Biologist Brief: A Rapid Recovery

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Given the right conditions, quail have a remarkable ability
to bounce back

By Jim Wooley, Quail Forever Senior Field Biologist (Emertius)

Forty years ago, a young biologist got schooled in the intersection of bobwhite habitat, reproductive potential, and density dependence on Iowa’s Decatur-Wayne Quail Study Area. The greenhorn was me, and the DWSA was 4000 acres of near-perfect farmland quail habitat. Even then it was like a place from another time — small crop fields interspersed with weedy idle areas, moderately grazed pastures, hayfields, brushy fencerows, Osage hedges, and young woodlots. Bobwhites were censused there twice annually from 1970-85.  

In 1979, the worst winter in four decades decimated Iowa’s quail. Spring yielded the DWSA’s lowest-ever direct count, but a good nesting season ensued. Quail clawed their way back, increasing three-fold by that fall. A mild winter followed in 1980, with another excellent nesting season on its heels. Fall quail numbers rose above pre-crash levels. The DWSA bobwhite population had recovered in just two years. 

This magical comeback was simply a fortuitous conjunction of positive factors. Post-crash, two superb nesting seasons bracketed a mild winter on the DWSA. Bobwhite survival soared — thanks to weather, habitat, and reduced predation on depressed populations. A density-dependent reproductive response accelerated into a population vacuum, on a landscape with outstanding quail cover. The r-selected reproductive potential of bobwhites fueled the expansion with multiple brooding, and shared parenting. Nesting success and brood survival increased, powering recruitment.

This “back in the day” bobwhite recovery story has a point. The quail resurgence on the DWSA provides a lesson in population potential — if all the ingredients are at hand. As I write on Groundhog Day, the northern fringe of bobwhite country is mired in another miserable winter. Phil just added six more weeks to our sentence. By the time you read this, however, spring will be here, with opportunities to improve habitat, and the lives of quail, on the places we hunt. We should lean into that.

Among endless options, increasing food security for quail is a great place to start. Research tells us that wintering coveys located close to food plots enjoy increased survival. Better food begets improved body condition, which correlates with lower mortality and more quail reaching breeding season. So, what’s best? 

Food plot crops all have pluses and minuses, but I favor sorghum. It delivers more grain per acre, has an energy density like corn, and the plant’s structure provides better cover. Sorghum food patches located close to covey headquarters and roosting areas reduce unnecessary movement. Plots placed windward of winter cover deepen that habitat. Since everyone will be coming to dinner, make them big.

If traditional food plots aren’t possible, try a natural food alternative. Disk stunted grassland in spring near your wintering areas, and watch the magic develop. Disking releases the ragweed sleeping in the soil, a preferred quail food. Ragweed seed is small, retained on stems into winter, and offers 50 percent more protein and triple the fat of corn. In fact, a diet of western and giant ragweed meets all the winter energy needs of quail. 

Ragweed comes with another side benefit — summer brood-rearing habitat. Its soft vegetation attracts the bugs chicks love, and reduced stem density permits easy brood movement while the overhead canopy conceals them. Unfortunately, ragweed dominates for just one season. Other forbs and grasses resurge thereafter. So, disk again every other year or on a 3-year rotation for ragweed to flourish. Alternately, you can apply heavy grazing, burn-down chemicals, or prescribed fire in fall or early winter to gain ragweed’s benefits. 

There’s more to discuss, grist for another time. Go get your hands dirty. The quail will appreciate it.
 

This story originally appeared in the 2021 Spring Issue of the Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Quail Forever member today!