A Roadmap to More Quail

By Elsa Gallagher | July 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: Jul 2004

Missourians naturally associate quail with open lands and brushy draws, fence rows and crop field edges. However, these types of habitat are disappearing from the Missouri landscape. With them, we stand to lose a rich tradition that includes days afield, exciting flushes, hard-hunting dogs and delicious meals of quail.

Quail habitat in Missouri has decreased dramatically in past decades as cedars and honey locusts relentlessly invaded valuable open land. In addition, a diversified landscape is slowly being replaced by urban developments, larger crop fields and pastures dominated by fescue and brome. These choke out the forbs, legumes and bare ground necessary for quail survival.

Landscapes often change so slowly it's hard to notice differences. It's likely, however, that fence rows that held quail in your grandfather's day have grown from shrubby, connected islands with ample bare ground between 50- to 60-year-old pole-and-saw-log timber with a dense understory of fescue or brome. Over time, large parts of the landscape have become quail deserts.

Habitat that supports quail also sustains a variety of other birds. Many of these, including the Bell's vireo, dickcissel, grasshopper sparrow, Henslow's sparrow, loggerhead shrike, Bewick's wren, field sparrow and brown thrasher, also have experienced drastic population declines.

Fortunately, farmers and landowners are learning that they play an important role in restoring quail populations in Missouri. Landowners willing to devote 5 to 10 percent of their property to quail

management will often see an immediate response of higher quail numbers.

Quail Allies

One influential group looking out for quail is the Southeast Quail Study Group (SEQSG). This partnership, formed in 1995, includes more than 100 wildlife professionals from state and federal agencies, universities and private organizations.

To address the conservation and management needs of northern bobwhite, the SEQSG developed the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. The NBCI is a landscape-scale habitat restoration plan, the first plan to address habitat needs of bobwhite throughout most of their historic range.

The goal of the NBCI is to increase quail density on improvable acres to that which existed in the 1980s. The plan is modeled on the successful North American Waterfowl Management Plan, the Partners in Flight program, and the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. It's also designed to dovetail cooperatively with other existing bird management plans.

The NBCI has identified three general strategies that will help increase quail and associated songbird populations.

The first involves increasing the amount and improving the quality of agricultural lands for nesting, broodrearing and roosting by bobwhites and other grassland wildlife species. This is best accomplished by conservation plantings of native warm season grasses, shrubs and forbs.

They're also aiming toward better management of pinelands and mixed pine-hardwood areas. This would involve thinning, controlled burning, site preparation and, where possible, increasing the acreage devoted to longleaf pine.

Finally, the strategy targets rangeland improvement through vegetation management and grazing regimes that favor the retention and improvement of native plant communities.

To meet the goals of the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, Missouri will have to produce habitat to support an additional 206,432 coveys of quail. That task appears daunting, but it is possible. Quail do not require huge expanses of habitat, and local populations respond quickly to beneficial land management.

To reverse the downward trend in bobwhite abundance and bobwhite-related recreation in Missouri, the Conservation Department has developed a plan called "Strategic Guidance for Northern Bobwhite Recovery." The plan addresses quail needs on conservation areas and on private land. It can be found at <www.missouriconservation.org>.

The plan's goal is for a fall bobwhite density of one bird per two acres on select conservation areas. To achieve this, the Department is increasing early-successional vegetation management on these areas.

In addition, the Quail and Grassland Bird Leadership Council has been formed with the goal of increasing early successional habitat in support of quail and other grassland species.

Improving habitat is the key to restoring quail and other grassland species. In most cases, bobwhite quail habitat can be created or enhanced with some combination of discing, burning, brushpile building, edge feathering, spraying and shrub planting.

The Conservation Department is committed to improving habitat on conservation areas and assisting private landowners to improve their land for bobwhite quail and other grassland species. However, because the Department controls management on less than 3 percent of the Missouri landscape, the fate of the northern bobwhite in the state will be decided on private land.

To help landowners develop quality quail habitat, the Department offers one-on-one consulting services and access to several programs, including the Quail Habitat Initiative, a partnership with Quail Unlimited, and increased habitat management on CRP land with CRPBOB cost-share, as well as a basic cost-share program for landowners without CRP.

The Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative has helped the Department include quail management into our planning and made it easier to integrate all-bird conservation into these efforts. Hopefully, the result will be a greater abundance of open land bird species, and, of course, more bobwhite quail.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler