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Beyond the Food Patch:
A Guide to Providing Bobwhite Quail Habitat

Special Occasions: Habits, Habitat and How To

While no intimate knowledge of the bobwhite's behavior is necessary, knowing something of the bird's basic biology will help explain its needs. Important, too, is the ability to identify the cover types and conditions required for each stage of the quail's life cycle. With the bird's habits and habitat requirements in mind, the significance of recommended management practices become clear.

Nesting

Usually undertaken by an adult pair, nesting activities are shared by both sexes. Even incubation by the male is common. In a recent nesting study in Virginia, males incubated 25 percent of all clutches.

A single nesting cycle requires 47-55 days, beginning with nest site selection and nest construction. Nests are constructed on the ground in a slight depression. Construction material is typically leaves and stems of grasses and forbs. Pine needles will also serve this purpose. Nest sites are usually where a clump of grass or other suitable vegetation forms a canopy to hide the incubating bird and the eggs. Broomsedge with bare ground often serves this function. Mentioned earlier, broomsedge invaded by tall fescue loses its suitability for nesting as well as most other activities. Nests are frequently located within 50 feet of an edge or opening having bare ground, where the nesting bird can easily reach to forage or join its mate when off the nest.

Quail sketch by Spike Knuth

Eggs (the clutch) are laid at a rate of one a day. Much of the variability in the number of days required for nesting is due to clutch size. Clutches usually range from 10 to 15 eggs, but may go as high as 20. Typically the number of eggs per clutch declines with each subsequent nesting effort. During the Virginia nesting study, clutches averaged 13 eggs, ranging from nine to 19. Incubation requires 23 days.

The persistence of bobwhite hens, trying to be ultimately successful, has resulted in quail having one of the longest nesting seasons of all birds. Nesting activity begins in April and often extends into September; occasionally, even October. When nests are destroyed or abandoned before incubation is complete, hens frequently renest. Some hens, following laying, leave incubation to the male and will undertake a second nesting. This, "double clutching," also accounts for some nests still being active during late-summer.

The management implications of season length are clear: Suitable nesting cover must be available from April through September. Many attempts will fail. The greatest chance for nest success lies in the availability of season-long cover for second or third efforts.

Nesting cover

Preferred nesting cover includes a mix of erect grasses, forbs and scattered shrubs or brambles at a moderate density and height. Idle land nearing or in the old field stage, provides the cover most frequently used for nesting. Unimproved pastures (moderately grazed), filter strips, and the edges of crop fields, woods and roadways often contain the mix and density of plants quail seek for nesting. Old fields and areas with similar characteristics will continue to be used for nesting as long as a diversity of herbaceous plants dominate and the ground surface is not uniformly covered with a dense mat of vegetation. No-till row crops are sometimes used for late-season nesting.

When considering the availability of nesting cover, look for old field conditions with scattered clumps of broomsedge or other native grasses. These grasses can be good indicators of potential nesting cover, but other conditions must be considered as well. A frequent mistake is to assume that "grassland", regardless of its condition, will be selected for nesting. Although grasses are frequently used for nest construction and provide the nest canopy, a monolithic stand of densely growing grass, even broomsedge, is not desirable nesting cover. Neither are recently fallowed fields, though valuable in so many ways. These seldom have adequate grasses present.

Nesting cover management

Native warm season grasses can be used to establish or augment nesting cover. They should be planted lightly (5 lbs/Ac) unless they will be hayed or grazed. Their tall, bunch growth form offers overhead cover and openness at ground level. Unlike cool-season grasses, which are hayed at the peak of nesting, native warm-season grasses are hayed in July, allowing early nesting efforts to reach completion. Photo by Steve Capel.

Because nests are usually built of vegetation from previous years, leave some areas of older growth for this purpose unless they are absolutely too dense or littered. Preserve even marginally good nesting cover until improvements can be made if none other exists. Where the existing plant composition for nesting is satisfactory but bare ground is lacking, lightly disc the area to correct the problem. Allow the disc only to cut deep enough to "thin" the vegetation and turn up a small amount of soil. This technique also works well to disturb the soil and promote plant diversity in monolithic stands of broomsedge and other bunch-type grasses. Periodic burning will also remove ground litter and stimulate the growth of grasses and forbs.

