Missouri's bobwhite quail numbers peaked in the 1950s and '60s then began a steady decline. This is because the patchwork of small farm fields with a broad array of annual crops and forages created ideal conditions for bobwhites: shrub thickets, weed patches, bare ground, fields with a diversity of grasses, forbs, legumes and crops, and ungrazed woodlots.
There is no single factor that’s responsible for the decline of quail over the past several decades. Rather, a number of factors have acted in concert to reduce the suitability of entire landscapes for quail. Most pastures today are dominated by tall fescue and often grazed year-round and kept uniformly short. Other grassy areas such as CRP fields rarely receive any management, resulting in a stand that’s too thick and rank for quail to use. Weed patches are routinely sprayed or mowed, eliminating brood habitat. Hedgerows are often bulldozed out to improve the efficiency of larger implements, and those that remain are often over-mature, consisting of tall trees rather than shorter, brushy thickets that quail need. Herbicide tolerant crop technology results in crop fields with few, if any weed patches. These changes and several others have resulted in farms, and even entire landscapes, that are much different today than in years past.
A single Florida study from the 1930s noted an instance of turkeys destroying quail eggs. No biological 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 literally 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 although it may occasionally happen, turkey depredation on quail is exceedingly rare, and that turkeys have no direct role in the decline of quail.
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 wooded land since the early 1970s. These new wooded lands 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. Along with this expansion of wooded cover, turkeys have colonized parts of the state that were formerly bobwhite strongholds, 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 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 strike points for predatory hawks and owls.
Whether as egg or adult, quail exist near the bottom of many food chains. Fewer 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, avian predators took 29 percent of radio collared quail, and mammals took an additional 26 percent. 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 one to three 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 some southeastern U.S. quail plantations practice mammalian predator control, 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. To be most effective, predator removal needs to take place immediately prior to the nesting season. But this timing is outside of current trapping season dates, and predators trapped at this time have poor fur condition. Thus, even if such late trapping were allowed, few trappers would be likely to participate because of low fur values.
Many predators prey on quail, but no one predator eats quail exclusively. As a result, there are myriad predator-prey scenarios and no easy predator management solution. Controlling one or two predators will likely only result in increased opportunities for other predator species. For example, assuming one could find a legal means to drive hawks and owls from a landscape, the result would likely be 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 direct control and a normal part of quail biology. The good news is that good habitat management can limit the success of individual predators. Practices that return patchiness to the landscape are a step in right direction. Maintain nesting habitat in blocks rather than narrow strips to help confound the success of nest predators, and fell tall trees to enhance edge habitat to reduce potential perches for hawks and owls. Maintain patches of dense, brushy cover through edge feathering or shrub planting to provide essential escape cover.
If you think we get more rain than we used to, you’re right. 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 indicate 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, as rainwater pooling in the bottom of 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 soil surface 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 and rank to be useful to quail. The time interval between management treatments–-such as burning, disking or grazing-–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.
Although we can’t control the weather, we can adapt our efforts to fit increasingly 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 setback 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.
More than 90 percent of land in Missouri is privately owned, so private landowners are the key to improving habitat for quail. MDC Private Land Services Division staff work with Missouri landowners throughout the state to help them achieve their land-use objectives in ways that enhance the conservation of Missouri's natural resources, including those interested in quail restoration and quail habitat. We have literally hundreds of landowner success stories. Our surveys show that landowners who manage for quail have more birds than landowners who do not manage their property for quail.
In addition to technical assistance, such as habitat-management planning, MDC provides cost-share funds to private landowners that go directly to quail habitat needs.
MDC also works with several partner organizations to help deliver matching funds directly for quail needs.
MDC staff help private landowners apply for federal cost-share assistance through USDA Farm Bill programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Conservation Buffers for Upland Birds (CP 33).
MDC supports more than 25 private-land quail focus areas, where we offer additional cost-share opportunities and services, such as loaner equipment to help create quail habitat.
The Department intensively manages 21 of our conservation areas specifically for quail and other small game. Quail populations on these areas are often very good, although hunting pressure may push birds onto neighboring land or into inaccessible cover.
If you’re a landowner, call your local MDC office and ask to speak to your private land conservationist.
Learn more via the More Quail blog or the Covey Headquarters Newsletter.
Join a quail-related conservation group.
If you’re a parent, get your kids outside and teach them about nature. Go to a conservation nature center and visit conservation areas whenever you can.
If you’re a teacher, get involved in our Discover Nature Schools Program.