Quail Nesting & Habitat Conditions Report

From fall to winter, hunters endure varied conditions in pursuit of American’s original game bird. Joined by our best two- and four-legged friends, we chase those chirps peppered among tall grass, plumes bobbing low between brush. Our hearts jump at every outburst of wings and feathers. Cracks ring out. We inhale the smell of gunsmoke mixed with prairie while a furry companion darts ahead.
This long tradition reminds us that, at our core, we are primitive. We are autonomous—unattached to fiscal concerns, the ambiguity of a career, or social conventions. In the field we can let go of questions. There is only one answer, and it arrives in the form of beating wings. 
Between the months of April and June, quail scratch out hollows in scattered shrubs and brambles to begin nesting. Hatching occurs as many as 55 days later. Some hens will even nest a second time after their first brood. This strategy can result in an unexpected population boost, or not, depending on summer weather conditions. 
Because of a later nesting schedule, compared to other game birds like pheasants, most nesting reports from biologist during this time of year are informed speculation. Below are experts’ best guesses where you might find success this quail hunting season. 


The thing to remember about Arizona, says small game biologist Johnathan O’Dell, is that “even in our down years we are better than good years in some areas of bobwhite country.” Come first for the quail, return for the beautiful countryside, he attests. Historical bragging records aside, Arizona hunters are seeing good sized coveys throughout desert regions, as quail populations continue to rebuild from their low numbers in 2009-2010.
“All of the Gambel’s quail areas received average to above average winter rainfall for the first time in many years,” said O’Dell. “The annual spring breeding male Gambel’s call count index was 76 percent higher than the recent 10-year average.” In addition, scaled quail may have taken advantage of the good winter rains. Summer monsoons arrived on time again for the fifth year in a row, which benefits Mearns’ quail. 


Last year hunters in California averaged an estimated 6.8 birds apiece. Despite ongoing drought conditions in the state, winter and spring weather included days of moisture, which benefited habitat and reproduction in certain areas. Grass and forb production improved over the last year despite below normal rainfall, a warmer than average winter, and a warm, fairly dry spring. During nesting periods this summer, surveys reported an average of seven chicks in drier areas, and eight chicks in damper areas.


Northeast Colorado’s primary bobwhite habitat was inundated with flooding during May and much of June, which likely disrupted initial nesting efforts. Reports suggest that bobwhites were displaced from their main habitat—the South Platte River corridor. At this time, the impact of rain and displacement on nesting success is unclear.
Positive reports are originating from southeastern Colorado where bobwhite and scaled quail recovery is on the rise. Additionally, in the southeastern region, quail habitats experienced mostly minor winter weather impacts. Spring precipitation levels were also beneficial across much of the area, indicating an increased rate of survival. 


In general, moderate winter weather in Florida has resulted in the enhanced survival of bobwhite quail. “As a result,” explained northern bobwhite coordinator Greg Hagan, “birds were well positioned moving into the breeding season.” 
Excluding areas, such as west central Florida, that received higher than average rainfall, suitable summer weather patterns throughout the state have prompted good nesting and brood rearing success. “These factors, combined with quality habitat management, should result in good bobwhite numbers and hunting success,” said Hagan.
Florida has numerous State and Federal Forests, along with a few Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), where bobwhites are featured and management efforts increased. Hagan asserts Jennings State Forest and Three Lakes WMA in central Florida, along with Babcock-Webb WMA in southwest Florida, are good choices for hunters this season. 


As a result of fair to good rainfall distribution these past couple seasons, Georgia quail experts remain optimistic this year. Recent incidental brood sightings are reported at average or above. “The reproductive season appears to be progressing well,” said Reggie Thackston, program manager with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources. “If this favorable weather continues, then fall populations should be good across landscapes with high quality habitat.”
Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) is continuing work on its Bobwhite Quail Implementation (BQI) Plan for 2013-2023, which is designed around the goals and objectives of the National Bobwhite Quail Initiative 2.0. The BQI focuses on bobwhite restoration across seven priority landscapes, four of which have public land core habitats surround by private lands. The Florida-Georgia Quail Coalition—a partnership between WRD, Florida’s Wildlife Commission, Tall Timbers Research Station and Quail Forever—is working to provide funding to support bobwhite restoration in both Georgia and Florida. 


Winter weather was mild and drier than average in Idaho. Upland game and waterfowl staff biologist Jeff Knetter expects a high overwinter quail survival rate. Throughout May and during the summer, the state received nice pulses of rain, which should not interfere with nesting. Rather, the distribution of moisture resulted in good insect production, providing ample food sources for quail, according to Knetter.
“Field reports indicated there are good numbers of quail out and about,” said Knetter. He is expecting similar hunting conditions to last year, when robust numbers of California quail inhabited southern Idaho.
The Clearwater Pheasant Initiative in the Clearwater Region (Lewiston-Moscow area), and the Habitat Improvement Program (HIP) were implemented statewide to improve wildlife habitat on private lands. In the past couple years, Idaho has opened up well over 1 million acres of private and landlocked public lands through the Access Yes! program. Through this program, hunters can gain access to private lands or ingress to public land via private property. Details available at http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/ifwis/huntplanner/accessyesguide.aspx.


A late winter brought prolonged cold and some snow and ice in March to Illinois. Spring started off with average precipitation and normal temperatures, but Illinois experienced the wettest June on record. July wasn’t much better, as it was also cooler and wetter than average. However, this weather delayed mowing and field work throughout much of the state, and some fields did not even get planted, potentially allowing successful nesting in ditches, along field edges and in fallow fields.
Despite the poor weather, people are still seeing birds and broods. The Upland Survey Routes found very similar numbers of birds compared to last year, when hunters harvested a 5 percent increase. 


Indiana remains plagued by diminishing populations of bobwhite quail. A stout winter rolled through the state with significant ice and snow, in addition to bitter temperatures in February, its fourth coldest on record. The cold continued into March, a vulnerable period for bobwhites in Indiana. 
“This late cold has been followed up with a nesting season that has been a complete washout,” said farmland game research biologist Budd Veverka. Indiana also had its wettest June in history. Crop losses are estimated at $475 million. Heavy rains didn’t skip a beat and made July the seventh wettest on record. “All this adds up to another poor, declining year for bobwhite in Indiana,” said Veverka. 


Upland game biologist Todd Bogenshutz is anticipating the best quail season in 10 years. A mild winter, followed by a mostly dry spring, saw a good carryover and should prove beneficial to production. “People were pretty ecstatic this spring with the number of calling males,” said Bogenshutz. “Land owners and staff reported seeing quail everywhere, even at farms where they haven’t seen birds in five or six years.”
Though late May and the summer experienced above average moisture, Bogenshutz expects quail chicks to persevere. “Quail are persistent re-nesters,” he said.
Hunters will find success in Iowa’s main quail range in the two southern-most counties along the Missouri border. Last year, hunters harvested nearly 10,000 birds throughout the state. “If the counts continue to go up like I expect them to,” said Bogenshutz,” this may be the highest statewide index in as many as 15 to 17 years.”
Iowa participates in the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. They recently submitted a project proposal to the USDA, which, if approved, would add 40,000 acres of quail habitat. Regarding public hunting access, the Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP), which started in 2011, continues to grow. Details are available at http://www.iowadnr.gov/Hunting/PlacestoHuntShoot/HabitatAccessProgram.aspx


From 2010 to 2014, Kansas suffered from an extended extreme drought, which resulted in sharp declines in upland birds across much of the state. However, spring precipitation improved conditions for production this past year. The western portion of the range received timely rains, which improved habitat conditions, while heavy rainfall in the eastern portion may have negatively impacted chick survival.
Kansas is in its third year of their quail initiative, which includes two focus areas in the Osage Cuestas region of southeast Kansas. Whistle surveys statewide showed increases indicating improved production potential. “That paired with the improved habitat conditions across much of the range provides optimism that densities will be better this fall,” said small game specialist Jeff Prendergast.


Despite a severe winter, anecdotal reports in Kentucky are very promising. “We’re receiving lots of reports of quail sightings and males whistling,” said small game biologist Ben Robinson. “We’ve also received several reports of brood sightings widely distributed across the state, particularly in and around quail focus areas.”
Between the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 hunting seasons, quail hunters experienced a 91 percent increase in the number of coveys flushed. Spring and summer above-average rainfalls created lush vegetation across much of the state. “We have not experienced cool weather following rain events, meaning production should be good this year as well,” said Robinson. One of Kentucky’s premier quail areas is Shaker Village. They plan to host a raffle for “the hunt of a lifetime.” Interested parties can visit http://www.shakervillageky.org to purchase tickets. 


The first timber harvest, designed to improve quail habitat, was recently conducted on the Kisatchie National Forest Vernon Bobwhite Emphasis Area in Louisiana. The timber harvest is part of a 10-year project that will include patch burning, quail openings, native plantings and other efforts meant to boost bobwhite quail production and survival in Louisiana. 
Normal winter weather conditions and regular summer rains helped brood habitat conditions and potentially early nesting success this year. “Two geographically small summer surveys indicated slight improvements in call counts from the previous year,” said Jimmy Stafford, small game and turkey program leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.


Missouri saw a fairly mild winter this year, but May and June brought about 15 inches of rain statewide, the most during those months since 1995. Despite heavy rainfall, locals have been hearing whistling males while also spotting birds and broods.
“Early reports seem optimistic,” said Beth Emmerich, Missouri agricultural wildlife ecologist. “Heavy rainfall events may have impacted nesting on local areas, but we are still seeing good numbers of broods.”
Due to rain, some crop acres did not get planted this year, which can provide good brood habitat. In a state where hunters averaged nearly seven birds apiece two years ago, Emmerich expects similar results this year. “We had a pretty good nesting season last year for quail, and barring major impacts from the heavy rainfall, I expect production to be about the same.”


By Mississippi standards, the state had a relatively cold winter, but small game biologist Rick Hamrick believes overwinter quail survival was probably similar to previous years. The spring brought a good sum of rain with mild temperatures, but summer conditions have generally been very good for quail production. 
“Several sightings of large quail broods have been reported from field personnel,” said Hamrick. “It should be another good year for nesting and brood-rearing where cover is suitable for quail production.”
Quail call counts (bobwhite whistles), compared to 2014, are approximately 25 percent lower this year, though Hamrick partly attributes that to rainy or windy days during their surveying period in June. 


The April Rural Mail Carrier Survey indicated good overwinter survival going into the breeding season in Nebraska. Field staff also reported seeing and hearing more bobwhites this year than in the past few years. Sightings of broods are up, as well. The mild winter, followed by a wet spring, appear to have missed the peak in nesting, though quail populations do not appear to have been adversely affected, according to upland game program manager Dr. Jeff Lusk.
“The moisture did spur the growth of vegetation, providing abundant nesting and brood-rearing habitat, as well as insects for chicks,” said Lusk. “All in all, it looks to be a great quail year this year, and I’m cautiously excited.” 

New Mexico

Quail populations have been reported to be doing well statewide in New Mexico this year. Though the state saw several years of extreme drought from 2010-2013, 2014 received normal amounts of moisture, while 2015 has been described as an incredible precipitation year. 
“Vegetation growth has responded well with the above average precipitation,” said resident game biologist Casey Cardinal. “There was great nesting cover across much of our quail range, and with the predicted monsoon season, there should be plenty of food available for broods.”
Reports of more brood sightings remain common statewide for all species of quail. Areas with increased birds include southeast New Mexico and central New Mexico near Socorro County. 
“With the predicted monsoon season, we expected average to above-average survival into the hunting season,” said Cardinal.
The Bureau of Land Management continues to work diligently on the Restore New Mexico Project, launched in 2005. Together, with their partners, they have restored over 3 million acres, including a large portion of quail habitat. 


Though Ohio does not conduct formal brood surveys for quail, Ohio Private Lands Biologists have observed several quail broods during Mid-Contract Management evaluations of CRP land in southern counties. Overall, winter conditions in Ohio were considerably colder than normal with substantial snowfall. Spring weather was favorable, but the month of June saw heavy rains and flooding. These weather factors may have contributed to poor overwinter survival and adverse conditions for nesting success.
Ohio recently established a 10,000-acre quail focus area in Highland County, designated the Fallsville Quail Heritage Area. “Within this area,” said wildlife biologist Mark Wiley, “the Ohio DNR, Division of Wildlife and its partners will encourage and support concerted quail habitat management on private and public land with a goal of improving local bobwhite population numbers.” 


Oklahoma is on its way back up in regard to quail hunting. Last year hunters harvested over double the amount of birds compared to the year prior, according to upland game biologist Scott Cox. Reports indicate good sized coveys coming of the winter in most areas. South-central to southeast Oklahoma saw flood conditions during early spring, and western Oklahoma saw its fair share of rain as well. “Still,” said Cox, “we saw young chicks at the roadside at the end of May.”
In the past, quail habitat had been declining in Oklahoma due to cedar invasion and timber encroachment, said Cox, but in 2012 wildfires burnt thousands of acres, opening up a lot of habitat for birds. Summer conditions have consisted of a few days with between 100-110 heat index, separated by days of moisture. “Really, habitat conditions are the best they have been in a long time,” said Cox. 


Oregon experienced an exceptionally warm winter, with near normal precipitation, thus ensuring a high probability of survival for all upland game birds. However, numbers have been down in recent years in the eastern part of the state, where most of the harvest occurs, due to drought conditions. 
“Spring 2015 was warmer and drier than average,” explained upland game bird coordinator Dave Budeau, “which won’t help the grass and forb growth and insect abundance.” Eastern Oregon did receive several days of rainfall in mid-May, and Budeau expects that moisture to help mitigate the drought damage. As a result of warm and dry spring conditions, quail broods were observed earlier in the year than expected. Anecdotal reports of broods suggest the California quail population may continue recovery from its low in 2013.

