Quail Forever 2017 Winter Habitat Report

ef92b1a3-8ea7-472d-a07b-64144810ac47 This past season, a few states—such as Texas, Iowa and Nebraska—saw some of their best quail hunting in years, if not ever, while other regions like Kentucky and Tennessee hoped winter might provide the right environment to sustain populations, while also creating suitable nesting conditions to build up next year’s numbers. For the most part, winter obliged several regions and biologists remain optimistic, though some states—Washington, for example—received seemingly endless amounts of snowfall, which could adversely affect overwinter survival.
Experts are quick to note, however, that with the right spring weather, all that excess moisture could serve as a boon to quail, since it creates substantial grass and forb growth for cover and produces insects necessary for brood survival. Still, habitat availability continues to play a crucial role throughout the nation’s quail range. Partnering with Farm Bill biologists and increasing their collaborative effort with Quail Forever and private landowners, states like Arizona and Virginia for example, have noticed a difference in populations and hunter harvests. Below is a state-by-state list reporting how quail populations are faring following this past winter. 



Hunter questionnaires in Arizona have not been sent out for the past season but experts are anticipating reduced hunter harvest and effort for desert quail (Gambel’s and scaled) this past season. However, Arizona received advantageous winter precipitation for their desert quail, which should translate to better opportunities during the 2017-2018 season, according to small game program manager Wade Zarlingo.
“It is too early to look at Montezuma (Mearns) quail based on summer precipitation,” Zarlingo said, “but winter temperatures and snowpack should not have negatively impacted breeding populations.” Mearns quail are much more dependent on summer precipitation, but populations have a negative correlation with heavy September moisture. 
Depending on timing and intensity, early spring rains in Arizona could benefit desert quail. “With populations of desert quail being very depressed in recent years, it may take multiple years with good precipitation patterns to see populations rebound substantially,” Zarlingo said, “but localized pockets should see quick responses.”
In partnership with Quail Forever and Pheasants Forever, there will be two new Farm Bill Biologist positions in Arizona. The positions will provide Farm Bill program technical assistance and broad-based conservation program funding to landowners, while also helping improve wildlife habitat on Arizona Game and Fish Department-owned properties. Additionally, they will work with local Quail Forever chapters to provide assistance with quail management and monitoring needs in Arizona.
Arizona Game and Fish Department is working with private landowners and multiple other partners to restore grassland in southern Arizona for scaled quail. To date, 3,550 acres have been restored with an additional 1,285 planned this year.


California witnessed a very wet winter, with precipitation well above the average. Portions of the Great Valley, which provide upland habitat, were flooded in January. “Fortunately, this rain also stimulated the growth of grass and forb species,” said upland game bird biologist Katherine Miller, “which should provide plenty of cover as we enter the breeding season.”
We hope to see occasional rain showers through March and April to further improve vegetation growth for food and cover, and to improve the abundance of insects, critical to the diet of females and young birds.


Though Colorado experienced no serious winter weather patterns worthy of concern, habitat conditions remain dry, which could affect nesting cover development. “Ideal conditions are spring snow or rain that recharges soil moisture,” said small game manager Ed Gorman, “which is key to development of nesting and early brood cover. Regular rainfall in summer maintains brood habitat and results in good winter security cover.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife partnered with Pheasants Forever chapters to initiate “Corners for Conservation” in 2016. The program continues through 2017 and will create habitat on sprinkler “pivot” corners, which opens them to public hunting access through Colorado’s Walk-In Access Program. Eight-four corners were seeded in 2016, and 120 are on tap for 2017.
“Our [quail] outlook is good, but precipitation will be necessary as we move into nesting and brooding season,” Gorman said.


