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Providing for Quail Broods

How To Insure That Your Property Provides The Cover Quail Need For Raising Their Young.

Bobwhite Quail with her Broods

Try to picture Virginia in 1925, the "roaring twenties." Most urban areas were modernizing but rural areas remained primitive by 1999 standards.

Subsistence farming, or farming for survival, was common. Subsistence farms were very different from the "clean" farms we see today. In those days fields were smaller, many brushy fencerows existed and most fields were "idled" or "fallowed" for several years between plantings. Ragweed, pokeberry and other annual weeds grew in these fields, making them ideal areas for the rearing of bobwhite quail chicks. Some fields were planted to annual lespedeza to cut for hay. The lespedeza fields provided excellent places for quail to forage in winter. Bobwhite quail were by-products of primitive farming.

The farming modernization necessary to feed a burgeoning human population also eliminated most of the idle land and lespedeza hayfields so beneficial to quail. In Virginia, fallow land acreage declined 64% from 1925 to 1987. Virginia's bobwhite population declined 71% during the past thirty years. Additionally, lespedeza hay, which covered nearly 600,000 acres in 1945, is nearly non-existent today. Though the bobwhite is still a by-product of agriculture in many respects, current agricultural systems produce far fewer quail than those systems common 70 years ago. Active management is now required to produce quail populations on most farms.

Graph of Virginia Idle Land & Bobwhite Trends

Like all wildlife species, bobwhite quail have habitat requirements. They need habitat for brood-rearing, nesting, loafing, roosting, and protection from predators and inclement weather. A healthy quail population depends on having these habitat types in close proximity. Of these types, perhaps the most important and least available is brood-rearing habitat.

Many farms have adequate winter cover, particularly those properties with recently cutover timberland. These cutovers also provide nesting and escape cover. However, quail are particularly fussy about their brood-rearing habitat. Regardless of the availability of winter habitat, great brood-rearing habitat is required to produce high fall quail populations.

Quail chicks are tiny, weighing less than 1/4 ounce at hatching. In spite of their small size, they can move and feed themselves only hours after leaving the shell. Given the proper habitat, they are very effective insect predators. Insects comprise 95% of a quail chick's diet during its first few weeks and are critical to their growth and survival.

In order to obtain the insects they need for growth and survival, quail chicks must have good foraging cover. They need some overhead cover to shield them from summer's heat and predators, but, at chick level, the ground must be fairly open.

Quail chick

Remember those jungle adventure movies? The ones showing the daring bands of guerilla soldiers hacking their way through seemingly impenetrable jungle. Or, picture yourself like the children in the movie Jurassic Park, constantly running for cover, trying to grab a minute's sleep, or a bite to eat on the run. If you can put yourself in these positions, you'll get a good feel for a day in the life of a quail chick. A crop field in its second year idle-full of ragweed, partridge pea, annual weeds and bare ground-would be heaven for a quail chick, compared to the "jungle" they face in many coverts, with thick, matted ground cover and little overhead cover to shield them from a hawk! Bare ground, insects and overhead cover-produce it and they will come!

How Do I Produce Brood-Rearing Cover?

There are many techniques for producing brood-rearing cover, but the easiest is to simply fallow, or idle a piece of cropland. You probably have several unproductive field edges, or a few small fields where cropping is not profitable. Brood-rearing coverThese areas should be left idle. To maintain their value as brood-rearing cover, they should be fall-disced every other year. Discing in late winter or early spring is also effective, but it is often too wet to disc during this period. Establish a rotation so that all your brood-rearing areas are not disced during the same year. If erosion is a concern, sow the areas to winter wheat at 1/2 to 3/4 the normal rate. Weedy winter wheat stands make excellent quail chick cover.

If you are not comfortable simply letting weeds grow, disc the areas, then sow them with 5 lbs of kobe lespedeza, 5 lbs of Korean lespedeza and 2-4 lbs of partridge pea per acre in February, March or early April. This seeding rate may seem low to you; but remember, the best quail chick habitat should not be too thick. By planting at the rates described above, the result will be a good mix of planted vegetation and annual weeds-perfect chick habitat. These areas will provide good winter forage, too.

What If I Don't Have Any Cropland?

All is not lost in the absence of cropland. Though more work may be required, portions of pastures, hay fields and cutover areas can be converted to brood-rearing habitat.

On pastures and hay fields the first step is usually the eradication of fescue. Fescue's thick, matted growth form makes it unsuitable for quail broods. It also has little nutritional value and makes poor nesting and escape cover. For information on means of fescue eradication, contact one of the offices listed in this brochure, or call your county agricultural extension office.

Once the fescue is killed, begin a rotational discing or burning program. Both these techniques create bare ground and promote the annual weed growth vital to quail. Rotation is the key. One-third to one-half the available acreage should be disced or burned each year. To conserve soil, use contour discing. Use controlled burning on steep land.

Idle Field Disc Rotation

Discing is best accomplished in fall, but discing in late winter or early spring will suffice if the weather allows. Conduct burning in late winter or early spring. Again, if you do not want to simply let weeds grow, plant the areas to the lespedeza and partridge pea mixture described earlier.

In cutovers, lime and fertilize logging decks, road edges and openings; then seed them with the lespedeza and partridge pea mixture. Maintain these areas by discing them every two to three years.

Thinning a pine stand and following the thinning with an understory burn can produce some fine brood-rearing and nesting cover. Have the stand thinned heavier than normal, down to 150 trees per acre on a first thinning. A year or two after the thinning, conduct an understory burn. The resulting herbaceous plant growth provides insect-rich foraging areas for turkey poults, quail chicks and songbirds in summer and produces seeds for winter food. The burning may also help control hardwood competition.