Beyond the Food Patch:
A Guide to Providing Bobwhite Quail Habitat
Needs for All Occasions
For a five to six ounce bird that appears content to live in brushy borders or weedy fields, its habitat requirements couldn't be too stringent. It seems, if necessary, we could build a brush pile, leave a small corner to grow into weeds, or plant a food patch and, with no further consideration, take care of a whole covey.
All too often the total requirements of satisfactory quail habitat are unrecognized. Understandably, by their frequent association with places brushy and weedy, bobwhites often leave the impression that such lands are always satisfactory. Certainly plantings for food, and brush piles and undisturbed weedy areas for cover, often benefit quail. But there is far more to consider when judging or providing suitable habitat. Consider first, the general characteristics of quail habitat that are required year round, or for all occasions.
The types of plants, plant communities and stages of vegetation present must be considered. There must be sufficient vegetative variety to accommodate various needs throughout the year. Monocultures, large fields of the same vegetation, are examples of an extreme absence of diversity, and also the primary reason for the absence of quail where these occur.
Additionally, of utmost importance to quail is the condition of the surface of the ground. Quail fly infrequently and move almost exclusively by walking. They simply will not tolerate conditions that make walking difficult. The ground beneath overhead cover must be bare, or at most, have only a light litter. Additionally, individual stems or clumps of vegetation must be spaced to allow quail easy passage, yet provide concealment. This need for bare ground and "open" vegetative structure at the ground is essential to bobwhites throughout the year.
To meet feeding requirements, a well-interspersed and diverse supply of food must be available - principally seeds and insects. Standing water is not required, as quail can get their liquid from dew and frost or from various foods. Naturally occurring foods are those most frequently consumed. Insuring readily accessible and dependable food sources allows quail to minimize the time spent searching for - or possibly missing - a meal.
Habitat components necessary to meet other daily needs also must be within easy reach. Good interspersion of cover types lessens the chances of being exposed to predation, the elements and other threats as quail move from one cover to another. Reduced travel also means reduced energy requirements, a significant consideration during cold weather. Interspersion of seasonal needs, i.e., winter versus summer needs, is not as critical. Nesting cover, for example, need not adjoin suitable winter range. During the breeding season, individual birds seeking a mate or pairs searching for suitable nesting cover may travel miles. Certainly it is far better to provide this need within a reasonable distance and on the property being managed.
Though varying considerably, the fall and winter range of a covey will average 15-20 acres in good habitat. This corresponds with an old adage that the maximum fall and winter density on suitable lands is one bird per acre - assuming about 15 birds per covey. Still, a bird for every acre is not likely to occur in many instances. While a covey may only use 15-20 acres, covey ranges tend to be linear, following field edges, drainages and fence rows, and extend a quarter mile in length. Additional acreage is usually needed. The mean fall densities reported from ten managed areas in the Midwest and South during the 1960s and 70s averaged 1 quail per 3 ¼ acres; more like 50 acres on average to serve a 15-bird covey.
Additionally, while several fall and winter coveys sometimes feed in the same area, at other times they have their own distinct range. Producing multiple coveys requires providing sufficient habitat for each group to claim as its own home range.
Using a defined percentage of the total open land is another approach to determining how much acreage must be devoted exclusively to quail management to achieve success. A minimum of ten percent has been suggested. For every 100 acres, five acres should be in the old field stage for nesting and general use, two acres for summer feeding and brooding, two for winter feeding, and one acre of dense cover for escape and covey headquarters. This may be conservative, and would require suitable arrangement of these cover types and some useful contribution by the remaining land use, such as small fields of row crops or small grain, or additional idle land in a vegetative stage and condition suitable for quail.
The total acreage under management, as well as area-wide conditions, also must be considered. If the property managed is small and surrounded by intensive cropping, grassland or mature timber, little can be accomplished. On the other hand, if the surrounding lands are composed of a diverse mix of singly cropped fields, cutover, early successional wildland, or any combination of these, success with management is far more likely to occur. Unless such favorable area-wide conditions exist, trying to manage less than several hundred acres should probably not be considered.
The total area required to manage quail does not mean that habitat improvements or additions to an area must always be on a large scale. Small improvements can sometimes provide a missing component to an otherwise complete habitat. This will become more apparent when the needs for specific activities are addressed.
In some instances, landowners having few acres to devote to quail management can take advantage of neighboring lands that have suitable features. Establishing a fallow strip for brood use or a food source next to a neighboring old field or cutover are but two examples. Taking this a step further, encouraging neighbors to "join in" and actively manage for quail can produce added benefits and increase the chances of success.
Frequently a landowner questions why a long-standing covey of quail suddenly disappears, even though "nothing has changed." Usually, this is asked in a manner that also brings to question the relevance of habitat. Vegetative change is inevitable, though often slow and subtle. A field may grow slightly too dense for a brood of quail chicks to negotiate. An important food plant may be lost. Or a roadside or field edge may be mowed. These are changes that are not so subtle to a quail but may go unnoticed by a landowner. The invasion of tall fescue beneath other more obvious plants can occur with little notice. This gradual change frequently renders the ground's surface unfit for quail. Old broomsedge fields that were used by quail in the past, frequently suffer this fate.
Because area-wide conditions often play a role in providing habitat, a change in nearby land use can also profoundly effect a covey's continued use of an area. A change in surroundings that once contributed to a satisfactory range size, or a specific need, may cause the disappearance of a covey even where a semblance of good habitat remains. A change occurring on neighboring property can be easily missed.
Don't be too quick to assume nothing has changed, or underestimate the impact of change, even when it's minute. Give places that held birds in the past a closer look. If, indeed, there has been only a minor change, it may take only a minor improvement to bring a covey back.
Land types used by quail vary widely. Some quail may spend their lifetime within one type of land use if it is of sufficient size and contains all the necessary habitat components. In Virginia, recently cutover timberland is the single land type most frequently used. More often, however, quail will occupy a combination of land uses throughout the year. Some idle land in the fallow, old field or brushy condition, or recently cutover timberland, is always included in the combination. Cropland is frequently used and can be beneficial for certain activities, depending on what it is growing and how it is managed. Grassland growing bunch grasses or bunch grass/legume mixtures and woodland are also used, though not to the same extent as land cropped annually, idle land or cutover.
Suggesting that idle land must be incorporated in the management of quail often brings a concern for an area's appearance. Keeping things "clean" by removing fence rows, clearing unwanted brush and replacing diverse native plant communities with a cultivated grass or forb monoculture (e.g. tall fescue, alfalfa, bluegrass) are common occurrences that contribute significantly to the loss of habitat. Among the plants most often targeted for removal are two that can be of extreme importance to quai-broomsedge (for nesting) and honeysuckle (for escape cover and food).
Particularly damaging is the practice of indiscriminate mowing. While vegetation control by discing and prescribed burning is stressed in quail management, mowing produces virtually none of the benefits derived from the other two means. Thousands of acres of potential cover in idle fields and along roadsides are mowed each year, usually without considering the consequences to bobwhites. Often this occurs due to what one quail biologist has termed "recreational mowing." Too frequently the landscape masterpiece that modern society prefers, considers anything resembling quail habitat as a smudge on the canvas.
Vegetative diversity and suitable structure. Bare ground and sufficient acreage. To these add a healthy appreciation for the brushy field margins and idle acres in their early, natural stages. All are required to meet the bobwhite's needs for all occasions.
All photos, unless otherwise credited, are by Dwight Dyke, Blackhawk Productions©. The quail sketches have been produced by Spike Knuth over the years for various Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries quail publications. We are indebted to these men for sharing their skills with the readers.