July 23 • 12:49 PM

Bobwhite quail need your help

Good habitat, quality nesting, brood areas and winter shelter are the key management needs

Michigan's southern counties have enough bobwhites to allow a limited hunting season. Tom Huggler photo

November 01, 2007
There's something about the three-note bob-bob-white call of a rooster quail looking for a mate that reminds me that private-land wildlife management, with all its hard work and expense, is worth it.

Maybe it's because southern Michigan lies at the upper limits of the bobwhite's northern range. Although enough birds live here to allow a limited hunting season, Michigan never was, and never will be, a bobwhite quail stronghold. So, the birds need all the help they can get.

Maybe it's the unabashed optimism in the male's song that prompts me to believe that I, too, can be successful. The prescription for bobwhite management is known, and every effort we make to improve their habitat helps rabbits, cardinals, towhees, brown thrashers, song sparrows and many other songbirds.

If you own 20 or more acres—or can pool your smaller-size property with that of a neighbor to come up with at least 20 acres—you can manage for bobwhites. Good habitat that provides a year-round food source, quality nesting and brood areas, and winter shelter is the key. Recent mild winters have helped because quail thrive best when total snowfall is less than 40 inches.

Creatures of the edge, bobwhites prefer grasslands and early successional habitats containing brush and young trees. The ideal land-use pattern is comprised of 25 to 30 percent idled fields and grasslands, 40 to 55 percent croplands, 10 to 15 percent brushlands, and 10 to 15 percent woodlands. The more intermixed these components are, the better.

Bobwhites need both food and shelter for a full 12 months, and the components must be within one-quarter mile of each other in winter. Their secure-cover needs are similar to those of pheasants except quail are more dependent on agricultural areas that are one to three years out of rotation with mixed cover and bare ground.

Nesting and Brood

Rearing Needs

Bobwhites often rebound dramatically after population lows because hens can produce two or more broods during a single nesting season. Males actually contribute to incubation chores, often taking over the eggs while the hen is off laying a new clutch. Mated pairs stay together for the whole nesting season, which can begin in April and last until September.

Nest disturbance and predation, along with bad weather and other variables, can contribute to nesting failure rates as high as 60 to 70 percent. But bobwhites are strong renesters, and hens may lay another clutch of eggs two or three times. For this reason, do not mow linear grass covers until August 1 or later if possible.

The hen locates her nest along field edges, fencerows and old fields with weeds and grasses. Like pheasants, quail lay an egg every day or so until the clutch averages 14 eggs. Then she sits on them for 23 days until they hatch. Therefore, an undisturbed period of about 40 days is needed for nesting to be successful.

Landowners can provide nesting and rearing areas by planting a warm-season grass mix of little bluestem, big bluestem, Indiangrass and wildflowers. Clump grasses such as orchard and timothy are good choices, too, because they allow the chicks to follow the hen without getting lost or tangled in lawn-type grasses such as brome, quack or creeping fescue.

Sweet pea, coreopsis, hairy vetch, red clover and birdsfoot trefoil are good legumes to plant. When mixed with native grasses, favorable wildflowers include goldenrod, black-eyed Susan, coreopsis and purple prairie coneflower. Any or all of these choices help supply both insect and plant foods as well as cover.

A good nesting site will be secure from ground predators. Nesting areas should be at least 40 yards wide to make nests harder to find by skunks, raccoons and other foragers. Nesting cover needs to be one to two feet in height so hawks and owls do not easily see birds.

Choose an area that will not become wet from spring flooding, and plant at least one-half acre of nesting/foraging habitat as described. Two to five acres in size is better because the larger the planting, the more chance quail will have to use it. Avoid the use of pesticides, if possible, because protein-rich insects are critical to the chicks' development.

The nesting areas should be connected by a travel corridor, which will serve as an escape route. Quail use fencerows and ditch banks as travel lanes between nesting and feeding areas. Maintain them in tall grasses and shrubs such as switchgrass, sumac, crabapple, sassafras, and silky dogwood. Corridors should be from 30 to 60 feet wide, and are most beneficial when 60 to 70 percent overhead shrub cover is present.

Winter Food

and Cover Needs

Besides insects, bobwhites feed mainly on grain crops and weed seeds. Popular plant species include common ragweed, yellow and green foxtail, beggarweed, hairy vetch, smartweed, yellow nut sedge, wild sweet pea, lespedeza, tick clover and black medic. Soybeans, grain sorghum, corn and millet are preferred grain crops.

Quail also eat rose hips, crabapples, acorns, dogwood and other shrub fruits.

Unharvested crops and food plots provide a good source during the critical winter months. Using minimum tillage practices, especially in fall, leaves waste grain. Not harvesting a few rows of grain crops next to travel corridors or heavy cover areas will also help quail and other wildlife.

Optimum winter cover is provided by woody hedgerows, wide brush-filled fencerows, and irregular-shaped brushy areas. A dense growth of tall weeds such as ragweed can also supply some winter cover.

Stocking bobwhites reared at game farms is largely a waste of money unless the goal is to harvest the birds right away. Not equipped for survival in the wild, most stocked quail die within a few days. That's why landowners who want to do something for bobwhites should concentrate on improving their habitat needs.

Take a bow when you hear that singing male in spring.

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