Nesting Season: Make it or Break it Coveys

342f4814-0626-42d2-ae36-59869319c863 Created by Quail Forever Staff

When it comes to boom or bust upland bird populations, no species in America strikes more optimism in good years, and pessimism in the bad, than our six native quail species. Regardless, the high annual mortality rate of quail – nearly 80 percent across their range – is off-set by the bird’s uncanny ability to produce multiple large broods each year. It all starts with quality habitat to transform a good nesting season, into a great one.

Quail exhibit the highest reproductive potential in the uplands, thus enabling them to experience population explosions of epic proportions when habitat conditions and weather align. Does the fall of 2015 ring a bell? Personally, I have a vivid recollection of a quail hunt that year in the Oklahoma Panhandle that produced 25 covey finds per day on public lands…. landscapes that were devoid of quail previously. 

Quail live out their lives within a home range of about 40 acres, requiring all habitat components (nesting cover, brood habitat and covey headquarters) to be in proximity. Of these habitat types, nesting cover remains the most significant limiting factor for wildlife populations, which is why it should receive major attention for upland habitat projects. Here are some considerations for ideal nesting cover:

•    Secure - Cover providing overhead and horizontal concealment from predators
•    Undisturbed - Free from both human (mowing, dog training) and weather related (flooding) disturbances
•    Diverse - Ideal nesting cover should contain several species of grasses and forbs at a minimum
•    Dynamic - Planning ahead to manage for diverse nesting cover yields the best results
•    Structure - Research has shown that quail prefer to nest within reasonable distance of an "edge" - an area where two habitats intersect.
•    Unconventional - Roadsides also provide habitat with up to five acres of potential nesting cover along each mile of rural Midwest roads. 

Courtship and Nesting

Whether it is the iconic “bob, bob-white!” call of quail in the Midwest, Great Plains and Southeast regions, or that of other native quail species in western locales, many males will call to attract mates and perform courtship rituals with extended feathers/wings. Once a suitable partner is found, the pair work together to dig a scrape in the ground that is then lined with grass and other dead vegetation, typically utilizing warm-season bunchgrasses of some sort. Quail are also known for creating an arch over their nests, attempting to obstruct the overhead view from possible predators. 

After nest completion, hens will lay one egg per day until a clutch is fulfilled and the hen (or rooster in some cases) begins incubation. When we refer to “boom” years for quail, this speaks to a successful nesting season where the hen quail and her male partner(s) successfully hatched multiple broods in one spring/summer cycle. Some fun facts you might not know about quail nesting habits:

•    Nest Initiation: Early summer 
•    Length of Incubation: 23 days 
•    Average First Hatch: End of June
•    Average Clutch Size: 7-28 depending on the species 
•    Average Nest Success: 40-60% 
•    Broods Per Year: 1-3; persistent re-nesters
•    Average Rate of Chick Survival: 40-50%
•    Major Nest Predators: Raccoon, opossum, snake, skunk

Did you know?

•    Most quail nests are built within 50 feet or fewer of a field edge or trail, often within 10 feet.
•    From nest initiation to eggs hatching, the entire process is 47 to 55 days long.
•    Quail chicks, weighing ¼ ounce and roughly the size of a bumblebee upon hatching, take their first small flights within three weeks. 
•    Fewer than 20% of quail live to see 12 months of age.
•    The six species of quail in the United States include Bobwhite, California, Mountain, Gambel’s, Scaled, and Mearns’.