MDC: Softball translates the science of quail management

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By Tim Kavan, MDC Private Lands Conservationist

A few years ago, I met Dr. Dale Rollins, professor & Extension Wildlife Specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service at a Northern Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting field trip at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch. Dr. Rollins provided several management strategies and techniques that have worked well in Texas and across the United States. One particular demonstration has stuck with me and I have used it many times to provide a visual perception of usable space within a landscape when talking about good quail and rabbit habitat. It’s called the Softball Habitat Evaluation Technique.

Let’s begin the softball analogy by looking at the ball itself. Every time a softball is in the air, someone is trying to catch it or whack it, and similarly quail face similar dilemmas daily. Additionally, some softballs have a restriction that causes them to only fly for certain distances. Quail are not restricted to fly only short distances, but they do prefer shorter flights over longer flights when looking for cover.

Let’s continue with the analogy by moving onto the playing field. The bases and pitching mound can be compared to nesting habitat which is also known as clump grass (little bluestem, big bluestem or even fescue). The clump grass occupies about the same space as the home plate. An ideal situation would have 25-30 bases, or clump grasses on the playing field to serve as nesting habitat. Other than that, more grass isn’t needed. The rest of the infield will then serve as brood rearing and roosting cover.

Brood rearing cover is made up of annual plants such as ragweed, pigweed, annual lespedeza and clovers with little litter at ground level. Roosting cover includes vegetation such as ragweed, food plots and recently disturbed grasses at least 12 to 36 inches tall with at least 25 percent bare ground so quail can move easily between them. Good brood rearing and roosting cover has plenty of open spaces at ground level with an overhead canopy of grasses and forbs. An abundance of forbs and legumes also provides a variety of insects, which chicks need for rapid development and hens need for nesting.

The defensive player’s positions will serve as escape cover. There are 11 defensive positions on a playing field. Escape cover, also known as covey headquarters, which is defined as brushy fence rows, native shrub thickets, edge feathering, downed tree structures (loose brush piles), or idled areas around buildings.

Now it’s time to put it all into perspective. A quail flushed from the field during its day to day routine of survival needs to get to escape cover as quickly as possible. In order to do this, they should be within a softball’s throw from anywhere on your farm where you are managing for quail. If you cannot hit a headquarters from one throw to another, you probably should consider adding more escape cover to your management strategy in the near future.

In addition to escape cover, quail also need adequate cover in their feeding, nesting and brood rearing areas. But can it be too thin?  Let’s go back to playing softball and picture yourself on the pitcher’s mound. It’s 46’ from the mound to the plate and if you “pitch” the ball into the habitat and are able to see the softball from where you’re standing, your cover is too thin. The habitat can also be too thick. If the softball sticks to the ground after the pitch it is too thick. The softball should bounce at least once, and roll before going unseen into adequate cover.

When baby quail are born they are tiny and ready to feed on insects almost immediately. To assist with this analogy the tool to associate this behavior with can be mimicked by a golf ball. So, by throwing the golf ball and softball on the ground and kicking it softly, when the balls move freely with some rolling activity that means the ground is bare enough for quail to move and feed.

The softball analogy continues with the number of players on a roster. Usually a team consists of 14-16 players and the same can be said about a typical covey of quail. Lastly, the umpire is there to control the flow of the game and keep everything in order. This is you. You are the umpire, the manager of the land and the one who decides and implements the practices needed to provide sufficient quail habitat.

To see a video example of the technique by Dr. Rollins visit his webcast at

The Missouri Department of Conservation’s Private Land Conservationists are available to offer technical assistance to landowners and their habitat management needs. Visit the MDC website at and locate your local private land conservationist under the Local Contact section.