Small Game Management in Georgia

Bobwhite Quail

For many years Georgia was recognized as the "Quail Capital of the World." This title was justified by the state's excellent population of bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus). Photo of male bobwhite quailGeorgia's high quail population was the accidental byproduct of low intensity agriculture and forestry practices commonly applied throughout most of the state during the late 1800s - mid 1900s. However, veteran quail hunters are well aware that quail abundance has dropped dramatically, making hunting much less productive. Data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Breeding Bird Survey indicates that from 1966 to 1998 Georgia's quail population declined by more than 70 percent. This decline has led to a reduction in the number of quail hunters and quail harvested. In 1962, an estimated 135,000 hunters harvested about four million quail, but by 1998 the number of hunters declined to 42,000 and the reported quail harvest to about 900,000.

Primarily, land use changes are responsible for the quail population decline.  More specifically these changes include: the loss of agricultural land, "clean farming" practices, larger agricultural fields, increased use of pesticides, conversion of farmland and native rangeland to exotic grass pastures, increased acreage in intensively managed short rotation pine plantations, decreased use of prescribed fire and increased urbanization.

The good news is that wildlife biologists know more about managing bobwhite quail than any other upland game bird. The first step to improving habitat conditions for quail is developing a management plan that considers the entire life history of the bobwhite relative to the current habitat conditions. For a quail population increase to occur, management practices must address the factor that is most limiting the quail population. For example, planting food plots to increase fall foods will not result in more birds if brood habitat is the limiting factor (which often is the case). Game Management Section wildlife biologists are available to assist landowners with development of management plans to improve habitat conditions for quail and other wildlife species. Also, a detailed booklet on quail management, "Bobwhite Quail In Georgia: History, Biology and Management" is available from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division.

Life History

Reproduction - The familiar "bob-bob-white" whistle heralds the beginning of the breeding season for quail.  Increases in day length and temperature trigger breeding activity. Pairing begins with covey break up, usually in March. Remnant coveys may be found until early May. In March, coveys often break up during the day and reform just before dark.

Quail are generally monogamous, one male mating with one female. However, studies reveal that polygamous behavior, several different mates during a breeding season, is more common than previously thought. Populations consist of about 15 percent more males (cocks) than females (hens). This uneven sex ratio is a result of hen mortality during the nesting season. Most of the "bob-whiting" in mid and late summer is by unmated cocks in search of hens.

The most important months for nesting are May through August, but some nesting occurs as early as March and as late as October. Preferred nesting areas are those where ground vegetation contains clump-type grasses that cover about 50 percent of the total ground area. Cover of this type offers optimum nest concealment while providing adequate passageways for quail movement. Both hens and cocks collect materials used in nest construction, primarily grasses and pine needles, from within a few feet of nest sites. Hens continue to re-nest throughout the nesting season if previous attempts are unsuccessful. Hens that are in excellent physical condition may re-nest after hatching a brood. Also, some cocks may be left to complete incubation while hens find another mate and begin another nesting attempt. The number of
eggs laid per nest (clutch) decreases with each attempt, ranging from an average of 16 eggs in April to only nine in August. The incubation period is 23-24 days.

A pair of quail generally raises only one brood of chicks per year. However, it is not unusual to see chicks of different ages with an adult bird. Both cocks and hens have strong brooding instincts and will adopt strayed or orphaned young.

Mortality - Quail are a prey species and are near the bottom of the ecological food pyramid. In Georgia, more than 20 different wildlife species have been identified that prey on quail and/or their eggs. Annual mortality rates for quail vary from 60-80 percent depending on habitat quality, weather, predator densities, hunting pressure and other factors.

Studies suggest quail chick mortality is 50 percent or more between hatching and 15 weeks of age. This loss can be reduced by improving brood habitat, particularly by creating large blocks (2 - 5 acres) of annual weeds that are canopied above but open underneath. During the first few weeks of life, chicks require the high protein diet provided by animal matter, primarily insects. Management practices, such as winter disking and prescribed burning, produce an abundance of insect life at or near ground level. These management practices also provide chicks with an overhead canopy of annual weeds. This protective canopy of weeds can help to increase chick survival by protecting them from the heat of the sun and from predators.

In addition to summer losses of chicks, another significant loss of bobwhites occurs during either the hunting season or the breeding season. If habitat conditions on an area are good and hunter harvest is low, spring and summer mortality will equal or exceed that of winter. The quality of available habitat controls the size of a quail population. Summer quail production usually exceeds the ability of the habitat to support the young through an entire year. Natural mortality from factors such as predation, disease, and, in some cases, starvation must occur. Studies show that annual losses of 60-80 percent remain fairly constant, whether or not an area is hunted. Therefore, a hunter harvest of 25-35 percent of a fall population may replace part of the natural losses without endangering next year's population.

Weather also can be an important mortality factor for quail.  In Georgia the worst weather scenario is prolonged drought during the spring and summer. Drought negatively impacts quail populations by reducing weed seed production, available cover and insect abundance. These factors ultimately result in decreased quail reproduction, survival and recruitment into the fall population. The best buffer against drought is the continued provision of quality habitat, especially nesting cover, brood habitat and food resources. When rainfall does occur, quail populations can respond quickly.

Food Habits - Food resources utilized by quail vary by season and depend on the natural availability of food items and the quail's nutritive needs. Peak fruit consumption, for example, occurs in the late spring and summer while mostly insects are eaten during the summer and fall. The typical annual bobwhite diet consists of 60-65 percent seeds, 15-20 percent fruits, 15 percent animal matter and five percent green vegetation. Bobwhites in Georgia can survive without drinking water, provided succulent vegetation and insects are readily available. However, a quail population needs some form of free water (rain, dew, etc.) to thrive, particularly in more arid regions.

Behavior and Movement Patterns - As summer ends and fall approaches, quail form into groups of individuals called coveys. The average covey size is about 12-15 birds and usually consists of birds from two or more broods. Occasionally two or more coveys may be found together resulting in the "40 bird" covey that quail hunters often talk and dream about hunting. If covey size becomes low during the fall and winter, the remaining birds may join with another covey for the remainder of the winter. For this reason, it is not advisable to use covey size as the determinant factor in deciding whether or not to harvest additional quail from an area during the hunting season. Birds remain in coveys until spring approaches, when they "break up" and disperse to begin the mating season.

Habitat Requirements - Bobwhite quail are an early succession edge species. They need an interspersion of cover that is predominated by annual and perennial weeds and legumes, clumped native warm season grasses, and a mosaic distribution of briar and shrub thickets. Quail densities are highest, and respond best to management, in areas where there is a contiguous distribution of suitable habitat (perhaps 5,000 acres or more). Fragmented landscapes comprised of small isolated blocks or "islands" of habitat are not capable of sustaining high densities of quail, and these habitat fragments may limit the potential of quail to respond to management. Soil conditions also are important to consider when managing land for quail. Soils with the greatest quail management potential are the well-drained sandy loams and clays. Deep sands and wet soils limit prospects for improving quail populations. Due to site conditions and current land use patterns in Georgia, the Upper Coastal Plain generally offers greater potential for quail management than does the Ridge and Valley, Blue Ridge Mountains, Piedmont or Lower Coastal Plain physiographic provinces. The Southwestern portion of the Upper Coastal Plain tends to have the best quail potential because of high soil fertility and summer rainfall. This is not to say that quail management is futile in other regions, but expectations must be tempered with realization of the bird's habitat needs and the condition of the land.

Across Georgia's rural landscape the primary habitat components that are missing for quail populations to rebound are nesting cover, brood range and year-round food availability. Most lands have vegetative cover that is either too dense or too sparse at ground level.

Management

Agricultural fields and woodlands can be enhanced for quail through the judicious application of management practices. As previously mentioned, management must address the limiting factor if the quail population is to increase. Additionally, both harvest and habitat management should be conducted in anticipation of the worst weather conditions. This is best accomplished by developing a detailed management plan that is tailored to the property under management consideration. At a minimum, a management plan should include an inventory of current habitat conditions and specific recommendations relative to the type, timing, location and costs of needed management practices.

Croplands - Providing suitable conditions for quail on as little as 2-5 percent of commercial crop fields can result in substantial increases in the bird population. Croplands can be enhanced for quail through the management of fallow habitats including field borders, hedgerows, field corners, ditch banks, wetland borders and fallow fields or patches. Combinations of winter disking, planting and selective application of herbicides can be used on these sites to provide nesting cover and brood habitat during the spring/summer and food and cover during the fall and winter.

When establishing linear practices like field borders, hedgerows, wetland borders and ditch banks the best rule to remember is wider is better. They should be at least 10 feet in width and widths of 30-100 feet are preferred. A good approach is to use the width of the available disc harrow, or multiples of the width, which will facilitate strip management. When possible, field borders should be maintained around the entire crop field. However, field borders even on one side of a crop field may provide significant benefits to quail. When feasible, all fallow habitats should be connected to facilitate the protected movement of quail throughout the cropland area.

Strip disking during fall/winter can be used to maintain favorable structure and plant species composition for quail in fallow habitats. For example 1/3-1/2 of the site can be disked each year (November through February) and allowed to remain fallow the following summer. Fall/winter disking encourages the development of ragweed, partridge pea, beggarweeds and other quail food and cover plants. As a general rule, fallow habitats should not be disked, or otherwise disturbed, during spring and summer as this encourages undesirable plants like coffeeweed, sicklepod, Johnson grass and Bermuda grass. Also, disking in the spring and summer may destroy nests or disturb birds on nests.

Planting also can be used as an integral part of managing these fallow habitats for quail. Plant annual grains like corn, Egyptian wheat, brown top millet and grain sorghum in the spring and summer to provide food and cover in the fall and winter. Wheat or oats can be planted during late fall. Plantings should be established in strips, and then allowed to remain fallow the following year and rotated across the site. Another option is to plant reseeding annuals like partridge pea, kobe lespedeza and beggarweed, then encourage these to reseed with periodic fall/winter disking. Plant only a small portion of the managed site (generally less than 25 percent) in any given year, maintaining the remainder in desirable weeds and grasses to provide adequate nesting cover and brood habitat.

Periodically, the use of herbicides may be needed to control the invasion of trees and/or exotic grasses into fallow habitats. Even with frequent soil disturbance, sweetgum and other light-seeded trees may invade fallow areas and shade out desirable food and cover plants. Spot spraying with an approved herbicide can address this problem. Another common problem is the invasion of Bermuda and other exotic grasses, into and underneath the weed canopy in fallow habitats. These grasses restrict quail movement and can become so thick as to out-compete desirable vegetation. The best solution is broadcast spraying of an approved herbicide to control exotic grasses within and adjacent to fallow habitats prior to establishment. Many of the fallow habitats that once provided excellent food and cover for quail have






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