Bringing Back Quail

By Bill White and Steve Young | March 2, 2001
From Missouri Conservationist: Mar 2001

One of the most troubling questions facing Missouri's wildlife biologists is the apparent disappearance of quail from the Show-Me State countryside. Roadside quail surveys conducted by the Missouri Department of Conservation indicate the lowest numbers in recorded history, and the trend points downward each year.

So, where have all the quail gone?

The simple answer is that they simply don't exist. Missouri's breeding population of quail is now so small that annual production doesn't even bring population numbers back to where they were the previous year.

Needless to say, there are a lot of popular but unscientific theories circulating to explain the decline of quail. Some say there are too many predators, such as hawks, coyotes and owls, eating too many quail. Others say the weather has been too dry, too cold, too hot or too wet. Still others claim that too many hunters are putting excessive pressure on the birds. One theory even claims that quail are suffering because of the abundance of wild turkeys. Some of these factors may indeed affect quail populations to some degree, but there's no arguing that good habitat is the most important ingredient in quail production and survival. In Missouri, nearly 93 percent of the land is privately owned, which means 93 percent of all potential quail habitat is privately owned. Therefore, private land managers have the greatest influence over Missouri's quail populations.

Perhaps the best way to chart the course for the bobwhite's future in Missouri is to look to the past.

Many sportsmen who recall the phenomenal quail and rabbit hunting of the 1960s were actually reaping the later stages of the small game peak that occurred in the 1940s and 1950s. Some of the same hunters still hunt many of the same lands today, and they lament the fact that the quail and rabbits numbers aren't what they used to be. From their perspective, the habitat on these lands doesn't seem to have changed over the last 30 years, but obviously something must be different.

From a quail's perspective, things are definitely different.

For example, dense, woody draws that once supported a diversity of buckbrush, blackberries and other small trees and shrubs are now shaded by large trees without much vegetation in the understory. The pastures and hay fields that once included a variety of grasses, legumes and broadleaf plants now contain thick, dense stands of a single species of grass, often fescue. Though preferred by many land managers, fescue is extremely detrimental to quail.

Meanwhile, some crop fields that are now in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) used to be provide good wildlife habitat though two years of corn followed by three to five years of brome, orchard grass, timothy, red clover, and lespedeza. In the absence of periodic prescribed burning or light discing, CRP fields become so dense that quail cannot move through them at ground level.

One quick way to see if the grass in your fields is too thick for quail is to try to shuffle through it without lifting your feet. If it's hard for you, then it's almost impossible for a quail. If this is the case, then your fields don't provide good quail habitat.

You can start to improve quail conditions on your land by reducing the density of your sod or other vegetation. This is possible with contour light discing. Go two- to four-inches deep, leaving 50 percent residue on the ground surface. Between early October and late March, disc 25- to 75-foot wide strips through your fields. Leave undisturbed areas of vegetation twice as wide as the strips.

The following year, disc a new strip of similar width in the adjacent undisced area. This will leave one last undisced strip of equal width which you can disc the year after. With this method, you are developing adjacent strips of vegetation of three different ages. The disced areas will produce succulent broadleaf plants and legumes that will attract insects and produce abundant seed. The adjacent undisturbed areas will provide nesting and roosting cover. Contour discing is an excellent way to enhance CRP habitat for bobwhite quail and other wildlife.

When light discing isn't possible, you can achieve desired results by applying herbicide with custom applicators. This technique involves spraying strips through a CRP field during the actual growing season. By plugging nozzles on a broadcast sprayer, you create strips, which will enhance quail habitats. You can plug the spray nozzles to create the width of strips you desire, but the most effective method is to plug every other nozzle. In switchgrass or other tall grasses, plug every third nozzle. You don't want to completely kill the grass, you just want to severely stunt it.

Any contact herbicides labeled for perennial grass control will work. Broad spectrum contact herbicides are also effective. Avoid pre-emergent herbicides because they prevent legumes and other seeds from germinating. Costs of herbicide start at $10 per acre treated. Contact your local herbicide dealer for the most economical option.

Before discing or spraying, study the configuration of the area in question. Both discing and spraying should follow land contours to guard against erosion.

After the grass in the sprayed strips is stunted, either interseed legumes or allow natural vegetation to fill in the gaps. Disturbing thick grass will usually stimulate germination from dormant legume seeds.

Depending on the type of grass in the field, the effects of spraying can last as long as four years. Smooth brome and fescue will reinvade the bare areas faster than timothy and orchard grass.

Prescribed burning is one of the most effective tools land managers can use to enhance quail habitat. On farms with small fields, consider burning one third to one-half of the fields each year on a rotating basis to inhibit grassy growth. This will remove dead grass and litter and stimulate legume germination.

Deciding when to burn depends on your goals. For example, it's best to burn in February or March to prepare for the interseeding of legumes or wildflowers. Burning in April or May stimulates legume germination. Spring burning can improve a poor stand of native warm-season grasses or inhibit thick stands of cool-season grasses. An April or May burn also encourages weed growth, which is good for quail.

Burning from August through November will stimulate native wildflower growth or germination. It will also knock back native warm-season grasses. An August burn will prepare fescue for fall herbicide application when converting to wildlife-friendly mixes.

The Conservation Department and the Natural Resources Conservation Service can help you plan your prescribed burns. Workshops and training manuals are available to provide information on weather, equipment, firebreak construction and burning techniques. Many county soil and water conservation districts loan equipment helpful in prescribed burns, such as torches, backpack blowers, rakes and sprayers.

Abundant cover is an important component of quail habitat. Legumes are necessary to provide brood-rearing habitat for quail, as well as forage for rabbits. Recommended legumes include annual lespedeza, alfalfa, clovers and native legumes, such as partridge pea. You can drill legume seeds into an existing stand of grass without tilling, but don't broadcast unless you've removed the surface layer of dead grass by discing or burning.

To keep grass from crowding out your legumes, you'll need to treat affected areas with prescribed burning or discing. If your CRP seeding originally contained a legume, you can use burning and discing to promote germination of dormant legume seeds.

Shrub cover is essential for attracting quail to your land. It is also valuable for most other species of edge-dwelling wildlife. If your goal is one covey for every 40 acres, then plan for at least one-tenth of an acre of shrubs on each 40 acres. If your goal is at least one covey of quail per 10 acres, then provide one-tenth of an acre of shrubs for every 10 acres.

Shrubs can border the perimeter of your Conservation Reserver Program fields. However, if the field edges are dominated by tall, mature trees, then you should clear openings in these wooded areas in 30-by-50-foot blocks to promote regrowth of shrubs. Make sure you have at least one of these clearings in every 10 to 40 acres of land you manage for quail.

Another option is to plant shrubs in blocks or strips in your open fields. Place the shrubs in odd corners, or plant them in strips on the contour lines. For best results, plant only native shrubs such as shrub dogwoods, American plum, ninebark, hazelnut and fragrant sumac.

If properly placed, food plots can provide emergency winter food, brood rearing cover and dusting or resting cover for many wildlife species. However, they should be considered only a part of a total wildlife management plan. The best food plots for quail contain milo, but taller forage sorghums may be best in areas where deer are numerous. That's because deer normally cannot reach forage sorghum heads. In the fall, the stalks break or bend over, putting the seed heads on or near the ground. In years of heavy snowfall, forage sorghum plots are favorite hangouts of rabbits and game birds.

Some fields require light herbicide and nitrogen fertilizer to produce enough food to last through the winter. At least half of each food plot should be left fallow each year to encourage legumes and weedy growth, both of which are necessary for quail survival.

To attract coveys of quail to your land, you should have food, nesting or brood-rearing cover within 100 yards of each other. At a minimum, this combination of features should occur on at least every 40 acres of land you are managing. With good habitat management practices, it really is possible to support a covey of quail on every 10 acres. Omit any one of the parts, however, and quail production will suffer.

For more information on how to improve your CRP land for quail, rabbits or other wildlife, contact your nearest Conservation Department office or a Natural Resource Conservation Service office.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer