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Wildlife Species Guide

Bobwhite Quail

<< Back to Index | Spring | Summer | Fall | Winter | Population Surveys | Harvest Surveys | Management and Outlook | The Bobwhite's Future

QuailBackground

Among the native wildlife found by settlers when they first arrived in what is now Nebraska was the northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), the bobwhite quail. Before settlement, quail probably were found only along woody stream courses, and in relatively small numbers.

As settlers arrived, they broke the prairie and began to fence their fields. With the fences came woody cover for windbreaks to protect livestock and homesteads from the persistent prairie winds, and this mixture of cropland, grassland and woody cover allowed the bobwhite to move out of the river bottoms into previously unsuitable areas. This expansion of their range has undoubtedly increased the total quail population manyfold over historical levels.

Records show that by 1901, the bobwhite quail was distributed along river systems and wherever suitable habitat occurred throughout the state. By 1919, quail were especially numerous along the upper Elkhorn River and streams emptying into the Missouri River west of Yankton, South Dakota. Early settlers in Antelope County reported few quail, but as agriculture developed, quail numbers increased, and quail were plentiful there by 1909.

In the 19th century, prior to protection by state regulations, some quail were shipped from Nebraska to eastern markets. During a 6-week period in 1875, for example, one supplier shipped 18,700 quail from Lincoln to the East, primarily Boston and New York. Probably because of the time and expense required for hunting, most birds taken by commercial hunters were trapped, not shot.

Even though the bobwhite expanded its range in Nebraska with the expansion of agriculture, the state's relatively harsh climate has always limited quail numbers. Even in the early 20th century, the effects of winter weather on the quail population were documented. The author of the 1908 annual report of the Nebraska Game and Fish Commission wrote: "In my last report I called attention to the almost complete extermination of the quail, caused by the severe winter of 1905, and predicted a speedy recovery to normal conditions, owing to their domestic habits, and prolificacy. This seems to have been true, as during the past season the quail have been reported more plentiful than for years past."

The 1912 annual report declared, "The general condition of the game in this state is quite satisfactory, showing an increase in prairie chicken and grouse, and also in quail, during the years of 1910 and 1911, but owing to the severe winter of 1911 and 1912 the quail have decreased; the heavy snows and cold weather for weeks at a time prevented them from finding shelter and food."

The bobwhite is normally considered a bird of the southeastern United States, but many areas along its northern and westernmost range do support high population levels. Nebraska lies in the northwest corner of the bobwhite's range, with only marginal populations north and west of the state.

Although severe winter conditions often cause major population fluctuations, the bobwhite survives in Nebraska. The better habitat conditions in the southeastern part of the state keep population fluctuations there less severe there than in the north and west, especially away from major stream courses, and quail are found in greatest numbers in the southeast, although high densities occur in riparian habitat along the Republican, Platte and Elkhorn rivers.

Spring

Late winter finds bobwhites grouped in coveys of six or more. As the first warm days of spring arrive, the once sociable males in a covey begin to square off in mock combat, and then, as early as March, mate selection begins. As the days lengthen, the birds, until then confined to a small winter home range, begin to roam in search of mates and nesting sites.

Even though the sex ratio is nearly I to I when the chicks hatch, females during the incubation period are more vulnerable to predators than the males are, and the number of males in a covey usually exceeds the number of females In Nebraska, adult birds average 13 males for every 100 females, and young birds average 103 males to 100 females Surplus males ensure that every females has a mate, and that no potential of reproduction in the covey is lost.

Few of the hens which nest in a given summer will survive the winter. Therefore, most nesting bobwhites are first-year birds hatched the previous summer.

Coveys break up around April 1, but nearly a month goes by before nesting begins in earnest. Preferred nesting sites early in the season are in residual stands of grass from the previous year. Once a nest site is located, the male scratches a bowl-shaped depression and makes a canopy of overhanging grass. Once the nest is complete, egg laying begins. Producing the average clutch of 14 eggs usually takes 16 days. Incubation begins as soon as the last egg is laid.

If the nest is not destroyed by predators, heavy rains, fire or farm operations, the eggs will hatch after 23 days of incubation. Although many nesting at tempts are unsuccessful, the persistence of the quail in attempting to raise a brood successfully perpetuates the species When a nest is destroyed, the hen will usually select a new nesting site and try again. If the hen dies, and the nest is not destroyed, her mate will assume the incubation duties and raise the young. If the male dies during this period, a nearby bachelor male may take his place. A hen may leave the male to incubate her first nest while she lays eggs for, and incubates a second nest. We do not know how often this occurs in Nebraska.

Quail begin nesting in May, and nesting may continue into September. Maxi mum production occurs in years when the majority of early nests are successful, since the number of eggs per nest decreases in later nest attempts.

During the courtship and early nesting periods, quail find their food supply on the increase. Snow-free ground in April makes the previous year's seed supply available. Sprouting green vegetation is a preferred food at this time. As agricultural ground is worked, fewer seeds are available, but by mid-May, insects begin to emerge in sufficient numbers to provide a good food source for the nesting birds As the season progresses, the quail's die is primarily insects, greens and berries.

Summer

In June, the first bobwhite chick hatch, although the peak hatching period is usually around the end of June. The female broods the newly hatched chick about the size of bumblebees the nest, and when all are completely dry they leave the nest never to return. Alone with the male, they move into surrounding cover. The first several days of the chick's life are spent searching for food when the weather is favorable, or seeking protection from heat, cold and rain under the warm breast feathers of the adults.

Young quail are especially susceptible to cold and moisture, and rain takes it toll, as do predation, stress and disease Approximately 80 percent of the chick do not survive to the next nesting season

Young quail grow rapidly, and in about two weeks, their soft, yellow and black natal down is replaced by juvenile feathers. At eight weeks, the first adult feathers begin to show on the breast. By 13 weeks, adult plumage is dominant, at 15 weeks, adult plumage extends over the whole body. A chick weighs 0.2 ounces when hatched, and its weight double about every 10 days for the first five weeks. Sometime between eight and 10 weeks, a chick will have gained half its adult weight of about 6.8 ounces.

For the first two weeks, the brood spends most of its time under the protection of the adults, except for short periods of feeding. Immediately upon hatching, the chicks' feeding behavior is similar to that of the adults. They scratch in the soil, picking up insects and small seeds left from the previous fall. At one week, their wing development allows them to fly in short hops or make short flights upward to catch insects or escape predators.

Young quail depend on their parents for protection until they are five weeks old. From then on, the young rely on the adults mainly for warnings of danger from predators. The brood roosts huddled together at night, yet the birds act individually when danger arises, flushing singly and scattering in every direction. As the young mature, they begin to function more as a unit, flushing together and taking the same flight path when danger is near. Their key to survival is this ability to act as a unit.

Young broods need feeding cover that allows them to move without being detected by predators, but does not trap the small, flightless quail in pockets of vegetation. Adults prefer this type of cover also. Mixtures of early successional plants (many of them often considered weeds) such as kochia (fireweed), ragweed and sweet clover, along with a grass such as foxtail, provide this type of cover. Dense grass cover with litter accumulation such as in older Conservation Reserve Program fields is not good quail brood habitat. The birds cannot move through it easily, and it offers little food value. Early successional plant mixtures provide greens and seeds and will attract high numbers of insects.

Fall

By September and October, most of the young birds are no longer dependent upon their parents for survival. Food and cover are plentiful, and the young birds begin to wander. Adults fight among a themselves, and a reorganization of coveys occurs. This movement is called the fall shuffle. It was once thought that 'all coveys were family units, but this is not entirely true. Some late broods might still be together in November, but by then most coveys are composed of young birds 'rom several different broods, as well adults. Pairs sometimes split, each individual joining a different covey. By this time, the bachelor males are also scattered among various coveys. This invalidates the proposition that quail should be hunted to break up family groups and reduce inbreeding --nature takes care of breaking up family units before the huntng season opens.

By November, quail have settled into coveys, and their home range is fairly well established around cover that will satisfy their winter needs. In agricultural areas, this range is normally associated with woody or brushy cover for protection from predators and winter storms, a grassed area for roosting and a corn or milo field for food. The quality and proximity of these cover types determines the number of birds an area can support.

During the fall and winter months, as normal mortality reduces the size of coveys, reshuffling occurs. A covey reduced to fewer than six or eight birds will merge with another covey. Even though the total population may be greatly reduced, average covey size changes very little during this period.

Nebraska's regulation of upland bird harvest began in 1866. The earliest seasons, through 1929, were set by the legislature. Since then, seasons have been set by the Game and Parks Commission and its predecessor agencies. Although 19th century quail numbers were sufficient to support some market hunting, agency reports from the early years of the 20th century express concern over quail populations, and quail were completely protected from 1917 through 1943. In 1944, a I 0-day season opened in Johnson, Nemaha, Pawnee and Richardson counties, with a bag and possession limit of five. The following year the season was extended to 15 days, and Gage County was added to the open area. In subsequent years, the area open to quail hunting grew, until the entire state was open in 1962.

Season lengths, beginning at 10 days in 1944, steadily increased, reaching 90 days in 1973. For many years, the quail season north of the Platte River closed earlier than it did south of the river, and January hunting was also prohibited for many years because of typically adverse weather conditions.

Through fall and winter, northern bobwhites maintain a consistent daily routine. Coveys spend the night in grassy habitat, usually close to woody cover.The roosting formation is characteristic of the species and serves as protection from cold and predators; the birds form a circle with their tails pointed inward and their heads facing out, so that at any sign of danger, they can take flight. The circle is tight, and each bird benefits from the body heat of adjacent birds.

A covey leaves the roost shortly after sunrise to feed. The covey moves to its feeding area as a unit, and in many cases the proximity of a grain field to roosting cover allows the covey to walk rather than fly. When food is in good supply, very little time is needed to satisfy a bobwhite's appetite, and they can soon move to a loafing area where they spend the morning and afternoon.

Most of the midday is spent loafing. preferably in an area that provides good overhead cover and allows the birds to dust themselves. Unless disturbed, (covey will spend the day in one location before moving off late in the afternoon to feed again. Following evening feeding the birds move to the roosting area for the night. This routine is repeated each day unless the birds are disturbed.

Knowing this routine helps avid quail hunters to find their quarry at any time of day. An important key to quail hunting success is understanding the birds' habitat requirements, and knowing in what habitat types the birds are likely to be found at any given time.

Bobwhite, like many other species, prefer edge habitat areas where different habitat types join and hunting the center of a large grain field or deep in a wooded area will seldom be productive. Instead, they are more likely to be found where preferred habitat types, including grassy areas, grain fields and brushy or woody cover, occur in close proximity.

Although quail can be hunted without a dog, the hunter who has one will benefit in several ways. Quail will often remain hidden and will not flush even when a hunter approaches very close to them. A hunter without a dog will often walk past a covey of birds and never know they are there, but a dog, with its sensitive nose, will more likely locate them.

After a covey flushes, individual birds generally remain motionless for as long as 15 minutes or more after they land, and then gradually start to move. A dog is then useful in helping to locate these singles, especially in heavy cover.

Finally, a dog is invaluable in finding and retrieving wounded birds or dead birds lost in heavy cover.

Winter

Approaching winter storms will usually stimulate a covey of quail, like most species of wildlife, to continue feeding throughout the day. During severe storms, the birds may not be able to leave the roost for a day or two, and the food supply may be covered by snow. It is during periods of sub-zero temperatures accompanied by deep snow or freezing rain that mortality is highest among Nebraska's bobwhites. Low temperatures alone are not as harmful as when they are accompanied by deep or thickly crusted snow. Quail require a lot of energy to survive sub-zero temperatures, but as long as enough food is easily accessible, they usually have little trouble withstanding the cold.

