When I think of a bird feeder, I typically think of the array of boxes, tubes, or trays of seed that people have in their backyards to help sustain birds during the winter. Last January, I got a view of a different kind of bird feeder while I was hunting quail on private land, just hours ahead of a big snowstorm in central Missouri.
There was about an inch of powdery snow on the ground from an earlier snow shower. I was astounded at the amount of songbirds in the field of native grass and wildflowers. Even more astounding was the amount of songbird tracks in that powdery snow, especially in patches of wildflowers.
The birds were fueling up on wildflower seed ahead of the weather, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to see it. It was an impressive experience to witness the flocking of hundreds and hundreds of songbirds into what had been planted for bobwhite quail habitat. What I was standing in that morning was a 20-acre bird feeder!
We did find quail, of course, and they too had been feeding in the wildflowers ahead of the storm. But what I saw that day made me think of last summer, when I helped conduct breeding bird surveys in a north Missouri Quail Focus Area.
Quail Focus Areas
I was one of dozens of volunteers in seven states piloting a national effort to inventory habitat conditions and bird populations within quail focus areas. This national pilot project is coordinated through the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. These 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 designated quail focus areas (QFA) in each of the pilot states.
A QFA is an area where quail habitat management is intensified through incentives and assistance to landowners. The Department of Conservation’s 10-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.
In June, I was leaving the house around 4 a.m. each morning to head to our focus area. I would sit for a few minutes at a randomly selected point listening for bird songs, record what I heard, then move on to the next point. We compared what we found in the focus area to a similar area outside the focus area that was 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 chose to survey 5,200 acres of private land in northwest Missouri where quail habitat management has been intensified through incentives and assistance to landowners by Department of Conservation staff and Quail Forever volunteers since 2005.
Private landowners in the QFA have installed habitat improvements such as 24 miles of edge over 770 acres of quail-friendly grass and wildflower plantings, and they 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.
More Quail, More Songbirds
Our surveys indicate almost 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.
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 canary grass.
We have always been confident that quail habitat management improves songbird populations, and this survey provided the evidence, at least during the breeding season. But what I witnessed on the January quail hunt ahead of the approaching snowstorm was more proof.
However, this bird feeder isn’t just for the winter. The reason our restoration of quail habitat is so inviting to songbirds is that it still acts as a bird feeder even during the breeding season. The diversity of native wildflowers, weeds, and legumes is highly attractive to the type of insects that feed both songbird and quail broods alike.
Fall Quail Covey Count Surveys
Last fall, the Department and our partner Quail Forever began an intensified effort to inventory quail numbers on several of our private land QFAs across the state for the first time.
Until now, only two focus areas in the entire state were inventorying bird numbers each fall with help from Quail Forever volunteers and Department staff. This year, we partnered with Quail Forever to survey four additional focus areas around the state. The proof that our concentrated habitat efforts are the key to quail recovery has never been more evident.
- The Knox County Quail Focus Area has been surveying quail numbers inside and adjacent to the focus area for five years. With this long-term survey they witnessed a yearly increase in quail numbers in the focus area until “Snowmageddon” hit at the end of January 2011, leaving a deep layer of snow and ice on the ground through February. Quail numbers inside and outside the QFA dropped drastically that year. However, in 2013, there was a 21-percent increase in quail numbers inside the QFA, despite a continued long-term decline in quail numbers surveyed outside the focus geography. This year’s surveys showed five times more birds in the focus area than outside.
- The Carroll County Quail Focus Area began its first bird surveys with a spring whistle count and later conducted a fall covey call count with help from Department and Quail Forever staff. There are 10 times more coveys this fall in the QFA than in the nearby unmanaged survey area.
- The Scott County Quail Focus Area had trouble finding an unmanaged geography to survey. There were enough habitat improvements through USDA and Department landowner incentive programs that even the geography chosen for a control had numerous native grass field borders. Yet the numbers within the managed focus area were still 30 percent higher than the control.
- The Stoddard County Quail Focus Area saw a 31-percent increase in quail numbers over last year, and no birds were found on farms that had been mowed late in the summer for weed control.
- The Cass County Quail Focus Area was surveyed for the first time in 2013 and had two times more coveys in the QFA than in the unmanaged area.
Our best success for quail restoration appears to be in areas where a number of landowners work together in a concentrated area. The more of the QFA that has habitat integrated into the landscape, the higher the quail population will be inside of the focus area. The state’s quail population has declined to the point that individual landowners may not be successful in bringing quail back to a property. Or it can be difficult to sustain a quail population over the long-term. This is especially true when isolated quail habitat efforts are totally surrounded by inhospitable quail habitat and quail are uncommon on the landscape.
When a bird feeder the size of a field is offered, the birds respond. They respond because of the food in the winter and the diversity of insects when they are nesting and raising a brood. Even if you don’t have a larger acreage, native wildflowers in your home landscaping will still attract songbirds and pollinators. Your efforts make a difference.
Enjoying the benefits of good habitat
The best hunts I have had this year occurred at the end of the 2013-14 season and prompted my older son, Adam, to start looking for a bird dog of his own. Adam’s friends like to bird hunt, but they don’t have dogs, so they invite my dog up each year to hunt with them — and I get to go along. Fortunately for us, they have connections
with landowners in one of northwest Missouri’s Quail Focus Areas (QFA).
We hunted a 40-acre field that had a 60-foot quail field border planted to wildflowers and native grasses around the entire perimeter as well as scattered trees and shrubs in a couple of old fence lines. Snow covered much of the landscape, so we were hoping the quail would be concentrated in the bird feeder planted around this field. We were not disappointed; about 5 minutes into the hunt, a covey of 20 quail flushed wild in front of the dog. We hunted the singles, experienced some awesome retrieves by my young German shorthair, Trapper, and ran into another big covey of nearly 20 birds. We finished out the hunt by hunting the singles and again had some great dog work.
The next day we hunted a farm in this same QFA that was nearly surrounded by a quail field border planting. A large wooded ditch through the center of the farm had a switchgrass filter strip planted on both sides of it. The field border planting had been mowed, and the remaining cover in the strip had drifted full of snow. So we moved to the filter strips. We are still not sure how many pheasants we saw that morning, as the birds moved from one side of the draw to the other into the grass strips. While chasing pheasants we ran into two coveys of quail, one of which contained more than 15 birds. The pheasants had not been hunted before and were holding for the dog early on. As the hunt progressed, the birds started running ahead of us. My dog had at least 20 solid points that morning between the quail and pheasants and he retrieved all but one bird. Just the kind of hunt a young dog needs and just the kind of hunt my son needs to pique his interest in getting his own dog.
The day before the end of the season, I travelled to southeast Missouri for a Bootheel quail hunt, which had been cancelled in December due to weather. This QFA has had thousands of acres of quail field borders planted through USDA Farm Bill conservation programs and the quail have responded to the bird feeder plantings.
Our season ended with six coveys of quail and catching up with old friends (well, ok, I was the old one). It was heartening during this last week of quail season to be with hunters in their mid-20s and 30s. And even more heartening that I could keep up with them.
These planted bird feeders benefit quail, songbirds, and other species, and they provide
the setting in which to make great memories.
Learn more about managing your land for quail at mdc.mo.gov/node/3678.