In general, Florida experienced unseasonably warm weather throughout winter months. The state also observed tremendous shifts in moisture, from bouts of excessive rainfall to periods of little to no rainfall. “Of course, this resulted in difficult hunting conditions, said northern bobwhite coordinator Greg Hagan. “On the plus side, it helped in maintaining abundant cover, food resources, and over-winter survival.”                  
Unfortunately, dry and unfavorable conditions currently exist across a large portion of the Florida. “This has the potential to impact habitat management activities such a prescribe burning,” Hagan said. “In Florida, prescribed fire is the key to producing quality bobwhite habitat, including good summer brood habitat.”
Florida continues to provide numerous hunting opportunities on public land throughout the state where bobwhites are featured and management efforts have been increased. Over the past several years, bird numbers have steadily increased on these properties. “With the potential of good over-winter survival, birds are well positioned going into the breeding season,” Hagan said. “However, if drought conditions continue, it could negatively impact nesting and brood success.”


Last year’s abundant quail population in Idaho produced excellent hunting opportunities, and, for the most part, hunters were pleased with what they were seeing afield. Anecdotal reports for the 2016-2017 season suggest quail populations were similar to or above 2015-16.
However, winter conditions across the state were quite severe with cold temperatures and above average snow. Eastern Idaho was hit particularly hard with well above average snowfall. “Extended periods of cold temperatures and deep snow likely negatively impacted pheasant and quail populations, particularly in eastern Idaho,” said upland game and migratory bird coordinator Jeff Knetter. “However, snow levels likely pushed birds to lower elevations where food was more abundant. Additionally, snow depths limited hunter access to birds. Those birds that made it through January should fare pretty well this spring.”
Given the winter precipitation levels received, Knetter expects abundant vegetative growth, which he hopes will translate to excellent nesting and brood-rearing conditions. “Ideally, spring temperatures and consistent precipitation will occur without persistent drying and increased temperatures as we enter spring and summer conditions,” he said. “Cool, wet weather during the hatching period—mid-May to mid-June—is extremely detrimental to game bird populations in Idaho.”
Idaho had a 36 percent acceptance rate during the last general CRP sign-up (49). “Due to this low acceptance rate, we are seeing an increased interest by landowners in our two SAFE projects (Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and western game birds),” Knetter said. “Staff biologists continue to work with landowners to find options to keep habitat on the ground.”


The long-term quail populations continue to decline—minus 5 percent per year—across much of Illinois due to habitat loss, both quality and quantity, and changes in land use. Areas with active management and quality habitat still have quail, but more needs to be done to stabilize quail populations across the state according to agriculture and grassland program manager Stan McTaggart.
Illinois’s winter was warmer and drier than average. Temperatures across the state were 5 degrees above normal from November through February. The state received 3.4 inches below normal precipitation, meaning quail should have fared pretty well. “There was some freezing rain and ice accumulation across central Illinois in late December,” McTaggart said, “but it didn’t last very long and should not have hurt populations.
“I’d like to see ‘average’ conditions with seasonal temperatures and normal precipitation,” McTaggart said. “If we can avoid the extremes for temperature and precipitation, it will be beneficial for pheasant and other species of grassland birds and wildlife.”
Illinois was allocated an additional 15,000 acres for the State Acres for Wildlife (SAFE – CP38) practice. This practice targets grassland birds in priority areas of the Grand Prairie Natural Division. In December 2016, Illinois also had over 85,000 acres enrolled in USDA’s Pollinator Habitat (CP42) practice. These acres target grassland and shrub-land birds like the ring-necked pheasant and northern bobwhite in priority areas in the Grand Prairie or Southern Till Plain Natural Divisions. Illinois residents can contact their local FSA/NRCS Office for more information on areas eligible for the Pollinator Habitat or SAFE practices of CRP.