To survive the winter, quail need good protective cover and a close food source not covered by snow. Birds moving considerable distances from their roosting and loafing areas for food during severe weather burn up much-needed energy and expose themselves to predators.

Also threatening to quail are winter ice storms. Rain changing to snow and a rapid drop in temperature glazes the vegetation with ice, and feeding can become difficult. If ice covers the birds, the result is usually suffocation. Losses of 60 to 80 percent of the statewide breeding population have been recorded, and losses of 100 percent may occur in localized areas. In periods of severe weather, only the best habitat will see a covey through.

The bobwhite's winter food is primarily annual seeds and grain, and quail habitat should provide palatable seeds with the highest possible energy. Studies in Kansas have shown which plants provide the most usable energy to quail .

At the top of the list is giant ragweed. Lower, but still of considerable value, are western ragweed, corn, sorghum, soybeans, sunflowers, osage-orange and dogwood. Foods providing low usable energy include wheat, acorns, lespedeza and millet. Hemp, showy partridge pea, smartweed, rosehips, sumac and switchgrass were considered poor sources of usable energy.

Population Surveys

Each year since 1945, rural mail carriers have recorded the number of upland species they observe and the number of miles they drive during several four-day periods each year. The summer survey is currently the most reliable forecaster of the following season's hunting success, but fall surveys, begun in 1983, may eventually prove to be equally or more reliable. The surveys are conducted at the same time each year, and the variation in quail numbers observed suggests the changes in population level. Year-to-year fluctuations show the effect of weather on the populations.

Long-term trends from 1945 to 1991 indicate a gradual increase in the bobwhite population. The peak occurred in 1959, and the lowest population was recorded in 1984. In the winter of 1983-84, many areas of the state's best quail range were subject to heavy snow and ice storms from December through March, and many quail died. The spring of 1984 was cold and wet, resulting in poor nesting success and high chick mortality. As a result, Nebraska's quail population was severely damaged. By 1988, however, their numbers fell in step with those of years before that disastrous winter.

A whistle-count survey is conducted each year by Game and Parks Commission personnel over about 40 established 19-mile routes. This survey is based on the presumption that the proportion of calling males in the population remains the same from year to year. These calling males are most vocal just after sunrise, so starting at sunrise, the observers stop every mile along their routes and record the number of "bob-white" calls they hear. The number of males recorded is compared to previous years' records to establish a population trend.

Information is available from whistlecount surveys made since 1947 in the southeastern and west-central counties. The lowest population occurred in 1984, and the highest in 1959.

Harvest Surveys

Each year, three harvest surveys are conducted to gather information about quail hunting. The first involves a questionnaire sent to a randomly chosen 5 percent of resident hunters who purchased permits the previous season. The data, gathered after the season closes, is extrapolated to estimate the year's total harvest, total number of hunters, total days hunted and quail bagged per day.

A quail hunter "cooperator" survey is conducted each year to determine hunter success and to obtain quail wings for study. Cooperators mail wings and information about their hunts to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's quail biologist. Cooperators are selected because of their interest in quail hunting, and they remain on the mailing list as long as they submit information. New cooperators are added from news release replies and individual contacts.

Additional harvest survey data and wing samples are gathered at voluntary hunter check stations in southeast Nebraska. Hunters who choose to stop at these roadside locations are asked questions about all aspects of their hunts and are asked to contribute a wing from each of their quail.

The quail wings gathered in both surveys are analyzed for color patterns and stage of development. These comparisons allow biologists to determine the sex, age and hatching date of each bird.

Management Myths and Realities

Wide year-to-year fluctuations in population levels occur when severe winter storms and high winter mortality follow summers in which ideal nesting conditions have produced birds in excess of the carrying capacity of the range. As the population grows, quail disperse into areas not capable of supporting them year-round or in extreme conditions. If a severe storm strikes when the population is extremely high, the statewide breeding population can drop as much as 80 percent or more in one year. Localized areas may experience complete die-offs.

