Why are quail declining?
Missouri bobwhite numbers have been steadily declining since their peak around the 1950s. Diminishment is due in large part to the gradual loss of quail habitat and habitat diversity through farm consolidation and mismanaged farms space, pastures and small fields primarily, that quail rely on for survival.
These areas have historically supported the population through a broad array of annual crops and forages, as well as shrub thickets for escape, weed patches for nesting, and bare ground cover.
These fields with a diversity of grasses, forbs, legumes, crops, and ungrazed woodlots.
None of these factors are solely 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, 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 crop sites, 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.
Do turkey eat baby quail?
No. 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.
Why have turkeys replaced quail in many areas?
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 but are instead composed of less desirable trees such as cedar, Siberian elm or locusts that have encroached into once-open areas. This habitat favors turkeys over quail.
Turkeys have also colonized traditional prairie landscapes of western and northern Missouri that were formerly bobwhite strongholds.
How tree encroachment affects quail population
- Encroachment expands roosting cover for turkeys to areas where such cover was one lacking or absent all together.
- Hawks or owls will use trees as a vantage for quail and other prey.
- Tree stands shade out the low-growing tangles of brush and briars quail use for escape.
Why aren’t we doing more to control predators?
Keep in mind is that quail exist near the bottom of many food chains. In fact, fewer than half of quail nests produce chicks, and more than 90 percent of those losses are to predators.
Despite such a high rate of predation, quail have tremendous reproductive capacity. Given suitable habitat and a favorable climate, 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.
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.
All told, if one set out to eliminate quail losses to predators it might prove necessary to continually control at least a dozen species!
Limitations to Controlling Predators
While 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.
Control through trapping also has little practicality due to predator removal needing to take place immediately prior to the nesting season, at a time when fur condition (and value) is poor.
Predation is an intricate and fundamental part of the natural world. As such, it remains largely beyond our direct control. The good news is that habitat management done properly can effectively limit the success of individual predators.
To encourage suitable quail habitat, consider these measures:
- Returning patchiness to the landscape by creating bare-ground cover and disking overly mature and sod-forming grasses
- Establishing nest habitat in blocks rather than narrow strips
- Felling tall trees to enhance edge habitat to reduce potential perches for hawks and owls
- Maintaining patches of dense, brushy cover through edge feathering or shrub planting to provide essential escape cover
Does the weather really have that much of an impact on quail?
If you think we get more rain than we used to, you’re right. Climate 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.
Increased precipitation also presents challenges for habitat management. 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 for improved brood habitat — such as burning, disking, and grazing — shortens as a consequence of more rainfall.
- When habitat is poor, weather impacts are magnified, so management is critical during periods of unfavorable weather.
Start by establishing and maintaining good brood cover. Such areas are weedy with sparse grass and ample bare ground. Visit Quail Management for more on brood cover needs. 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.
What is MDC doing to help quail?
More than 90 percent of land in Missouri is privately owned, so private landowners are the key to improving habitat for quail. MDC 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.
Beyond habitat-management planning, MDC provides cost-share options to property owners that go directly to strengthening quail habitat on their land.
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.
What can I do to help quail?
- If you’re a landowner, call your local MDC office and ask to speak to your private land conservationist.
- Learn more in the Covey Headquarters Newsletter.
- If you’re a teacher, get involved in our Discover Nature Schools Program.
- Consider joining Quail Forever or other Missouri-chapter groups dedicated to quail conservation.