Iowa harvest figures were an 8-year high for quail in 2015. The number of hunters afield increased and so did the amount of bagged birds. Though no official data will be available until late May, upland wildlife research biologist Todd Bogenschutz expects that 2016 figures will even likely surpass the exceptional numbers seen the previous year.
The northwest and north-central regions of the state received above-average snowfall through the end of February. The northeast and west-central saw normal amounts of snow, while snowfall for the remainder of the state was well below normal. As a result, Bogenshutz anticipates above-normal overwinter survival in the central and east-central portions of the state and normal to perhaps slightly below normal in other regions. 
A warm and dry spring would be ideal to continue the increase we've seen in both pheasant and quail populations the last several years,” Bogenshutz said. “Barring no severe late spring blizzards and a good nesting season, pheasant and quail populations should continue to rebound in Iowa.”
The state’s new Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP) was very successful in 2016 with all grant funds obligated. Approximately 23,000-plus acres of private land CRP are being managed for wildlife and open to public hunting. Iowa recently received an extra allocation of CRP (115,000 acres) for State Acres For wildlife Enhancement (SAFE - CP38) in January and all acres were enrolled last week. “There is a lot of demand for CRP in Iowa,” Bogenshutz said.


Wildfires swept across much of Kansas in March, burning nearly 1 million acres. Upland birds can overcome losses from such fires. Also, removal of invasive trees can be a positive to birds in the long-term; however, according to small game specialist Jeff Prendergast, recovery from the wildfire this year will be reliant on adequate rainfall to stimulate regrowth and establish cover going into the spring.
Hunter surveys are still in progress but preliminary numbers indicate there were more pheasant and quail hunters, as well as higher harvest figures, this year compared to last. Additionally, spring counts of quail are expected to increase given the good production last year with no major winter storms to cause range wide mortality.
Kansas is far enough south that winter weather rarely impacts their pheasant populations, although long-lasting heavy snow or ice has been known to impact quail. Kansas had a relatively mild winter with almost no measurable snowfall across the state. In Mid-January, there was a heavy ice storm through much of south-central and southwest Kansas. “This storm may have caused some direct mortality of quail in areas of suboptimal cover but warming conditions quickly melted the ice and largescale impacts were unlikely,” Prendergast said.
The western half of the state would greatly benefit from spring precipitation over the next 2 months to recharge soil moisture and produce the needed vegetation for production. Currently, nearly 70 percent of the state is registering on the drought monitor as abnormally dry or worse. This includes areas of southwest Kansas that had some of the greatest densities of both pheasants and quail.


Kentucky is still suffering statewide declines, though there has been some bobwhite recovery in areas with good habitat. In these particular areas, habitat management is essential in order to maintain strong numbers. The Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife continues to work on ways to facilitate better management on private lands. The Green River CREP in south-central Kentucky remains the highest priority for widespread habitat management favoring bobwhites.
Field reports indicated a poor quail hunting season overall, according to upland game biologist John Morgan. “The excessively wet summer likely limited reproductive output making hunting difficult,” he said. However, Kentucky had an exceptionally mild winter, meaning birds should be in fantastic condition for the reproductive season and overwinter survival should be extremely high.
“We are hopeful for just a nice, average summer,” Morgan said. Well-spaced rain events that avoid extreme deluges in the 2-plus-inch category during primary nesting period, which runs from June through mid-August, are also important for population success.
“We are working towards the establishment of a few new focus areas,” Morgan said. “At least one in east Kentucky focusing on bobwhite and elk habitat. We hope to recruit new partners on public property to expand our work as well.”


Statewide, quail populations remain low in Mississippi, with the greatest limiting factor being a lack of large-scale, quality habitat. Quail harvest numbers, indicated by Wildlife Management Area data available, were lower than last year but similar to the prior two seasons. Additionally, harvest per days hunted was less this past season, though that may be the result of warm weather and good acorn crop during winter, which likely decreased hunting success according to small game biologist Rick Hamrick.
“Our winter was very mild—quite warm at times—and relatively dry,” he said. “These conditions would be expected to generally favor overwinter quail survival where suitable cover was available.”
Hamrick believes moderate, sustained rainfall throughout the spring and summer would help maintain good vegetation quality and insect populations. “Weather outlooks point to a warmer than average summer with about an equal chance of rainfall being average or below average,” he said. “It will be a wait and see outcome for this summer, but if temperatures stay moderate into early summer, conditions could be good for the early part of the nesting season.”


Mild winter weather conditions prevailed throughout the Missouri, with only a little snow and a couple weeks of very cold temperatures. Such conditions should provide for good carryover in quail populations in areas of quality habitat, according to small game coordinator Dave Hoover. “Even areas of fair habitat should experience better than average winter carryover,” he said.
“Average spring and summer precipitation with seasonable temperatures should enable quail reproduction to show modest gains in areas with quality habitat,” Hoover said. “As always, areas with enough quality habitat with aggressive and sustained management should continue to experience respectable quail numbers.”
The Missouri Department of Conservation is entering its fourth year of a 5-year study to evaluate quail population response to differing habitat management approaches. Additionally, a 2-year study of quail brood habitat use is being initiated to gain additional information that can hopefully be applied to public land management and recommendations for private land management.


Winter in Nebraska was mild, with below average snowfall in most parts of the state according to upland game program manager Dr. Jeffrey Lusk. “There were a few locally severe snow storms, but these were usually short lived,” he said. “However, some of these storms might have created inhospitable conditions for quail in the short term.”
This past Nebraska season was among the best in the past 15- to 20 years based on Lusk’s personal experience and reports from avid quail hunters. “If weather conditions are optimal and there are no density dependent effects on production, the bobwhite population should increase or remain steady,” Lusk said.


Nesting conditions and brood habitat conditions should be the best they have been in the last 10 years in Nevada, according to upland game staff biologist Shawn Espinosa. “Production for California, mountain and Gambel’s quail should be good to excellent this year,” he said.
Most northern Nevada mountains ranges occupied by California quail experienced 150 to 200 percent of average snowpack and precipitation receipts even greater than those figures. “This likely resulted in some winter mortality;” Espinosa said, “however, lower elevations of those mountain ranges were relatively open and snow free. This situation allowed birds to access food sources that would have otherwise been covered. Within northwestern Nevada valleys that are agriculturally developed, we expect that California quail did fairly well, as these low elevation areas did not experience a lasting snow pack, nor did they experience cold temperature for very long periods.”
The conclusion of winter in Nevada brought about warming temperatures and a significant response in the vegetation community in terms of new forb growth and developing grasses. “This situation, along with resultant insect response, should favor quail nest and brood success,” Espinosa said. “Ideally, intermittent spring rainfall through early May would provide the greatest benefits for upland game bird species in general.”
The Nevada Department of Wildlife is currently attempting a pilot program to assist private landowners with providing habitat for various upland game species. The program remains in its infancy, though Nevada anticipates implementing projects in the fall of 2017.

New Mexico

November and December were fairly dry in New Mexico, followed by some precipitation in January and February. “There were no major snowstorms that seemed to drastically increase winter mortality, so there should be a good number of birds entering the next breeding season,” said resident game bird biologist Casey Cardinal. “It has been a dry March, with below-normal precipitation across much of the eastern part of the state. This could negatively affect breeding and brood rearing habitats for an area that has had good production over the last few years.”
Cardinal is hoping for average to above-average precipitation from April to July in order to boost grass production, which creates good nesting habitat and forb growth during brood rearing. “If we pick up precipitation this spring and summer, it could be another good hunting year for quail in the southeast,” she said, “and populations may rebound where there was below average production last year.”


Quail hunter participation and success have both been very low in Ohio recently, according to wildlife biologist Mark Wiley. Quail populations persist in approximately 20 of Ohio’s 88 counties and, with few exceptions, numbers will remain low across this range. Ohio’s quail experience very low survival during extended periods of inclement winter weather. Fortunately, this past winter was mild, with only a few short bouts of snow, ice, and cold temperatures throughout the state. 
“Mild temperatures with moderate amounts of precipitation would be ideal nesting conditions,” Wiley said. “Generally, any major deviations from the norm—for example, extreme cold or severe rain—are likely to negatively affect reproduction.”
Quail SAFE (State Acres For wildlife Enhancement) is a new opportunity for many landowners within the quail range in southwest Ohio. This practice is designed to provide quail with important cover types for nesting, brood-rearing, and protection from winter weather and predators. Habitat work continues on Fallsville Quail Heritage Area in Highland County