When these sudden drops occur, hunters and landowners often request immediate action to increase the population. Stocking, hunting season reductions and winter feeding are the most common programs suggested, but habitat is the key to quail numbers. If proper habitat is maintained, fluctuations are much less pronounced. When normal nesting conditions are followed by mild winters, a quail population will rapidly recover on its own. In 1969, for example, following a severe winter in northeast Nebraska, the quail breeding population dropped 58 percent. Within four years the population was back to the 1968 level, and above it five years later. This recovery occurred without a change in management policy—no stocking or reduced seasons were involved.

Stocking

Stocking quail is of no value except in areas with suitable habitat but no wild birds and no chance for wild birds to move in from surrounding areas. Cost of each bird eventually bagged by a hunter is too high to justify the effort.

Studies show that the cost of putting one pen-raised, stocked bird in the hunter's bag may be several times the cost of a hunting license when young birds are released prior to the hunting season. When pen-raised young are released with wild-trapped adults, the adults normally adopt the young, but in this case, too. the cost of each bird eventually bagged by a hunter is too high to justify the effort.

Late winter and early spring release of adult breeders is also a financial bust. Survival of native birds from the end of one breeding season to the next spring averages about 30 to 60 percent, and the survival of pen-raised birds is much lower. Three major drawbacks to pen raised quail in the wild are their tameness, which makes them susceptible to predators; their inability to recognizeing food in a specific location; and their tendency to remain separate and not form the coveys which are so essential for survival of wild birds.

Hunting Season Reduction

Even though hunters remove many birds from the population each fall, equivalent numbers would nonmally be lost to other factors including predation, exposure, disease or a combination of these factors. In a normal reproduction year, the population decreases 40 to 70 percent from the peak in late summer to the following spring, because no birds normally produce many more offspring than the habitat in a given area support. This is the "strategy" of most upland game species produce many young in a short time to make up for high mortality rate throughout the year.

Moreover, the "law" of dimiminshing returns suggests why hunting pressure is related to population density: when numbers are down, the extra effort required to locate them discourages many hunters from pursuing quail. Moreover, during periods of severe cold and snow, most hunters are reluctant to spend time in the field. These two factors justify allowing quail hunting in areas of low population density and in months severe weather is most likely to occur.

Reduced bag limits, another frequently offered suggestion, are a subject of some disagreement. Although reductions may be of value in some limited areas, it is not clear that minor changes in limits have any significant effect, especially in Nebraska where most quail are taken incidentally to pheasant hunting and few hunters take a full limit on any given day.

Winter feeding

When winter conditions are severe the question of feeding gamebirds always arises. Feeding does have drawbacks however. If feeding is not continued birds may remain in an area with inadequate natural food instead of moving into another area where food is more readily available. Feeding can also increase losses to predators, which become aware that the birds will be found at a certain site at a specific time each day. Feeding the birds along roadsides will also increases road-kill losses. Concentrating birds at a feeding site increases the spread of disease and parasites.

Although winter feeding is too costly and labor-intensive to be undertaken on a statewide basis, a landowner may bring a covey of quail through difficult times, However, the indiscriminate scattering of grain serves no purpose. The range of a covey must be known, and the feed must be placed in good cover within that range. This means that instead of feeding birds in general, a specific covey is fed. Once feeding begins, it must be continued throughout the bad weather.

To decrease labor and prolong food availability, however, a better method would be to leave standing rows of corn and milo near woody cover at field edges.

Habitat

The key to all successful wildlife management is habitat. To serve their needs, bobwhite, like many other species, need various types of cover at different seasons. In most areas, only one or two types of cover are usually available, but additional types could make many areas appropriate for bobwhite. The primary method of improving quail habitat is to increase "edge." Edges are areas where different types of habitat, each filling a different need for the quail, come together. Examples include grassy areas adjacent to cornfields, fencelines bordering grain fields and hedgerows or woody draws bisecting farmground. Since the bobwhite has a small travel area, two habitat requirements, such as food and cover, should be available in close proximity. A quarter-section of corn provides food, but is most useful only around the edges where a bobwhite has easy access to escape cover. Large timber tracts are only valuable quail habitat at their edges where nesting cover or food is available.

