By Jeff Berti
Where are all of the quail? This is the question many conservation agents are being asked by quail hunters and rightfully so.
In attempting to answer the question of why we aren’t seeing any quail, let’s first take a look at the bird and what it needs for survival. The bobwhite isn’t much of a traveler and will probably die within a half-mile of where he hatched in the first year of his life. For this reason it is necessary for them to have food, water, and cover within a few acres of one-another. Even if the basic needs for survival are met, the quail have other things to contend with such as predators, weather, and lack of habitat.
For an animal whose ambitions in life are to eat, sleep, raise a family, and say his own name every now and again, the quail sure has a lot of enemies. Besides the usual coyote, fox, bobcat, raccoon and hunting pressure by man, the bobwhite also have to deal with hawks, owls, weasels, snakes, skunks, mink and feral house cats. Believe it or not, once captured, an 8 ounce bird doesn’t put up much of a fight! Notice I did not mention the turkey as an enemy of the bobwhite. That is because contrary to popular belief, turkeys do not eat baby quail. (If you talk to a hunter that claims to have killed a turkey with baby quail in its craw, please give me a call. Quail nesting takes place long after spring turkey season ends and long before fall turkey season begins.)
The thing to keep in mind when talking about predation affecting quail populations is that quail have always had to deal with predators, even when populations were booming several years ago. Also, all predators are opportunistic. This means, if their stomach is growling and they find something to kill, then it is dinner time. No animal specializes in feeding on quail. This is why predation is not considered a significant threat to quail populations.
The quail just doesn’t know who to trust, even Mother Nature turns against him sometimes. Weather conditions such as fire, hailstorms, floods, ice storms, and heavy rain all play a role in a quail’s success, but harsh winters and summer droughts are the most brutal to them.
Although predators and weather are part of the equation, loss of habitat takes the prize as the number one reason for the decline in the quail population. Even when discussing the threat of predation and weather conditions, lack of habitat is associated with both. If quail have a place to escape such as brush piles or thick fence rows, it will make it harder for the fox or house cat to catch them. Likewise, if a quail is sitting on the nest and has good overhead cover, it will be more difficult for hawks to make an easy meal of them. Also, a quail is more likely to survive a hard winter if they have dense cover to snuggle into to keep warm.
One of the biggest factors affecting the quails’ habitat is modern agricultural practices. The bat-wing mower could easily be listed as an enemy of the quail but it probably fits better in this category. Besides unnecessary mowing; the removal of fence rows, promotion of fescue, planting to the road’s edge, fall tillage, and the use of pesticides/herbicides (in relation to the removal of food/cover not the “poisoning” of quail) all result in less habitat for quail to utilize. I guess it is like most things,
it all boils down to money. Are we willing to sacrifice a few bushels of corn to preserve our natural resources? Thankfully you don’t have to foot the bill for this alone. There are several programs available that will actually pay you to leave quail habitat. If you are interested in these programs give Scott Roy or me a call. Scott is our Private Lands Conservationist and he may be reached by calling the Grundy County Natural Resource Conservation Service Center at 660-359-2006. My number is 660-654-2677. If you would like to learn more about restoring quail on your property, subscribe to our free newsletter, The Covey Headquarters. To sign up, go to our website at mdc.mo.gov.
When dealing with quail, something to keep in mind is what we call a weed patch, a covey of quail calls home.
By Jeff Berti