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Managing Quail Habitat

by Frank araGona

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fter HMI’s very successful and exciting Cows and Quail workshop in Van Horn Texas this July, I’ve learned a lot about quail and their habitat requirements. Dr. Dale Rollins is a quail specialist and was a designated facilitator during the two-day workshop. Much of the information in this article comes directly from Dr. Rollins’ experience and expertise. There are many quail species in North America, but for the purposes of the Cows and Quail workshop we were primarily focused on two species: Bobwhite Quail and Scaled Quail. The Northern Bobwhite Quail is a species found throughout North America, and there are 21 recognized subspecies, the majority of which are found in the United States or Northern Mexico. Scaled Quail are confined mostly to the Southwestern United States, with their range extending into Central Mexico. A major focus of our workshop was learning about the varied habitat requirements of different wildlife species. Along with the two species of quail described above, we also learned about the habitat requirements of pronghorn, big horn sheep, and mule deer. In broad terms, many wildlife species require similar things to thrive. We chose to focus on the basics in our workshop: food, water, cover, and home range.

■ Food: Quail are omnivores; they will eat a

diversity of plants and insects to meet their daily nutritional requirements. In terms of vegetation, quail rely heavily on forbs, herbaceous flowering plants that are not grasses. Forbs, therefore, are an excellent indicator of the suitability of an area to support a healthy quail population. Insects are also a good food source for quail; therefore, it is critical to have diverse vegetation, both in terms of species diversity and geometric growth form, to support large numbers of insects that are accessible to ground dwelling birds. Dr. Rollins showed us a brief field video that demonstrated the great diversity of insects that are found in a strip of sunflowers that colonized an area that was disked for this purpose. ■ Water: Water should be available at a

distance of half a mile between water points. GIS maps can be used as a land planning tool to determine areas where water is scarce, which may help to make decisions as water development progresses on the landscape. Many ranchers modify troughs and watering points to accommodate ground dwelling birds like quail. This is done by adding ramps both on the exterior and interior of a trough. The exterior ramp allows the quail to get up to the trough to get a drink, and the interior ramp gives the birds an exit if they should fall in or if they are unable to reach the water from the top.

distance of approximately every 50 yards. Bobwhites require the same sized brush, but at 5 to 25% of the land area and at distance of every 25 yards. As a species that is restricted primarily to arid rangelands, Scaled Quail have limited needs for dense grass cover. Sparse bunch grasses and forbs should provide sufficient grass cover for Scaled Quail, but Bobwhites require basketball sized bunchgrasses and annual forbs at somewhat higher densities. One key challenge for land managers in arid environments is maintaining adequate grass cover in grazed areas. Several strategies exist to deal with this challenge. One simple strategy is to lower your stocking rate. And while this is a simple strategy, it is likely a big decision for most producers and should be approached with careful deliberation. First and foremost, the manager must weigh the cost of doing so with the potential gains from additional hunting revenues. Grazing planning is another useful way to manage grass cover. As most readers know, one useful outcome of a well developed grazing plan is the ability to control residual forage. Consider shortening your grazing periods and/or lengthening your recovery periods to allow for full sufficient grass

■ Cover: Quail also require cover, which they use for a number of different purposes: protection from predators, nesting, feeding, and sleeping. Here is where there are some subtle but important differences between Bobwhite and Scaled Quail. Scaled require scattered brush cover, about the size of a pickup truck, at 5 to 15% of the land area with a 6 IN PRACTICE

September / october 2012

coverage. Monitor the results of your planning on the landscape as you go. In moist environments, grass cover can become too thick for quail, which can restrict mobility thereby decreasing habitat suitability. In this situation, it is much easier to use grazing and animal impact as a tool to improve ecosystem geometry. Design your grazing plan to allow for adequate residual cover, and also manage stock density such that some of the residual cover is trampled to the ground, which will free up some space while improving the water and mineral cycle. ■ Home Range: Finally, be aware of the habitat and range size of quail. In general, quail are less mobile than most other wildlife species. Quail have been known to move large distances, sometimes as much as 20 miles or greater; the reasons for this are unknown. Fortunately, quail generally like to stay in a fairly small home range. In the case of Bobwhite, the home range is generally 20 to 50 acres in size, while the Scaled home range is between 80 and 300 acres in size. If your ranch or farm is smaller than this yet still home to quail populations, consider including your neighbors in some of your planning exercises. What they do will also affect the hunting and wildlife value of your property. If your ranch is large enough to accommodate quail, take a look at your land plan and consider if you are allowing for connected corridors of habitat to allow quail populations to intermingle and move naturally across the landscape. In conclusion, cows and quail can cohabitate the same environment, and both can thrive. In arid environments, managers must be careful not to damage the grass cover that quail require. In higher rainfall areas, cattle and other domestic livestock are a useful tool for managing the landscape towards the unique requirements of ground dwelling quail. As always, plan accordingly and monitor your results.

This is a quail-eye view of the kind of cover and food source that makes up good quail habitat.


#145, In Practice, Sept/Oct 2012