Known simply as “quail” or “bobwhite,” the northern bobwhite can be found in every county in Missouri. Bobwhites are so named for the male’s cheery call issued from fenceposts or other elevated perches in late spring and through summer. Bobwhites are ground-nesting birds and lay clutches of a dozen or so eggs in a nest at the base of a grass clump. Chicks hatch fully feathered and mobile and immediately begin hunting insect prey, which they depend on for rapid growth. By mid-autumn, bobwhites assemble into coveys of 10 to 15 birds and generally eat seeds. Annual mortality is high, and most bobwhite young live less than a year. The quail’s high reproductive capacity counter balances this high mortality rate, and bobwhites are capable of rapid population increase when habitat conditions are favorable.
Few experiences afield match the heart-stopping thrill of a covey of quail exploding into flight. During hunting season, quail can be found in grassy or shrubby areas, especially near food sources. Bobwhites eat row crops such as corn and beans, but also readily consume wild seeds of ragweeds, sunflowers, and crotons. Areas with these cultivated and wild seed foods are good places to find quail, especially when brushy cover such as a plum thicket or brush pile is located nearby. A lightweight, fast swinging shotgun works well. Most hunters use size 7 ½ or 8 shot and an open choke.
Savvy hunters know that in order to be successful at putting quail in the bag it’s important to pick out and focus on a single bird — a difficult feat when a dozen or more take to the air at once. While not necessary for quail hunting, a good bird dog aids tremendously in finding bobwhites and adds to the enjoyment of the hunt. In fact, many quail hunters enjoy the dog work even more than the challenging shooting.
Like all wildlife, quail depend on suitable habitat to thrive. Good quail habitat consists of grassy/weedy areas for quail to nest, roost, and raise broods; well-distributed patches of brushy cover for loafing and escaping predators; abundant food resources; and enough interspersed patches of bare ground to facilitate movement and foraging. Above all, quail thrive where plant diversity is high. Large blocks of land in the same type of cover — whether row crops, grass, or brush — is rarely good quail habitat. Management practices such as prescribed burning, disking, and prescribed grazing can be used to produce and promote good quail habitat.
Bobwhites can be found on many conservation areas across the state. While many of these areas provide quail hunting opportunity, several are designated as Quail Emphasis Areas (QEAs) and are managed with quail as a main focus. Managers’ Notes from a sample of QEAs are also available. For more detailed information about an area, visit the Department’s Conservation Area Atlas.
Quail chicks must grow from the size of a bumblebee to an adult in just a few months! To support this rapid growth, they need access to lots of insects, spiders, and other invertebrates high in protein. Few bugs = few bobwhites.
Simply put, quail need lots of weed patches to be successful. Ragweed, pigweed, lambsquarters, barnyardgrass, and smartweeds are a few of the often-maligned plants favored by quail. Landowners and managers who are serious about managing their property for quail should take the following creed to heart:
I am a recovering weed hater.
I will no longer view all weeds as bad.
I will embrace weeds for the habitat they provide.
I will value my quail more than a manicured farm.
I will remember that hay fever means more quail food.
I will learn to love my weeds.
For technical assistance in providing brood habitat and other quail needs, contact your local Private Land Conservationist or visit mdc.mo.gov/node/3678.
Perhaps no bird in America has been more studied than the bobwhite. Yet for all that biologists have learned about this bird, knowledge cannot compensate for loss of habitat. Recently, the Department began a project in southwest Missouri to better understand bobwhite response to different management techniques. Recently, managers on a few conservation areas in Dade and Lawrence counties noted that quail on large, diverse grasslands initiated covey break up and nested several weeks earlier than coveys on nearby areas managed using crop strips, nesting patches, and brushy hedgerows.
Results thus far indicate that covey break up and nest initiation occur earlier on large grassland landscapes managed with prescribed fire and moderate grazing. Radio collars attached to male and female bobwhites allow researchers to locate nests and broods throughout the summer. Adult quail and their associated broods have shown a strong tendency to use moderately grazed habitat patches, and have almost totally avoided the unburned and ungrazed portions of the study areas. In addition, early results suggest that nest success may be greater on extensive grasslands under fire and grazing management regimes. Hunters who harvest a quail with an aluminum leg band or radio transmitter are asked to report it to the nearest Department office.
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