Winter conditions in Oklahoma winter were fairly mild, though one ice storm likely claimed a few birds according to upland game biologist Derek Wiley. Ice did not cover the ground long enough to cause severe damage to quail populations. However, fires across northwestern Oklahoma have the state concerned for quail, pheasants and prairie chickens. “With a little rainfall, bird populations up there should bounce back nicely,” Wiley said. 
“A cool, wet spring and summer, similar to what we have had the last couple of years, would be ideal for production,” Wiley said. “Provided a little moisture, we should see excellent population numbers heading into breeding season and, provided an average to above-average hatch, we should have good recruitment for the fall.”


Winter temperatures in Oregon varied from normal to colder than average with normal or above normal precipitation. Northeast Oregon experienced deep snow, which persisted all winter, so upland game bird coordinator Dave Budeau expects overwinter survival will likely be lower than average in that region. However, there is some good news: “Above average precipitation and snow pack throughout eastern Oregon should result in some of the best habitat conditions in many years,” he said.
Ample snowfall limited hunter access during the late season, according to Budeau, which contributed to lower harvest rates—overall an approximate 20 percent decrease from the previous season for both mountain and California quail.         
Still, normal precipitation through most of April in Oregon, with warmer temperatures and a lack of significant cold precipitation during peak hatch in May and early June, could result in optimum reproductive conditions, according to Budeau. “With increased winter precipitation and snow pack, increased grass and forb growth and insect abundance is expected,” he said, “which should benefit nesting and brood survival.”

South Carolina

Prior to Hurricane Mathew, brood surveys had indicated a very productive summer for the quail population in the coastal plain region of South Carolina. However, hurricane flooding in October of 2016 impacted quail in the coastal plain, and there were a significant number of birds killed and a reduction in hunter participation in this area. This was the second consecutive year of localized flooding for this portion of the state. Across the rest of the state, the bird population remained stable according to small game manager leader Michael Hook.
“Apart from the flooding in the coastal plain of South Carolina in October, this past winter was relatively mild with little to no adverse conditions to stress the quail populations,” Hook said. “An early spring may provide extra benefits to the quail that have made it through the winter.”
South Carolina has received an early spring and Hook hopes to see continued mild weather for the next few months and during the summer “I would hope to see timely rains that will provide good brood rearing conditions,” he said. “After 2 years of historic flooding in the late summer or early fall, I would like to see the quail not have to face those types of conditions for the third year in a row.”
The SC Bobwhite Initiative continues to gather momentum. Last summer was the first year of habitat work and monitoring on the focal areas within the state and folks are starting to get excited about seeing the work nearing completion. Many private landowners are getting involved in the focal regions and making great strides with the habitat and bird populations on their land with the help of the new Quail Forever Biologist, Jordan Nanney, and two new farm bill biologists. 
“Hopefully the quail will continue the recent trend of good hatches and we will continue to see a slight uptick in our survey numbers as we have for the last year or two,” Hook said.


In regard to quail, Texas broke records this past year in some parts of the state. Ever since surveys began in 1977, numbers were never as high as they were this past hunting season. While the long-term average of birds per route sits at 20, field staff counted approximately 50 birds during last year’s roadside surveys. “We saw this phenomenon—not just in one or two places. People were seeing birds everywhere,” said upland game bird program leader Robert Perez. “This is a population boom we haven’t seen since 1987. This type of year might happen a couple times in your lifetime.”
Word got out last year about Texas’ large quail populations, and hunters traveled in droves to the rolling plains in northern Texas and also south Texas, looking to flush countless coveys and fill their bags. “Record high hunters, record high harvest,” Perez said. “Birds got wilder toward the end, and there are still birds there now.”
“All the talk is now: ‘How do we sustain these numbers?’” Perez said “You can’t stockpile quail—either habitat supports them or it doesn’t.” Texas received a neutral winter—no adverse effects on bird populations. Ample moisture has facilitated grass and forb growth, and quail should find healthy amounts of insects to consume during nesting and brood-rearing season.
“With a decent spring and summer, we are looking at another great year,” Perez said. “If we bring back cows, let us not graze down nesting cover. We want to be concerned with how we can maximize and keep cover for nesting, because we don’t want to remove that—quail need that.
“I have never seen something like last year in my career,” Perez said. “Birds are still there. There is a broad base to start nesting, and experts are calling for a normal spring.
“People keep talking about how amazing this bird is,” Perez said, “going from nearly gone, to record high. That is a testament to this bird’s ability to survive.”