Thus, management of bobwhites requires knowledge of the variety of habitat, the quality and quantity of habitat required and the relationship among the various habitat types. Four types of cover are usually associated with bobwhites: grassy areas, croplands, brush and woody cover. An ideal quail area has a mixture of these cover types.

Grassy areas serve quail best as nesting cover; at least two-thirds of all quail nests are found in grass communities. Some hayfields are used, but usually grass associated with brushy cover on unused areas such as along hedgerows is preferred. Often, grass clumps inaccessible to cattle furnish the needed protection for quail nests. Roadsides which are not grazed or hayed are also frequently used. A roadside fencerow may provide additional protection and make a road ditch bank a preferred nesting area. Over grazed pastures and harvested hayfields offer quail little useable habitat. Quail, unlike pheasants, usually do not nest in heavy stands of alfalfa, but seek more open, less canopied, easily traveled areas. A mixture of grasses and early successional plants (often thought of as weeds) are used for feeding by both broods and adults. Maintaining several of these patches scattered throughout an area will increase wildlife of all kinds on a farm. Historically, the increasing acreage of cropland was the primary factor in expanding the quail range. Before the land was homesteaded, range fires disrupted plant succession and allowed weeds to grow, but grass succession eventually overcame these beneficial plants. Early sod-breaking and farming practices created disturbed areas and edges which were ideal quail habitat. Some modern farming techniques, however, work against quail. Herbicides and insecticides remove needed cover and food. Land leveling removes many weedy or brushy draws that previously formed necessary edge habitat. Fencerows and hedges are removed to permit the use of larger equipment.

Brush is a broad term that could include an osage-orange hedgerow, a plum thicket or even a sunflower patch. Blackberries, raspberries, plums, currants and elderberries—all of them brush—provide both food and shelter. Any wood vegetation can provide a necessary part of the quail "home," and the availability of this type of cover adjacent to cropland or other food usually determines bobwhite home range. Numerous brushy areas are one reason why southeast Nebraska and the Platte and Republican rivers and their tributaries have abundant quail populations.

Woody cover is most useful when associated with brushy undergrowth or brushy cover adjacent to the woodland edge. Most woodlands in Nebraska occur along rivers and tributaries and are not as intensively managed for timber (or for quail) as are those in the southeastern states. Their value to quail in Nebraska is limited to their association with brush and cropland. Woodlands provide some winter cover and limited food. A heavily grazed woodlot with little ground cover is practically worthless to quail. Red cedar, however, commonly used for windbreaks, provides important winter cover, since snow will bridge the branches, leaving a protective canopy and protection for the bobwhite.

The Bobwhite's Future

The northern bobwhite was a resident of much of the area we now call Nebraska when settlers first arrived. In the early days of our coexistence, the quail flourished, as limited agriculture created new edge habitat, and the bobwhite's range and numbers increased. Modern farrn practices, however, have a mixed effect on quail populations. Increase mechanization, increased pesticide an herbicide use and the trend towar monoculture (one-crop) farming have decreased the variety of cover available in many areas, and much quail habitat is now restricted to inaccessible, untillable areas such as rainages, ditches, fence rows and pastures.

On the positive side, however, a many modern conservation and minimum-till practices. The 1985 and 1990 farm bills mandated that land considered highly erodible be put into a conservation compliance plan. These requirements and other practices—grassed waterways and grassed terraces, strip farming, low- and no-till cultivation, native grass planting such as those encouraged by recent government programs, "sodbuster" legislation and shelterbelt plantings all benefit wildlife as well as the farmer.

The future of this diminutive Nebraka native is relatively bright; in spite year-to-year fluctuations, population have remained relatively constant. The key to the continued survival of the northern bobwhite in Nebraska will be our willingness to recognize its basic life requirements and to continue to provide a place for it in the uses we make of the environment.

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