Where Have the Quail Gone?

I’ve long heard accounts of the gobbler someone’s neighbor’s friend shot that had several quail chicks in its crop. The hunter who shot this mythical bird is never named, which is just as well because spring turkey season ends well before the first quail chicks hatch, making him or her an out-of-season turkey poacher. Still, like so many “urban legends,” this one makes for good coffee shop talk because it persists in some areas.

The tale of the quail-gobbling tom springs from false conclusions drawn about very real population shifts for these two species. Until recently, the range and number of Missouri turkeys had expanded tremendously. That this expansion occurred during the same period that brought our steepest quail decline was proof enough to some that turkeys must eat quail, or at least compete with them for resources. Turkey populations have declined dramatically in parts of Missouri, largely in response to poor weather during consecutive nesting and brooding seasons, with no widespread increase in quail. Perhaps it’s time to take stock of the real reasons why quail have declined.

Bobwhite numbers peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, and then began a steady decline. The high quail numbers we once enjoyed resulted more from how we used land than from any purposeful management to favor them. The patchwork of small farm fields planted to a broad array of annual crops and forages across much of Missouri created ideal conditions for bobwhites. In times past, grazing was less intensive, burning was more common and farm boys cut sprouts with axes and sawed posts from hedgerows. The way we used the land provided a nearly ideal level of habitat disturbance for quail, cottontails and other species that need a diversity of early-successional cover.

Subtle shifts in how we manage the land have unfolded across decades. The result is a simplified landscape that lacks the patchiness quail need to thrive. Entire townships are today dominated by huge fields of soybeans and corn, or intensively grazed pasture. Consider that tall fescue, a resilient grass commonly managed such that it provides no beneficial habitat, expanded during this period to cover an estimated 17 million acres in Missouri, nearly a third of the state. Open lands and old fields have given way to woodland that provides little usable cover, and unmanaged hedgerows benefit predator over prey.

Beyond our farms, rural Missouri has been fragmented to make way for suburbs and homes on