A quail's life during snow and ice storms

 The radio-collared quail at Davisdale and Locust Creek conservation areas during the severe snow and ice storms in 2006 and 2007 gave us a pretty good idea.

Extended periods of snow or ice cover can be a death ticket for quail, especially in places with poor or marginal habitat. Sometimes entire coveys can be wiped out by winter weather.

Many people think old hedgerows or timbered fence rows provide adequate cover for a covey or that a harvested crop field is a dependable food source during extended periods of winter weather. Look out across most of Missouri and that’s what you will see. The truth is timber, old mature hedgerows, fence rows and harvested crop fields should be considered poor winter habitat for bobwhites!

Mature hedge rows, fence rows and timber provide very little protective cover from the winter elements and predators. Harvested crop fields often have adequate waste grain, but during periods of ice and snow cover the fields become useless since the food is buried. Quail are unable to dig through the snow like deer or turkey. Even worse, the birds must venture out into the open to find any available food. This makes them vulnerable to predators. Landowners interested in improving their crop field edges for quail should consider edge feathering hedge rows, fence rows and timbered edges. If possible, also consider leaving a quarter acre of standing grain per 40 acres of crop field.

During nasty winter weather, quail will seek out covey headquarters such as shrub thickets, edge feathering and brush piles close to dependable food sources such as weedy food plots, unharvested grain and seedy/weedy grass fields. In 2006 and 2007 biologists found the radio-collared quail rarely ventured very far from covey headquarters or a dependable food source. At both conservation areas the coveys preferred edge feathering and downed tree structures for covey headquarters. George Shurvington, biologist at Locust Creek, also observed that a few of the coveys never left weedy food plots if there was adequate overhead protection. In 2008, we have observed similar behavior with the QU radio-collared coveys in Andrew, Cass and Osage countiesy. Below is a picture of a covey location in Andrew County after an early December snowstorm.

Need more proof that covey headquarters are essential for bobwhites? On a recent quail hunt in central Missouri after a 2-inch snowfall, we moved six coveys in about three hours of hunting. Five of the six coveys were located in edge feathering or plum thickets. The sixth covey was 20 yards away from edge feathering in a warm-season grass field that was summer burned the year before. The field is choked full of annual ragweed and annual lespedeza that’s knee high. Two days later in northwest Missouri, with 2 inches of snow on the ground, we moved five coveys. All five were in edge feathering or a patch of low growing woody cover. Not a single covey was in the great looking warm-season grass fields, food plots or woods. Here’s another example of how important covey headquarters are for bobwhites.

The other day, Steven Noll, wildlife management biologist at Davisdale, told me a story about the time when a radio-collared bird hadn’t moved from a brush pile for a few days in December 2006 after a horrible winter storm. The Davisdale work team figured the bird was probably dead and it was time to get the collar back. As the work team dug and tore apart the brush pile, they were surprised by the “brrr” of wings as a covey, including the collared quail, flushed from the pile. The covey probably wasn’t too happy when their “home” was torn apart, but not to worry, the work team had created numerous other covey headquarters throughout the field.

While all the radio-collared quail at Davisdale and Locust Creek conservation areas initially survived the snow, ice and cold weather in 2006 and 2007, many other quail on marginal and poor habitat probably didn’t fare as well. Coveys on marginal habitat probably didn’t have the luxury of having numerous covey headquarters or dependable food sources like food plots or seedy grass fields. Birds on marginal habitat most likely had to venture out into the open to feed or were exposed to the harsh winter elements.

So the next time we have another snow or ice storm or below zero temperatures, pay attention to where coveys on your farm move to. I think you will find them in covey headquarters like edge feathering, downed tree structures and shrub thickets or close to dependable food sources like weedy/seedy fields and food plots.