Winter Cover for Upland Birds

4a4d352e-6bd9-47df-9be0-b74d61802a38 By Courtney Nicks                                                        Photos courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation

Ice blankets the ground on a cold February morning. Tree branches bow like wet noodles, straining from the weight of ice and snow. I blast my defrost as I leave the house. 

Turning at the mailbox, a covey of quail flush near the road ditch. I can't help but notice that they are using an area that I burned last spring, currently dominated by ragweed and foxtail and bordered by edge feathering. I smiled, as I felt reassured that the quail had found my carefully planned habitat.

If you are anything like me, you want to sustain your upland bird populations year-round, not just for that small window of early hunting season. To do this, it starts with an understanding of their needs during the toughest seasons. 

Extended durations of snow and ice can be particularly detrimental to upland birds. Quail for example, are not well equipped to handle large snowfalls or heavy ice. If a quail is incapable of scratching its way to food, what other options does it have?

This is when they turn to stout, upright structure such as native vegetation. By having areas of standing weeds (ie. foxtail and ragweed), high-energy food is available while providing cover, greatly reducing energy expenditures to forage, keep warm, and evade predators.

Larger upland birds often take refuge in similar habitats, although they are often able to utilize a wider variety of thick cover due to their larger size. Switchgrass and cattails serve as beneficial cover types for these more robust birds.

During most of the year, including times of extreme weather, covey headquarters serve as a much-needed lifeline to upland birds. Having areas of dense woody cover containing a canopy of at least three feet high and remaining relatively open at ground level offers safety when other substrate is compromised.

Cover such as shrub thickets, or loosely fallen tree structures like edge feathering give sanctuary when all else fails. Dogwood, sumacs, coral berry, and small oaks are often valuable food sources that occupy these structures and provide a natural umbrella against the elements.

Lastly, lets touch on the value of food plots for upland birds and how it relates to cover. One may ask, how could a standing soybean field not be great for all upland species? Believe it or not, the utility of a food plot is only as good as the protection it provides. 

It’s all about energy exertion! During the winter, manicured food plots and crop fields cause birds to expend energy reserves to forage because of increased exposure, making them vulnerable to hypothermia and predation.

Make sure food plots provide the whole equation. A food plot without adequate cover is like building the fire and forgetting the match. Think messy, making sure the weedy components and woody cover are included!
Since we can’t install giant defrosters for our feathered friends, think ahead. Provide the components that will make them thrive, pushing them through the more daunting days of their survival.

Courtney Nicks is a Quail Forever Farm Bill biologist based in Moberly, Missouri

To find your nearest Quail Forever Farm Bill biologist, click here!