adult, quail exist near the bottom of many food chains. Less 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, predatory birds took 29 percent of quail, and mammals took an additional 26 percent. Losses to raptors, hawks and owls are generally greatest during winter, while mammals have the greatest impact during nesting. 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 1-3 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 predator control is practiced, along with habitat management, on quail plantations in the southeastern U.S., 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 species is a quail specialist. As a result, there are many predator-prey scenarios and no easy predator management solution. Controlling one or two predators will likely only result in increased opportunities for other species. For example, removing hawks and owls from a landscape would likely result in 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 control and a natural part of quail biology. The good news is that habitat management helps limit the success of individual predators. Practices that return patchiness to the landscape are a step in the 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 and reduce potential perches for hawks and owls. Maintain patches of dense brushy cover, through edge feathering or shrub planting, to provide essential escape cover.
Reversing the land use trends that led to the decline of quail is unlikely, but restoring open lands and healthy quail populations in select areas remains a high priority for the Department of Conservation. MDC and our conservation partners invest significant resources managing for upland wildlife. In addition to intensively managing a number of special Quail Emphasis Areas, Department staff implements management on nearly 150,000 acres each year that benefits rabbits, quail and other grassland birds.
While quail may never become as numerous as in times past, hundreds of landowners from the Bootheel through the Ozarks to the open prairies are helping quail make a comeback. Managing for quail in landscapes dominated by woodland, grassland or crop fields present different challenges, and these committed conservationists put the right practices to work to make the most of their land and produce more coveys. Habitat is the key, and you can learn more about providing what quail need by visiting mdc.mo.gov/node/3678.
2010 Bobwhite Hunting Season at Robert E. Talbot CA
Frank Loncarich, wildlife management biologist Southwest Region—Lawrence County Wildlife Management Biologist Frank Loncarich is on a mission to increase quail on the Robert E. Talbot Conservation Area in Lawrence County, and his efforts are paying off. Intensive quail management including prescribed burning, patch-burn grazing, tree removal and savanna restoration coupled with favorable nesting conditions led to good numbers of birds available for hunting during 2010. Area staff observed numerous broods during routine activities and coveys were observed using newly grazed areas for the first time in 20 years. During 2010, 174 hunters reported taking more than 100 birds, and the number of birds bagged per hour hunted has remained consistent since 2007. The focus at Talbot CA will remain on implementing proven grassland and savanna management practices to increase useable space and brood rearing habitat.
Landowner: Steve Remspecher (left) Ted Seiler, MDC private land conservationist Northeast Region—Randolph County
When Steve Remspecher purchased his 150-acre Randolph County farm a few years ago he found only one or two coveys of quail. The farm includes brome CRP uplands as well as bottom ground that is about half CRP wetland and half bottomland timber. Like mostlandowners, Steve has to carefully budget the time and money that goes into managing his farm.
When Steve began working with Private Land Conservationist Ted Seiler, he expected to plant food plots and build brush piles. He admits being surprised when Ted recommended setting back a third of the CRP planting in broad strips and burning about half the farm the following spring. Steve followed through with the plan, though, and good results were almost immediate as the farm gained three coveys in one year. Convinced he was on the right track, Steve sprayed another third of the CRP and burned more during spring of 2010. Steve’s farm now boasts seven to nine coveys. Amazingly, this rapid increase occurred during three of the wettest years on record. And not only quail have responded: rabbits, deer, turkey and a number of grassland songbirds have shown big increases in his CRP planting.