The Evaluation of Bobwhite Quail Habitat
From time to time I receive phone calls from landowners requesting help in managing the wildlife and/or habitat on their ranch. A few months ago, I received one of those phone calls from an absentee landowner who asked me to take a look at his place in the northern Rolling Plains region of Texas and evaluate it in regards to bobwhite quail habitat. The landowner stated the property was mostly CRP with a slight amount of mature mesquite on the south end…being an absentee landowner he only spent time on the property during hunting season and had never invested in “working the land”. In regards to quail, he noted that he normally had a decent number of birds but really nothing that he felt was ever a huntable population. With 2014 being a good year for rainfall and 2015 being a bit better, if he had quail and more importantly good bobwhite quail habitat they should have really blossomed.
Now on average, a large portion of this part of the State has sustained reasonable numbers of bobwhite quail year in, year out. And on properties that are properly managed, this area can produce exceptional numbers of quail in wet years. So it begged the question, “What’s up with this ranch?”
To make a long story short, the issue was a mix of what wasn’t “up” and what was too far down. The CRP program was a game changer for many upland bird species but like ice cream too much of a good thing, isn’t good and when we are talking about managing for a bird that is only 8” to 10” tall it can be “too much” at times. The CRP on this property was old, dense, and only about 20” to 24” tall. Having never been grazed, burned, shredded, lightly disced, invaded by martians creating crop circles, or manipulated in any percentage or manner it had left this CRP a tangled mess of thick, old and new growth from the ground level up.
Now reflect back on the size of an adult quail and then consider the size of a quail chick…too much thick grass creates an environment that hinders a quail’s ability to move freely in. That and of course, makes it nearly impossible for a quail to successfully forage for seeds and insects in. As well, because of the dominate, dense grasses, forb production was almost nonexistent…forbs are an excellent food source for quail. So where are we at regarding “too much grass?” Research indicates that 30%-60% bare ground is about right to allow quail to quickly move in, around, and over vegetation to search for food. The height of the grass was just fine for nesting cover, the sprawling density was the kicker. Now for what wasn’t up.
Vertical cover is important to bobwhite quail, especially when 30%-60% of the ground should be bare. Ideal vertical cover or “loafing cover” is 10’ tall and 5’ wide with the lowest branches slightly touching the ground and up to 10” inches off the ground. This allows quail locations to quickly run under for cover, call from during the spring when they are pairing up, and when necessary, perch on branches to cool down on hot summer days. In a perfect world, loafing cover would be 60’ to 100’ in any direction in the pasture for a quail to readily use.
So how do we promote good quail habitat in this situation? Ideally by creating some form of disturbance (grazing, discing, prescribed fire, shredding, etc.) to break up the thick grasses and stimulate new growth, create some bare ground, and promote forb production. That’s the easy part, now to tackle the vertical structure issue. There are a few options. For a quick fix the landowner could selectively, throughout the pasture plant “spots – loafing cover” of tall growing grasses/forbs such as alkali sacaton, indian grass, switchgrass, big bluestem, Maximillian and common sunflower, and giant ragweed. Ideally the introduction of planting “spots” of species such as wild plum, fourwing saltbush, skunkbush sumac and even introducing prickly pear cactus would begin to create the vertical structure needed over time. The key with such plantings is to make sure the seed source is local in order to ensure healthy plants. Knowing that raptors are a major predator of quail, we want to stay away from any vertical structure (trees) that will provide perching sites for raptors to use.
For more information regarding quail management on your property feel free to contact us at Hall and Hall.