In the absence of nesting cover, a mixture of legumes and warm- or cool-season bunch grasses can be lightly seeded. Such seedings are suitable for nesting a year or two after planting, and their attractiveness will increase as native forbs and some woody plants invade. In and around crop fields, install or expand filter strips and field borders using bunch grasses and legumes (also see Production Lands). A wide strip or a patch over an acre in size is safer nesting cover than a narrow strip, as these can more easily be hunted by predators.

Of those fields to be winter burned, locate fire lines 40-50 feet from field edges, drainages and tree lines to preserve any suitable nesting cover. The same applies when discing. Also leave some herbaceous growth for 40 or 50 feet surrounding clumps of woody plants within fields being burned or disced. In large, undisturbed fields, disc strips 20 to 30 feet wide at several hundred feet intervals to provide the nearby opening and bare ground that quail seek when selecting a nest site. Disced early in the year, sufficient regrowth will occur to provide readily available brood cover. Remember, any treatment of potential nesting cover should be done outside of the April through September nesting season.

Quail sketch by Spike Knuth

Brooding

Literally, brooding is the act of an adult quail covering its chicks with its body or wings to protect the young. Chicks are brooded throughout the night during their first few weeks. Daytime brooding occurs as needed to protect chicks from danger or the elements - cold, rain, wind, and direct sun.

Brooding also has come to mean all of the activities associated with rearing chicks during their formative weeks. Feeding is a notable example. Singularly, or as a pair, adults control their brood with low-tones of conversation as they forage, keeping the chicks close enough so all can assemble quickly if the need arises. Chicks are extremely vulnerable to the elements and predation even with the close vigilance, care and teachings of an adult. While much of a quail chick's behavior is instinctive, a great deal is also learned. By their close association with adults at this time, the chicks' brooding period is also a valuable learning period.

Brood cover

On a much-reduced scale, good brood cover can be compared to a shady, mature hardwood forest with no understory through which you could take an unobstructed walk. Brood cover should be dominated by plants having well-spaced, sturdy stems, with little foliage near the ground. Overhead foliage must be dense enough to provide sufficient cover to give chicks and adults protection from predators. (Thirty-eight percent of the adults tending broods were killed within ten days following their brood's hatch during the Virginia study.)

Bare ground also becomes an absolute essential of good brood cover. Consider that a newly hatched, quarter ounce chick doesn't reach even a full ounce until about 20 days of age. Is there any question that dense vegetation or ground litter would present a formidable and potentially fatal obstruction?

The ideal combination of bare ground and legumes offers this chick what it needs to quickly fill its crop with an insect meal. The legumes attract an abundance of insects and the bare ground between plants allows unhindered movement to capture insects.

Along with providing protection and ease of movement, good brood cover contains an abundance of insects. For this reason, the terms "brooding" and "bugging" are sometimes used interchangeably. Though some weed seeds and greens are eaten, insects provide far greater protein, a necessity for chicks to develop rapidly. Eighty to 95 percent of a chick's diet consists of insects during its first 15 to 20 days. The amount of food items needed is voluminous and often requires hours of foraging. Brood cover that has an abundance of small insects, and is open enough for chicks to pursue and capture them reduces forging time and the vulnerability of chicks and adults to the danger and rigors of prolonged feeding.

Brood cover management

One of the best and cheapest ways to establish brood cover is discing to encourage annual weeds and allowing these areas to remain fallow. Disc in the fall or early spring to allow the weeds to be well emerged by early summer. Burning will also improve an area for brooding by removing excess old growth and plant litter. The new growth that follows discing or burning also contributes to high insect populations. Tender new plants, particularly legumes, are far more attractive to insects than old or dead vegetation.

Row crops, small grain, or recently planted bunch grasses also can provide brood cover once they are tall enough to give overhead concealment. Lightly seeded food strips are also excellent brood strips, a value of annual food plantings that probably exceeds their value as a winter food source. Leave food plots fallow the second year for even better brood cover. Seedings of partridge pea or Korean lespedeza provide excellent brood cover and will help meet fall and winter food requirements. Lightly seeded clover strips are good for attracting small insects. Because quality brooding areas are vital to the immediate survival of newly hatched chicks, attempt to locate brood and nesting cover side by side (juxtaposed).

