A Quail's Life

In October 2006, the Department of Conservation started a very interesting quail research project at the Davisdale and Locust Creek conservation areas in north Missouri. As a part of the study, Department biologists live-trapped and placed radio collars on several quail on both conservation areas. The picture below is of a “collared” rooster. The trapping and collars don't hurt the quail. The birds were then released, and the biologists tracked the radio-collared quail at least once a week to determine what types of habitats the birds were using.

Another part of the study had the area managers, Steven Noll at Davisdale and George Shurvington at Locust Creek, classify the entire conservation area as either nesting, brooding or escape (low-growing woody) cover. Their theory was we are doing all sorts of habitat management on conservation areas for quail, but are the birds using these places for the same reasons? For example, we are using prescribed fire and light disking to create brooding cover, but are the birds using these areas for brooding cover? Sometimes we don’t burn warm-season grass fields to provide nesting cover. Are quail nesting in these places or somewhere else?

So for two years the work teams on each conservation area tracked the collared birds (see picture below). Even during the 20 inches of snow in December 2006 and ice storms in 2007 and 2008 the crews were out tracking the birds.

What the biologists found was that the birds depended a lot on shrubby and low-growing woody cover year round and especially during the ice and snow storms. The quail preferred grasslands and old fields that had been disturbed with prescribed fire, light disking or herbicide applications within the past year or two. They also used idle cropfields, food plots and edge feathered woody draws and downed tree structures (better known as brush piles). They also liked weedy patches like the one pictured below. Here Sabe Canton, biologist at Davisdale, is tracking a radio-collared quail.

What really startled Steven and George was that the radio-collared quail preferred to nest in places they had defined as brooding cover. Remember, they had to label the entire conservation area as nesting, brooding or escape cover. Upon further investigation, they found the collared quail often nested in small patches or clumps of grass like the one pictured below. This picture is of an actual quail nest in a clump of fescue next to a dead locust sprout.

Did I just say fescue and quail?

Yep, and let me explain.

 This picture was taken in a field that was sprayed the previous fall to eradicate the fescue. While spraying the field, the biologist went around the locust sprout in the picture to avoid a flat tire. The following spring where there was dead fescue there was an overhead canopy of ragweed, foxtail and quail-friendly plants with bare ground. Amongst the dead grass were a few scattered clumps of grass (potential nesting cover) the biologists had missed when spraying. The quail sure did like the habitat structure we had created--nesting cover right in the middle of brooding cover. What we created were clumps of grass surrounded by bare ground and desirable broadleaf plants. We can create the same habitat structure--with less work--by planting native warm-season grasses and wildflowers. Remember, native warm-season grasses grow in clumps like in the picture below.

 Steven lightheartedly told me that he was really “disappointed” the quail didn't nest in the beautiful grass fields they had maintained for nesting cover and preferred to nest adjacent to or in places recently burned, lightly disked or sprayed fields. In other words, the quail were nesting in the middle or right on the edge of brooding cover.

This study helps reinforce what research has been telling us for years. We need to create lots of shrubby cover and bare ground if we want quail to survive and thrive. Both Steven and George will tell you bare ground and low-growing shrubby/woody cover were the greatest limiting factors on Davisdale and Locust Creek conservation areas and that's what they've been working to improve!

I'll be talking more about this neat research project and a similar project funded by Quail Unlimited on private land in Cass, Andrew and Osage counties. Stay tuned!