Tennessee, for the most part, saw a fairly mild winter, with very little ice and only a small amount of snow across the state. According to small game coordinator Roger Applegate, plenty of spring rain, then scattered precipitation throughout summer, would benefit quail populations. “Rain and temperatures warm but not hot,” he said. “The biggest factor was the drought this past fall, which could have been a problem for quail. However, I believe it did not have an adverse effect. [Outlook] should be good. Not any worse than recent years.”


Based on reports from many avid hunters in Virginia, this past season was comparable to the last. According to small game project leader Marc Puckett, there were some hunters who had a fantastic season, including one who encountered 85 unique coveys of quail. In another area, one hunter found 56 coveys, which was a bit down from last year. Yet, in another section of the state, one hunter claimed to have experienced his best season in 25 years. “This all shows that when the ‘stars align,’ quail can still do well in Virginia,” Puckett said.
Virginia experienced an unusually mild, but also dry, winter. They received very little snowfall or rain and are, as a result, beginning to see the early stage of drought. “The warm weather, though, has made insects available to quail through much of the winter,” Puckett said, “so they should be in good shape for breeding season which is shortly upon us.”
Puckett would prefer more rain in later April into May. “By then the rain is warm and it tends to help quail,” he said. “If we have good summer rainfall, I am optimistic that next fall could see an uptick in our quail populations in areas with suitable habitat.”
Virginia’s quail recovery initiative continues to go strong. “We will be working out the details for the new Working Lands for Wildlife Initiative which focuses on integrating ‘cattle grazing and quail,’ something that may seem odd, but studies have shown the potential positive effects of cattle on quail habitat if done correctly,” Puckett said. “We hope to announce details by October.”
Virginia may be adding a new Quail Forever Chapter soon. Currently, they have two and hope to soon see the third. An organizational meeting was held in South Hill recently and enthusiasm seems high, Puckett believes.


Washington was inundated by snow and cold temperatures this winter, which negatively affected bird populations. “We have had deep snow in some areas, and now we are receiving a lot of rain,” said small game section manager Angelique Curtis. “We don’t know how spring will hold up. We are hoping landscapes will dry out and the weather will stay warm. Right now, quail are having to do a lot of work to get some food.”
Even at lower elevations, where birds typically find ample cover from predators, snowpack remains. Where growth has initiated, it remains bent over and not ideal for nesting. However, there is a positive side to this situation: should spring remain warm and fairly dry, ample moisture will increase grass and forb growth and produce insects for feeding during nesting and brood-rearing seasons.
After severe wildfires in summer 2015, Washington saw an increase this past season from the previous two. “There was an upswing in population,” Curtis said. “Also, most wildfires didn’t touch habitat, so we had a great bumper year this year, indicated by harvest trends, which were higher than last two years.”


Wisconsin conducts bobwhite whistle counts every other year and is due for its next count in 2017. According to upland wildlife ecologist and Farm Bill specialist Mark Witecha, as a result of large-scale changes in land use in recent years, quail numbers remain extremely low in Wisconsin, a state located at the far northern portion of the Midwest’s quail range.
Still, Wisconsin experienced its third consecutive mild winter, both in terms of snow depth and temperature. “Where wild population and adequate winter cover still exist, both quail and pheasants should have fared well this winter,” Witecha said.
Quail have seen significant declines in recent years due to loss of habitat and are restricted to southern and western portions of the state. However, in light of the past three mild winters, Witecha predicts a positive growth trend, assuming nesting conditions remain conducive for breeding.
Story by Jack Hennessy. Jack is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.