Additional information about brooding and brood cover is given in the VDGIF publication, Providing for Quail Broods, also available at Department offices.

Feeding

Typically, quail have two daily feeding periods: one beginning at daylight and continuing for several hours, the second beginning during mid-afternoon and continuing until roosting. Abundance and food item size influence the length of feeding periods. Adverse weather alters both the length and timing of feeding periods, as will disturbances, particularly those serious enough to cause the birds to flush. Birds that have been flushed may miss a meal entirely.

Quail take practically all their food from or within eight inches of the ground's surface. Bobwhites are not strong scratchers and are incapable of reaching food tha is buried in the soil or a heavy accumulation of litter.

Fortunately the list of food items taken by quail is extremely long. Various studies of fall and winter bobwhite food habits show seeds of native or naturalized forbs are those most frequently consumed. Of the various plant classes, the seeds of legumes are eaten in the largest amounts and greatest variety. A partial list of the more important naturally occurring plants that produce seeds consumed by bobwhites is shown on Table 2. There are many others.

Table 2. Naturally Occurring Plants Improtant to Quail for Food
Common name Scientific name Legumes (L)
Annual lespedezas:
Korean lespedeza
Common lespedeza
(variety, Kobe)
Lespedeza stipulacea
Lespedeza striata
(L)
(L)
Beggarweeds or
tick trefoils
Desmodium spp. (L)
Ragweeds Ambrosia spp.
Partridge peas Cassia spp. (L)
Bush clovers Lespedeza spp. (L)
Oaks Quercus spp.
Pines Pinus spp.
Sweet gum Liquidambar styraciflua
Dogwoods Cornus spp.
Honeysuckle Lonicera japonica
Panic grasses Panicum spp.
Crab grass Digitaria spp.
Source: Bobwhite Quail Food Habits, Tall Timbers misc. publication #4,
by Landers and Johnson

Though not often reported from past food habit studies, pokeweed seed frequently appears in the crops of quail using clearcuts. Greens are an important spring and summer food, and a supplement during fall and winter. Soft fruits, as they ripen, are seasonally important, as are agronomic grains left standing or spilled during harvest. Though to a lesser degree than chicks, juvenile and adult quail frequently include insects in their diet. Insects make up about 15% of a quail's total annual food consumption.

Feeding cover

For fall and winter feeding, idle lands in the fallow stage (brood range revisited) are among the best, having the ground and cover conditions needed, and usually, an array of seed producing annual forbs. Old fields also provide suitable feeding areas if there is not too much litter. Food items found in old fields include perennial forbs and fruit bearing woody plants. Some of the more utilized grass seeds, those of panic, crab and foxtail grasses also will be present in old fields. The mast of pioneer tree species, including dogwood and sassafras, provide another source of food in old fields and fencerows. The seeds of mature pines, sweet gum and oaks are important food items occurring in woodland. Sweet gum produces a small, winged seed that is released from its spiny "gum ball." Seed of the oaks, when taken by quail, are typically acorn fragments left by other animals or crushed by vehicles.

Quail sketch by Spike Knuth

Harvested grain fields are frequently used for feeding. The greatest use of these occurs where enough stubble remains to provide some protection while gleaning. Quail occasionally venture into open cropland to feed, such as a closely cropped bean field or newly planted small grain, but nearby protective cover is a must.

Feeding cover management

A variety of choices and good distribution should be the goal when managing the "food court." Preserving or encouraging important native food producers is the best and cheapest way of providing a diverse selection of foods. Learning to recognize these plants, even investing in a native plant identification guide, are time and money well spent.

How do you encourage native species? DISC! DISC! DISC! A bank of dormant seeds lies at or just beneath the ground's surface. Soil disturbance by discing will cause these to germinate. Discing, particularly in the fall, frequently encourages ragweed, one of the most important foods taken by quail. Additionally, by discing, seeds with a hard outer surface will be scratched, or scarified, allowing them to sprout. Allow disced native food strips to remain fallow for two or three years and then rejuvenate with another discing.

