The Importance of Thermal Cover for Quail

  • 2/19/2021 2:02:13 PM
2d2ee195-1c22-441c-be6f-bba44d27d14c By Brittany Smith                                                                                           Photos by John Murphy

With the recent arctic blast most of America has been experiencing, many thoughts have turned to how wildlife are faring in this weather. We’ve received countless questions and comments about how quail can possibly survive conditions like these, and the realistic answer is of course that some won’t.

The average lifespan of a bobwhite is less than a year, and harsh winter weather certainly contributes to mortality. Nevertheless, there are many factors that play into winter survivorship and things that we as land managers can do to help more birds see it through to spring.
 
Quail have numerous adaptations to help them deal with cold; there’s a reason they covey up when temperatures begin to drop. Huddling together helps to preserve body heat and extra pairs of eyes come in handy to spot potential predators.

Much like we do, quail also shiver to stay warm. As you might guess, this can take a lot of energy. In fact, thermoregulation, or the ability to maintain internal core temperatures within a set range, makes up 60-70% of a bobwhite’s winter energy expenditures.

When winter winds pick up, quail burn even more calories. Winds of as little as 4.5 miles per hour can increase metabolic requirements by as much as 9.5%.
 
So what exactly does all this mean and what can we do about it? As the old saying goes: to create wealth you need to earn more or spend less. The same is true for quail in winter! They need to eat more calories or burn less.

When it comes to winter food sources, it may surprise many people to learn that things like giant and western ragweed seed actually provide higher energy forage for quail than corn or milo. That’s not to discount the potential value of corn and milo food plots, but it’s worth keeping in mind that bobwhites have been shown to consume over 1,000 species of plants and having a diversity of native seed sources available throughout the winter months offers the best insurance that they’ll be able to find sufficient amounts of high-quality food.

Other important high value native species for quail in winter include crotons, spurges, tick clovers, annual sunflower, native Lespedezas, and many, many more.
 
In the “spend less” column, shrubby cover is a critical habitat requirement for bobwhites. Shrub thickets scattered throughout a grassland matrix provide a patchwork of microclimates that can significantly reduce wind speeds in the interior and help keep birds warmer.

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Think of thickets as little heat islands in the winter grassland sea for your quail. Plum, dogwood, sumac, or other low-growing native woody shrubs provide excellent thermal protection, loafing, and escape cover. When thickets are located within high quality native grassland, quail can easily move from cover to forage without burning extra precious calories.
 
However, “patchwork” really is the key word here. Bobwhites are an edge species so throughout most of their range it’s necessary to do periodic management to prevent trees from completely taking over your thickets. Early successional habitat loss is one of the greatest modern threats to bobwhite quail populations. In addition to the loss of nesting and brood cover associated with forest encroachment, researchers in Tennessee also found that closed canopy forest increases the risk of winter bobwhite mortality.

Dense tree cover both increases predator abundance and forces quail to move further to find food. Management activities like patch burning, canopy thinning, and strip disking are great tools to keep habitat in an early successional state.

Along the western extent of their range, like here in western Kansas, building adequate winter cover by adding shrub thickets to your grasslands is a great way to provide that boost of thermal protection birds need when things get frosty.
 
There is no silver bullet and like most things habitat-related, creating optimal winter cover for quail is a marathon, not a sprint. Quality winter habitat is an extension of quality spring, summer, and fall habitat.

Much like building a retirement fund, with some planning and management throughout the rest of the year, you can set quail up for winter success.

Brittany Smith is Quail Forever's Coordinating Wildlife Biologist-Wetlands Specialist for central and western Kansas.