The northern bobwhite was dubbed "Prince of the Game Birds" by Charles Elliot in his book of the same title. It's a fitting title, seldom disputed by bird watchers and hunters alike. However, because of habitat loss, the once vast bobwhite quail kingdom has been reduced to remnant fields, cutover woodlands and abandoned homesites in rural Arkansas. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has joined with many local, regional and national partners to restore habitat for this important game species.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has partnered with NBCI to help restore quail habitat and quail populations in The Natural State. NBCI is the unified strategic effort of 25 state fish and wildlife agencies and various conservation organizations to restore wild populations of bobwhite to levels comparable to 1980. Visit the NBCI web page at www.bringbackbobwhites.org.
These plump little ground-nesting birds display plumage that is a lesson in camouflage. Brown, black and white feathers intermingle into intricate patterns that can make the birds almost invisible at rest. Adult bobwhites average 10 inches tall. Males have a distinctly white throat patch and eyebrow-like band stretching to the back of the head. These markings are a golden-brown in female bobwhites. Often, the first indication that a bobwhite is present is when a group of them suddenly take flight, flushing at once with a tremendous sound of wingbeats.
Bobwhites prefer a combination of open woods, thickets and native grasses and weeds that create an understory of sparse ankle- to waist-high vegetation. This allows food, shelter from the elements and cover from predators, while retaining the quails ability to fly away quickly in case of danger.
Bobwhites rarely range more than a quarter mile in suitable habitat. They require little space to survive, and feeding ranges of groups may overlap. They eat a variety of seeds and insects, depending on the quail's age and the season. During spring, insects are the bobwhite's primary food source. Throughout summer and fall, berries, seeds and insects make up the bobwhite's diet. By winter, insects are gone, and grass seeds and small acorns take over the quail's diet.
As much as 75 percent of a population of quail can die without adequate cover during harsh winters. Locate areas on your property lacking dense escape cover and create loose brush piles by sawing small trees. Start at the edge of where a field meets a timberline and heavily thin a 30-foot x 50-foot area. Forbs, grasses and shrubs will fill the open spaces with dense cover for future winters.
Increase diversity in your fields dominated by native grasses by conducting prescribed burns this month.
Continue cutting areas to thin timber and create downed tree structures to serve as escape cover from predators and the elements.
Conduct prescribed burns and disk this month to diversify grass-dominated fields.
Broadcast native wildflower seed to create excellent brood-rearing cover for quail and turkey.
As spring arrives, bobwhites reduce their use of woody cover to favor native grasses and forbs.
It’s a good time to plant bare-root shrubs to create dense cover quail can use to escape predators, defend against overheating in summer and withstand freezing temperatures and rain in winter.
Chemically treat fescue in fields to free up space for native vegetation. Prepare fields to plant native warm-season grasses. Native grasses provide better overhead cover and patches of bare ground quail need to maneuver through relatively undetected.
Conduct prescribed burns on cool-season grass fields (fescue) to reduce the density of grass composition.
Do not conduct prescribed burns on native warm-season grass fields after March. The grass will be stimulated by the fire and become too dense for quail to maneuver.
Take soil samples in areas where spring food plots will be located. Prepare areas by applying fertilizer and lime according to soil test results. Disk area to incorporate materials into soil.
Spray fescue and other non-native grasses to prepare pastures for conversion to native warm-season grasses.
Conduct breeding bird counts each year to gauge relative abundance of quail on your property. Male bobwhites ramp up calling during May and June.
Avoid mowing established fields, as quail are sitting on nests. On average nest success is only about 33 percent.
Plant native-warm season grasses, such as Big Bluestem, Indiangrass and Little Bluestem, from now through June to create nesting cover. Contact your local private land biologist to learn about these grasses and how to properly plant them.
Plant warm-season food plots of grain sorghum, corn, millet, buckwheat or sunflowers to supplement native forage. Contact your local private land biologist for seeding rates.
Recently planted native grass and wildflower plots will need to be mowed to a height of 4-6 inches to reduce competition on planted species.
Quail are hatching from June until October.