Fire also induces dormant seeds to germinate. By burning, competition is reduced and seeds suspended in a layer of duff can reach the soil. As with discing, fire also will scarify hard-coated seeds.

Plantings to supplement the winter supply of food have probably been used more frequently and over a longer period than any other habitat enhancement. These plantings have been called food patches, food plots or food strips. The latter best describes the configuration that will provide the greatest benefit to quail. Long, narrow strips make these far more accessible than a configuration that might be described as a patch or plot. Increased edge and excellent travel lanes are added benefits of making food plantings in lengthy strips. Food strips should be 15-20 feet wide and closely parallel vegetation that is suitable for escape.

There is no need to work and plant the same strip annually. Where there is room, prepare and seed a new strip adjoining and parallel to that worked the previous year. Move over to new ground again the third year. In the fourth year, rework the first year's strip and continue this rotation. Strips left fallow from previous years may, or may not, produce a volunteer crop from the earlier seeding but will grow an array of annual weeds. In either event, seed production and feeding conditions will generally remain good for three years, and with such a rotation, both cultivated and native foods will be available.

While there are numerous good choices among the seed species that can be planted, probably none have the well-deserved reputation of the annual lespedezas-Korean and common. The seed produced by these have been recognized as a favorite bobwhite food for years. Common lespedeza (the major variety is Kobe) is better for planting in the Coastal Plain. In the Piedmont and mountains, Korean is better suited. Neither competes well with aggressive plants, but are otherwise capable of growing under most conditions, even poor soils. Though Korean and Kobe are annuals, their ability to persistently reseed gives them a perennial quality. (Sericia lespedeza, frequently recommended for wildlife planting in the past, has little value for quail. Its food value is poor and more desirable plantings can be made for cover.) Partridge pea is another well-known bobwhite favorite, which reseeds itself well. Reseeding of both annual lespedeza and partridge pea can be encouraged with the help of an occasional light discing. Grain sorghum, buckwheat and soybeans-if deer are not too numerous-are other good choices for food strips. Appendix A gives suggested planting rates and times for those species mentioned, plus other recommended seedings.

Roosting

Quail sketch by Spike Knuth

Beyond revealing that there are quail using an area, evidenced by piles of small white-capped droppings, roosting is a major activity that otherwise receives little attention. It deserves more.

Quail generally roost on the ground in open sites throughout the year except during severe wind or precipitation. They may roost alone or in pair, but most commonly roost in a disc formation when their numbers permit. Like the spokes of a wheel, each member of the disc positions itself with its tail towards the center and head outward. Roosting in this fashion is a social behavior, but during cold weather, is also an aid to survival. Such a formation allows each member to benefit from the body heat of others. Temperature within the disc is regulated by how tightly the birds huddle together. Wings are spread, as needed, to create a cover to seal the disc from heat loss. The most effective discs for conserving heat are formed by seven (These are "The Magnificent Seven" when considering how many birds to leave when hunting.) to fifteen quail. With too few birds, the disc will have gaps between the spokes; too many birds will cause a hole at the hub. Large coveys will often form two roosting discs.

Roosting cover

Roosting is probably the only bobwhite activity where dense overhead cover is usually not required. This has been shown from reports of the use of wheat stubble, recently burned areas and harvested bean fields for roosting. Apparently the birds' camouflage and motionless state while roosting eliminate the need for cover overhead. The open skyward view also allows the birds to flush unobstructed during darkness if necessary. Roost sites are most often on bare ground or have only slight duff. A bare surface retains heat absorbed during the day and thus provides a warmer roosting site to begin the evening. For the same reason roosts are often located on a south or southwest slope where the afternoon sun is direct and has warmed the ground. Quail prefer mid-slope or lower elevations for roosting, presumably to avoid the winds occurring closer to a crest.

During severe weather, roosts will usually be located in thick cover to protect them from wind, heavy rain or snow. Dense honeysuckle is often selected for roosting during severe weather conditions.

