The Missouri Department of Conservation has announced results from a five-year study on bobwhite quail. They have led to a new approach in managing habitat for the bird.
Kyle Hedges and fellow MDC Wildlife Management Biologist Frank Loncarich are the lead researchers on a study evaluating quail nesting, brood rearing and habitat selection.
The data coming out of the study, which concluded in September 2018, 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 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.”
He said the research was conducted using radio telemetry gear at Bois D’Arc Conservation Area in Greene County near Springfield.
The study compared how quail did in food plot areas — the traditional model of bobwhite management — with how they did in grassland areas, which is a newer strategy.
“This study was not a result of something we only saw as area managers, but as hunters, as well,” 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 department’s research project involved more than 1,300 radio-collared quail and more than 500 nests monitored across 14,000 acres of public land. It was the largest radio telemetry study on quail ever done in Missouri.
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.
Habitat preferences were noted throughout the study.
The study showed grassland sites had a 12 percent higher nesting success than traditional food plot sites. Adult survival was also better on grassland sites than food plot sites.
In large grassland sites, both adults and chicks preferred areas that had been burned or 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 spent minimal time there. Idle grass appears to be too thick for quail to use throughout much of the breeding season.
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 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 re-nesting efforts, but many were first-of-the-year nests.
The department hopes the findings of this research project will help a bird species 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.
Hedges said Missouri’s landscape today has a higher prevalence of fescue and other nonnative grasses that are less friendly to quail. There are fewer overgrown field corners, weedy fencerows and less grain left in fields. An additional factor to quail population reduction is the presence of nest predators.
Research suggests one factor that hasn’t had a major impact on the sustainability of quail populations is hunting pressure. Studies have shown the majority of quail live less than one year whether they’re hunted or not.
Two of the primary keys to bobwhite quail abundance is nesting and brood-rearing success which are two processes that are completed before Missouri’s Nov. 1 through Jan. 15 quail hunting season.
A quail can hatch its eggs, a process that takes about 23 days, and successfully rear its brood during a three-week process in its first year of life. Chicks hatch fully-feathered and mobile.
He said the department is also placing emphasis on providing habitat for quail on public and private lands.
In 2018 alone, the department implemented management practices on approximately 69,100 acres of public lands to benefit quail.
Staff provided technical assistance and/or funding for an additional 77,800 acres of private land.
Hedges and Loncarich plan to present their findings to other biologists in Missouri and other states.
“We hope to use this information to guide future quail management in Missouri,” Hedges said. “We hope we can improve quail populations on some of our public areas and, where the landscape is favorable and landowners are interested, we can hopefully improve the population across both public and private lands.”