South Carolina

South Carolina suffered the trifecta of bad luck for quail nesting conditions—a cooler than average winter, which transitioned into a wet spring, followed by an extended period of drought since June. Extended periods of drought can prove detrimental to quail production since a lack of rainfall affects cover quality and results in a scarce supply of insects for food.
The 2014 Whistling Cock Census remains the latest survey data in the state. The results were a little lower than the past few years and significantly lower than the 36-year long-term average.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has partnered with six other organizations and agencies in an effort to expand the Indian Creek Woodland Savanna Restoration Initiative in Newberry and Union counties. The initiative—which encompasses 21,000 acres of National Forest lands and 19,000 acres of private lands—seeks to restore woodland savannas and improve habitat for species depending on woodlands, savannas and grasslands. 

South Dakota

South Dakota discontinued their hunter harvest survey because many of the reported harvested birds were outside of the area where they have wild quail. Because quail density is so low, they have changed their summer survey to a three-year cycle. “Basically, we only have wild quail in a few counties and the density is low,” said upland game biologist Travis Runia. The past two winters have been mild, which could be good news for quail, since they struggle normally with harsh South Dakota winters. “Environmental conditions have been beneficial for upland game survival and reproduction during the past two years,” Runia said.


Texas benefited from excellent winter and spring conditions with good amounts of timely precipitation in key quail hunting regions of the state. Higher than average and more frequent rainfall, along with lower than normal summer temperatures, could be the cause of the extended window of production. “Lots of insects,” said upland game bird program leader Robert Perez. “Lots of green vegetation, all the way to the second week in July.”
There have been many reports of extended nesting, multiple age classes in broods and large broods in general. “South Texas may be above average in many areas, but the panhandle/rolling plains will likely be better than the past few years, but still recovering,” said Perez. “We are expecting a good season.”
The Texas Legislature has allocated two years worth of funding for restoring quail habitat. Through the Grassland Restoration Incentive Program, landowners receive financial incentives if they manage their property to accommodate grassland birds. 


Tennessee saw a lot of rain in the winter and spring, which small game coordinator Roger Applegate believes may have destroyed nests or young. “We have four focus areas and have conducted counts on the areas,” Applegate said, “but we are months away from calculating the population estimates.”


Utah received a near record breaking lack of snow during their extremely mild winter. The spring made up for it, though, with a lot of precipitation, especially in May. Still, Utah’s upland game coordinator, Jason Robinson, expects an above average year for chick production. Last year, hunters averaged 3.1 Gambel’s quail and 3.75 California quail apiece. 


Adverse late winter weather conditions in Virginia extended cold temperatures into early spring. As a result, nesting has been delayed by one to two weeks. “Conditions since then have been excellent,” explained Marc Puckett, Virginia’s state quail coordinator. “We have had great summer rainfall. Brood rearing habitat should be ideal, and we expect a good hatching year.”
Quail hunters last year experienced an increase in the harvest of wild quail. This summer, local quail enthusiasts have reported hearing and seeing numerous quail, some even in areas where they have not been spotted for several years. Still, populations remain low in much of the state overall, according to Puckett. 
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) recently filed a report with the State General Assembly that reviewed the agency’s quail management efforts for the past 40 years. In the report, VDGIF also addressed new ways to counter quail decline and proposed major suggestions requiring future multi-level agency partnering and support. Virginia continues to play key roles with the National Bobwhite Technical Committee and the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative.


Nearly all of Washington’s quail harvest occurs in the eastern portion of the state, though there are pockets of birds in western Washington, specifically around the southern end of the Puget Sound. Top quail counties include Yakima, Grant, Douglas, and Okanogan.
This past winter was a historically mild winter with no significant snow in Washington. Spring was mostly warm and dry with only a few heavy thunderstorms in May. As has been the case in years past, the state has suffered from drought conditions this summer. Fires have been detrimental to quail populations in dry landscapes. “The most robust populations are typically along rivers and creeks that have not been impacted,” said game division manager Mike Cope. 
Washington continues to emphasize improvement of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in Douglas and Grant counties and in southeastern Washington. As CRP becomes more of a priority, Washington hopes to revitalize its upland bird habitat. 


Well below-average temperatures during Wisconsin’s winter may have negatively affected overwinter quail survival. The precipitation was also well below average, then near normal during spring with average temperatures. Whistle counts in Wisconsin’s primary quail range indicated whistling males are up slightly from previous years, but well below the long-term average.
“In general,” said wildlife biologist Krista McGinley, “the continued declines of bobwhite quail in Wisconsin, and nationwide, reflect factors beyond weather conditions. The loss of grasslands and changes in land usage threaten the future of quail populations in Wisconsin.” Still, quail hunters in Wisconsin looking to find success should target top harvest counties—Waukesha, Columbia and Shawano. 
Story by John Hennessy

Photo credit: Rick Derevan / Flickr CC