Roosting cover management

Examine locations described, those well drained with southerly aspects and below a hill crest, when considering suitable sites for night roosting. If the cover is short, sparse and has little or no duff, preserve such areas as long as these conditions prevail. Burning or discing will enhance conditions for roosting. Whenever possible, allow crop stubble to remain throughout winter. Small grain stubble, particularly that invaded by some annual weeds or grass, can be especially attractive roosting cover during moderate weather. For roosting during inclement weather, cover requirements will be met within cover suitable for escape.

Escape cover is essential to all quail habitats. Dense, woody vegetation must be close to feeding and loafing cover to enable coveys to quickly run or fly at the sign of approaching danger.

Escape

In his recording of, "There's Nothing I Can Do About it Now," Willie Nelson sings that he, "survived every situation by knowing when to freeze and when to run." There is probably not a day in its life when a quail is not faced with this decision and with survival at stake. Unfortunately, even with their added option to fly, bobwhite survival is not assured in every situation.

Freezing, remaining absolutely motionless, is the traditional and most dependable tactic bobwhites use for escape. By freezing, and with the help of their well-suited camouflage (except on snow), quail can frequently avoid detection. Quail may freeze wherever they are, even in the open if there is no time to safely move to more secure cover. This, however, is rare. More often they will stay beneath concealing vegetation or near that to which they can quickly run and then freeze. Flying is usually their last resort. However, some "educated" coveys may run or fly in advance of the approach of a danger that they have learned to recognize, including dogs and hunters.

Escape cover

To a degree, any concealing vegetation can serve as escape cover. More often, though, escape cover implies dense cover, usually a thicket combining trees, brush and vines. This type of cover is an absolute requirement within a covey's winter range. The tendency for flushed quail to fly into woods or a tree line, indicates that some tall vertical structure (trees or tall shrubs) should accompany the dense, viny understory. Honeysuckle is often a major component of escape cover. The value of honeysuckle and other vines is greatest when shrubs or trees support their growth. This allows quail to freely move beneath the vines. Blackberry thickets also form an excellent canopy under which the birds can easily move. Quail often use these to distance themselves from danger, then flush from the far side if necessary. Blackberry, however, does not offer the concealment of honeysuckle's persistent, year round foliage.

Escape cover management

Quail sketch by Spike Knuth

Good escape cover develops slowly, sometimes taking years of growth. Preserve existing areas that are suitable for this purpose. Fire should usually be excluded. Good escape cover should be the centerpiece of other habitat components. Where this type of cover is absent or additional is needed, it can be established in several ways. One is to totally ignore certain areas and let nature take its course. Most existing escape cover has developed in this manner. Good escape cover can be developed along fence lines, drainages and woodland edges, where full sunlight encourages the rank growth required. For natural escape cover to develop more quickly, destroy any grass sod to hasten weedy and, eventually, viny and woody growth. Brush piles, particularly those that have become vine covered, can enhance otherwise good escape cover. Brush piles should be supported by hinge-cut trees or logs large enough to keep them open for passage at the ground. Other ways to provide escape cover include shrub plantings of hedgerows and field borders, and cutback edges, previously discussed in the techniques section.

Covey headquarters

Usually an element of escape cover is a covey's headquarters. These areas are occupied during mid-day for loafing and dusting, and for protection and roosting during severe weather. Small wood lots with a dense understory or a finger of woodland extending into openings will sometimes serve as winter headquarters. Within crop fields, outcroppings of trees with a brushy cover beneath also will be used for this purpose. With a dependable food supply nearby, and without undue disturbance, these areas will be used for extended periods. Headquarters of different coveys are rarely, if ever, shared and tend to be well separated.

Dusting

Essential to its well being, and one that it appears to enjoy, is the quail's habit of dusting. A depression, or dusting bowl, is scratched and pecked free of vegetation and the soil finely ground three or four inches deep. When dusting, quail immerse their breasts in the bowl and throw dust across their backs with their beaks and feet. Several birds will sometimes enter the bath together and shower one another with dust. During rainy periods, dust baths are sometimes located under the elevated portion of a downed log. As long as there has otherwise been some recent soil disturbance throughout the area, no further effort need be made to provide dusting sites.


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.