The Missouri Department of Conservation has announced results from a five-year study on bobwhite quail that is leading to new approaches to managing habitat for the birds.
Kyle Hedges and Frank Loncarich, a fellow MDC wildlife management biologist, are the lead researchers on a study evaluating quail nesting, brood rearing and habitat selection. They presented their findings to the Missouri Conservation Commission this month.
The data coming out of the five-year study is bringing to light potential changes to the fabric of quail management in Missouri.
“We’re not suggesting the quail management done in previous decades was wrong,” Hedges said. “It very likely worked for what we had back then when we had a lot of small farms and a lot of land broken up into small fields and small pastures. But the landscape has changed and what this study seems to be suggesting is that nowadays there might be a better way of doing things.”
The department has tracked a decline in quail numbers in the state over the last 30 years. In response, the department created Quail Emphasis Areas across the state in order to better manage the land.
Hedges said some of the bird research was conducted using radio telemetry gear at Bois D’Arc Conservation Area in Greene County near Springfield, which was a quail emphasis area.
The study compared how quail did in woody cover and food plot areas, which is the traditional model of bobwhite management, with how they did in grassland and prairie areas, which is a newer strategy.
“This study was not a result of something we only saw as area managers, but as hunters, too,” Loncarich said. “We were seeing more quail on grassland areas we managed and also where we hunted. When we started seeing that, we started asking questions.”
The conservation departments research project eventually grew to involve more than 1,500 radio-collared quail and more than 500 nests monitored across around 14,000 acres of public land. It was the largest radio telemetry study on quail ever done in Missouri.
There were three traditional sites used in the study along with three grassland sites in the state. Each site had an equal number of birds radio-collared.
At each study site, the work began with the radio-collaring of 60 male and female quail. Since males do a portion of the egg-sitting duties, it was important to collar them. Once a nest was located and identified as an incubating site, it was monitored three to five times per week until the estimated hatch date. Then the brood was periodically monitored.
Throughout the study, habitat preferences were noted to see what kind of habitat treatment was being selected.
The study showed grassland sites had a 12 percent higher nesting success than traditional food plot sites. Adult survival also was better on grassland sites than food plot sites.
In large grassland sites, both adults and chicks preferred areas that had experienced or had a controlled burn or was grazed by cattle in the last 12 months. This indicates quail and their broods may have a much higher preference for this type of land than was previously believed.
If a grassland area had not been burned or grazed in the past 12 months, quail broods spend minimal time there. Idle grass appears to be too thick for quail to use throughout much of the breeding season.
Food plots were only usable during a few months of the year but are most beneficial as diverse native plants.
The study also revealed new knowledge about nesting.
The peak of Missouri’s quail hatch was thought to be mid-June, but in the monitored nests, the first nesting peak occurred during the last week of June and nearly as many nests were hatched in July and August. More than 50 percent of all nests monitored didn’t start incubation until after July 1. Some of these were renesting efforts, but many were first-of-the-year nests.
“We would hay around July 15 because we thought it would get us past nesting season,” Hedges said. “That was wrong. There are some practices we need to reconsider.”
He said similar findings have been found in Florida and Texas.
Hedges said much of the known research was done on quail behavior during the winter and not on reproduction success.
“Adult quail are not tall and our grass can get too thick,” Hedges said. “This is especially true for chicks. We need to increase our disturbance so they can utilize the habitat. There are several ways we can create disturbance, including grazing, which is one of the easiest ways to do that.”
Hedges said they saw a preference to nest in good brood habitat. Birds likely select disturbed areas to nest so they don’t need to relocate for brood rearing.
He said the department is also placing emphasis on providing habitat for quail on private lands.
Staff provided technical assistance and/or funding for around 77,800 acres of private land.
He said the department will continue research on the species particularly pertaining to impacts of predators such as raccoons on the species.
The department hopes the findings of this research project will help a bird that has struggled in recent decades in Missouri and elsewhere across the Midwest. Quail hunting in Missouri 50 years ago had an annual harvest that topped 3 million birds.