Weedy areas with at least 30 percent bare ground are critical during this time of year as quail chicks’ diets are 85 percent insects, which are attracted to weeds such as ragweed. Bare ground lets small chicks move around and forage under the canopy of weeds.
Avoid mowing this month as quail are still nesting. Male bobwhites incubate a quarter of all nest attempts and are more likely to sit on eggs later in the nesting season.
If you must hay or mow, set the mower high so that you leave at least 6-8 inches of height on vegetation. This will leave some cover for quail and their chicks. Another good practice is to leave a 100-foot wide border unmowed around the edge of your hayfield to keep some cover for nesting and brood-rearing.
Fruits such as blackberries, raspberries and pokeberries begin to ripen this month and provide a good food source and excellent overhead cover for quail. Resist the temptation to spray these species often labeled “weeds” or “brush.”
Temperatures reach over 100 degrees this month and can remain constant until fall. Leave and/or create thickets of shrubby vegetation, such as plum, elderberry, sumac, hazelnut, chokecherry, witch hazel, gray/rough leaf dogwood, or false indigo bush. The thickets should be at least 315 square feet. These species grow in such a way that a large amount of leafy canopy provides essential shade and protection from precipitation. The combined overhead cover and high stem count of these thickets creates a near impenetrable barrier for quail to elude predation.
Second broods from breeding quail will hatch this month. Continue to give your mower a rest and save a nest.
If you’re itching to do some habitat improvement work, it’s a good time to spray sericea lespedeza. See your local AGFC private lands biologist for help identifying this exotic, invasive species and offer suggestions on chemical applications.
Properly timed prescribed burns during this month can set back woody vegetation and grasses to favor wildflowers and legumes. Contact your local AGFC private lands biologist for more information on how to conduct a safe and successful prescribed burn.
The quail population reaches its highest level this month with new broods having hatched.
Coveys with 20 to 30 birds are not uncommon this time of year, as they are going through the “fall shuffle.” During the “shuffle” both juveniles and adults shift from one covey to the other as they are deciding which covey to remain in for the winter. Once this movement settles, more typical covey sizes (12 to 14 birds) are observed. The “shuffle” ncreases genetic diversity and decreasing the likelihood of inbreeding.
Quail relish beggar’s lice which sets seed in September.
Several species of wild grape ripen this month and provide food and overhead cover where they are allowed to grow over old fences or downed debris.
Leave several rows of corn, milo, sunflowers or soybeans unharvested near dense, shrubby escape cover.
Birds are settling into their respective covey for the winter and begin using dense, shrubby, woody vegetation more, since leaves are dropping and grasses are bending over.
Burn and/or spray fescue to eradicate it from native warm-season grass fields or to begin prepping fields you want to convert to native warm-season grasses and wildflowers.
Conduct fall covey counts during the last two weeks of October to assess how many coveys are present on your land.
Ragweed seed begins to drop during this month which supplies critical seed source during a time when food is limited.
Small acorns from post, blackjack, chinquapin and pin oaks provide a good source of energy and fat that can mean the difference between surviving a harsh winter.
Disk fields dominated by grasses during November through February to encourage growth of native wildflowers, legumes, and other broadleaf plants critical to attracting insects and providing a seed source for quail.
November is typically the start of cooler weather which lends itself well to completing chainsaw projects. Instant escape cover can be created by feathering the edges where fields meet woodlands, or by hinging or dropping trees that are over 15 feet tall in brushy draws, fencerows and wood lines.
December is a harsh time of year for quail, as most cover and food are scarce.
Create instant escape cover by dropping eastern red cedars in loose groupings to ensure areas 300 square feet or larger are created. Brush piles that are pushed together to burn are often too thick for quail to use. Keep downed trees loose enough for quail to maneuver.
Seed native wildflowers this month through February to ensure the seed goes through a frost to break open the seed coat and start germination. Milkweeds are a good flower to plant this time of year. It attracts many insects, including the declining monarch butterfly.
It is a good time to conduct wildlife stand improvement on your timber to open the canopy and allow sunlight to stimulate understory growth of native grasses, forbs and shrubs vital for quail to feed, nest, and brood within.