Quail Brood Rearing

80722873-cbec-46f8-a4f0-36fe3d8b2eb4 By Jim Wooley, Quail Forever Senior Field Biologist (Emeritus)

Quail run two back-to-back marathons in spring and summer – nesting first, followed immediately by brood-rearing. Nesting success certainly matters – quail must hatch before magically appearing in your game bag. So, too, does brood-rearing, a weeks-long endurance race that determines fall population recruitment, and your hunting success. 

Brood-rearing starts as precocial bobwhite chicks struggle from eggs, covered in wet down, exhausted, but nearly ready to start foraging with a little supervision. The adult broods perhaps a dozen newly-hatched chicks in the nest, shielding against weather and drying them with body heat. This close brooding continues a month, as chicks develop the ability to thermoregulate.  Even when dry, young quail chicks expire quickly without parental warmth (its why cool, wet summers wreak havoc on survival). 

Within hours, an adult (hen, incubating male, or the pair) leads the brood away – seeking secure habitat that’s open and easy to hunt, and crawling with insects (the menu for the next six weeks).  Like “a quail on a Junebug” chicks feed aggressively except when resting, and growth is rapid. The quarter-ounce hatchlings will add 10 times their weight in a month, and by 16 weeks are essentially adult size. Soft-bodied bugs, high in protein and fats, fuel that growth – crickets, leafhoppers, grasshoppers, weevils, beetles, caterpillars, spiders and more. 

Broods aren’t big travelers, moving perhaps a hundred yards the first day.  Once in good feeding habitat they stick tight, traveling only if disturbed. Initial brood ranges are less than an acre/day in productive cover. Reported brood ranges fluctuate between 2 and 40 acres the first two weeks, probably varying with food availability.  Smaller ranges signify better habitat quality and food, less travel, fewer predator encounters and increased survival. In insect-poor habitat, foraging travel expands, causing higher brood mortality.

Midwest quail hatch peaks from late June through mid-July, and even in better habitat, hatchlings suffer high losses to predation. Brood size shrinks by half (down to 5-6) during their first two flightless weeks.  Entering the third week, mortality slows as flight capabilities develop. By autumn, perhaps four of the original brood will have survived.  Fewer than 20 percent will see their first birthday.
 
Somebody smart figured out that by laying your cheek on the ground and closing your uppermost eye, you’ll get an appreciation of habitat from a chick’s perspective – at two inches tall.  If quail chicks could talk, they’d tell you that annual plant communities with 30-50 percent stem density are perfect.  It’s why common ragweed interspersed with pigweed, partridge pea, giant ragweed and maybe sunflower is wildly attractive to broods. There’s good lateral and overhead concealment, low stem counts and bare soil for easy movement, and soft broadleaves that attract bugs at chick feeding height.  

Unfortunately, the bug apocalypse is upon us, with insects down 75 percent in some places. So, managing your farm’s brood habitat is important.  The equation is simple – prime insect habitat equals quality brood cover equals better survival. Shoot for 40-60 percent of grassland in brood cover. Release broadleaves sleeping in the seedbank with light disking, or strip-spray grasslands with herbicides.  Broadcast (post-disking), or interseed alfalfa, sweet clover, and wildflowers.  It’s worth the effort.  Midwest research indicates these areas produce 10 times the insects (3 times more chicks) than rowcrops or unimproved grasses.  

Don’t forget the old standbys.  Burning sets grasses back, fostering broadleaves. Divide fields with green firebreaks (brood habitat!!).  Pair grazing with forb over-seedings. Let last year’s food plots fill with annuals. Intersections of cool and warm season habitats are hot for broods.  Plant cool-season grass/legumes to increase bugs, reseeding when legumes crash.  Then plant mixed prairie grasses, with all the native forbs you can afford – its complex bug and nesting habitat that’s simpler to manage. Finally, keep habitat young with a three-year disturbance rotation. Your broods will thank you. 

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to read more, please click on the link below to subscribe