The Northern Bobwhite Quail, (Colinus virginianus), is a non-migratory species that thrives where all its habitat requirements meet. Quail require very specific habitat types in order to survive. The three most important habitat components include covey headquarters, a diverse mix of grasses and forbs, and bare ground. The goal is to have all these habitat components within 50 yards of each other. Quail are a species that have specialized needs and generally will not travel very far to find what they need. If everything is in close proximity there will be less energy expended, and quail will be less susceptible to predation.
Nesting (Spring) – As winter subsides and the first warm days of spring arrive quail that were once grouped in coveys begin to disperse. The male quail or cocks will begin searching for mates this typically begins in March and April. The familiar “bobwhite” whistle is made by males in early spring to attract females. As spring arrives the birds begin to search for mates and nesting sites. Coveys begin to break up around April, but nearly a month goes by before nesting begins. The nesting period can begin as early as April and can last through September if there is suitable cover. Preferred nesting sites are areas made up of a diverse mix of grasses and forbs. Good nesting cover consists of areas made up of scattered clumps of native warm-season grasses and native cool-season grasses with forbs and legumes. This area will serve as the nesting and brood-rearing cover. Hens will lay clutches of 10 – 20 eggs but the average clutch size is 14 eggs. Eggs are laid at a rate of slightly less than one per day. Incubation begins as soon as the last egg is laid and if nothing destroys the nest, the eggs will hatch after 23 days of incubation. Quail are generally a promiscuous species, meaning they breed with more than one mate. Unlike pheasants, a hen quail will lay a clutch of eggs and then move on to find another mate while the first mate incubates the initial nest. If the nest is destroyed the hen will select a new nesting site and attempt to successfully raise a brood. Once the chicks are hatched then the brood-rearing season begins.
Brood-rearing (Summer) – Like pheasants, quail will begin hatching around mid to late June. During the first two weeks after hatch, the flightless chicks are especially vulnerable to predators. Once the quail brood has hatched from the nest, the hen will lead the broods to an area with many forbs, legumes and other weeds with high insect production. Excellent brood cover is defined by having areas of less than 50% grass, greater than 50% forbs/legumes and bare ground with overhead cover. Bare ground with overhead cover provides sufficient cover to protect chicks and adults from predators and elements of the weather. Bare ground is important because of the size of quail chicks. These chicks are very small. A newly hatched quail will weigh less than an ounce making them extremely susceptible to disease, predators, weather, etc. Thick vegetation at ground level makes it impossible for chicks to travel or feed on insects and seeds. During the first 6 weeks of a quail’s life more than 90% of their diet consists of soft bodied insects. These insects will provide the protein necessary to help them develop strong bones, flight feathers and hopefully help them reach adulthood. Between two and six weeks after hatching, chicks develop juvenile plumage and begin to make short flights, and by six weeks of age, the chicks will begin to feed on seeds in addition to insects. At 12 to 16 weeks, juveniles are nearly the size of adult birds. By 21 weeks, quail have the plumage that will be worn into the next breeding season.
Food and Winter Survival (Fall/Winter) – During the late summer and early fall, birds begin to intermix from brood to brood and form coveys. Coveys may contain as many as 20 to 30 bobwhites, but average covey size is 10 to 12. This period of transition and increased movement is often called the fall shuffle. As fall and winter arrive, food is most abundant and bird movements are reduced. 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. Winter food for quail is primarily made up of seeds and small grains that are high in energy. By late winter, food supplies begin to diminish until spring green-up.
Covey Headquarters – This is one of the most important habitat components for quail. Covey Headquarters is an area that provides shrubby cover. An example of this would be a large plum thicket. In order for a shrub thicket or Covey Headquarters to be functional it needs to be at least 1,500 sq. ft. and provide vertical structure. Covey Headquarters will provide escape cover and winter protection. They also serve as loafing areas and dusting areas as well as a food source. When managing for quail you should provide woody cover every 1/8 of a mile. It is important that there is bare ground or annual weeds growing underneath and no sod forming grasses. When considering establishing shrub thickets consider planting native suckering shrubs such as American plum, chokecherry, sandcherry, silver buffaloberry, etc.
Management – Quail are a species that require many different habitat types. It is essential these habitat types are within close proximity of each other. Without annual management of some kind their specific habitat needs will not be met and quail numbers will begin to decline. Basic management techniques that can be applied to increase quail include prescribed fire, prescribed grazing, and disking. When managing for quail one or more of these management activities must be applied to at least a portion of your management area.
Quail require very specific habitat types in order to survive. The three most important habitat components include covey headquarters, a diverse mix of grasses and forbs, and bare ground. The goal is to have all these habitat components within 50 yards of each other. Quail are a species that have specialized needs and generally will not travel very far to find what they need. If everything is in close proximity there will be less energy expended, and quail will be less susceptible to predation.
For more information on habitat requirements for bobwhite quail and to learn more on how to manage for quail, contact a Pheasants Forever or Quail Forever biologist.
References: Dailey, T., & Hutton, T (2003). On the Edge: A Guide to Managing Land for Bobwhite Quail. Published by Missouri Department of Conservation.
December 2005. Link http://extension.missouri.edu/p/g9431. December 18, 2012. University of Missouri Extension. Robert A. Price, Extension Wildlife Specialist. Elsa Gallagher, Upland Wildlife Coordinator. Missouri Department of Conservation