Bobwhite Quail Management
In the Texas Panhandle
Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) are found throughout the Central and eastern United States from Minnesota and Massachusetts south to Florida and the Gulf Coast; and from Wyoming and southern Ontario, Mexico, parts of Central America, and Cuba. In Texas, Bobwhites have been found in every county of the Texas Panhandle and in every month of the year, although populations and habitat quality varies throughout the High Plains and Northern Rolling Plains physiographic regions. Annual populations fluctuate considerably and follow long-term cyclic rainfall patterns. Rainfall patterns throughout the year also influence vegetative growth of perennial grasses that provide nesting cover and forbs that produce seed important to bobwhites in their diet. Insects are also an important food item, particularly for young quail. Woody escape cover is vital for quail to escape predators and for protection from the elements. In general, Northern Bobwhite are found in riparian and riverine bottom habitats, where tree thickets grow adjacent to pasture lands and relatively dense ground-level cover exists. In the eastern Panhandle, Northern Bobwhite typically occur in scrub oak woodland, riparian woodland, and in juniper-oak woodland. Although largely overlapping in their range, the Northern Bobwhite is replaced by the Scaled Quail in more xeric uplands, tributary canyons, and mesa slopes above river bottoms in association with mesquite or juniper savanna habitats.
Various land use practices influences the ability of habitat in the Panhandle to support populations of bobwhites (i.e., livestock grazing, farming practices, herbicide use, brush management, predators, conversion of native rangelands to improved pastures. Higher populations of quail are traditionally found in the rangelands of the Northern Rolling Plains that in more arid rangeland characteristic of the High Plains. Large ranches with extensive contiguous acreages of varied and quality habitat offer the best opportunity to manage viable populations of this species and to sustain annual huntable populations. Standardized Roadside quail census lines are counted each year by Wildlife Biologists in District 2 to gather information on annual and long term population trends.
Northern Bobwhite belong to the order Galliformes, which are birds described as "chicken-like" with feet adapted for scratching. Northern Bobwhite are much smaller than Ruffed Grouse and Wild Turkey. Northern Bobwhites are mottled-gray, brown, black, and white in color. Males are distinguished from females by their pure white throat and eye bands and females buff-colored. As in most birds, the female generally is more modestly-colored than the male. Identification tips are:
- 8 inches.
- Small, chunky, short-tailed, round-winged, ground-dwelling bird.
- Slight crest at top of head.
- White chin and supercilium.
- Black cap, eyeline, nape and throat.
- Reddish-brown body stippled with white and black spots
- Pale belly
- Buff throat and supercilium
- Dark cap, eyeline, nape and throat.
- Reddish-brown body with darker back.
- Black and white streaks and chevrons about underparts and back.
- Pale belly.
- Dark face
- Unmarked cinnamon breast and belly.
- Reintroduced with limited success to southeast Arizona.
Female Montezuma Quail may resemble Northern Bobwhite, but has a head that
appears helmeted rather than crested.
Montezuma Quail lack strongly contrasting supercilium and throat and has a darker belly than Northern Bobwhite.
In the High Plains and Northern Rolling plains the Northern Bobwhite inhabit mostly native rangeland, woodland, and brushland ecosystems in varying densities. They prefer habitats with a mixture of grassland, cropland, brushy areas and woodland interspersed to provide abundant areas of "edge," which include the margins of habitats where two or more cover types come together.
Northern Bobwhite also are dependent upon "edges" where they can move quickly between nesting, watering, and feeding habitats, and escape cover, such that changing from one activity to another constitutes a quick walk or flight of a few seconds duration. Dispersion of essential cover and habitat types need to be within a quarter of a mile of each other. The greater the amount of interspersion of cover and habitat type combinations the better the habitat is for quail. Ideally, habitat components for Northern bobwhite are made up of 1/4 grassland, ½ cropland, 1/8 shrub cover, and 1/8 woodland:
- Grass in the spring and summer for nesting and brood rearing.
- Cropland for fall and winter feeding.
- Brushy scrub and woodlands for escape and roosting cover.
Grass habitat is usually the limiting factor for Northern Bobwhite because it is often mowed or converted to cropland. Hedgerows are also very important, providing sources of food and cover. Grasslands are used mainly for nesting cover and brooding, cropland for feeding and dusting, and brushy areas, thickets and woodlands for escape cover, loafing and winter protection. Survival is reduced in areas that lack heavy cover. Both food and cover must be stable or continuously renewed during the entire year
In the Panhandle, annual populations fluctuate widely with rainfall, temperature, land use patterns, and quality of habitat available, which provides necessary food, cover, water, and proper spacing of these habitats. This species may concentrate in large coveys of 30 or more birds during the winter months and prefers to run rather that hold and flush like bobwhites. Populations of Northern Bobwhite have declined significantly throughout their range in the Texas Panhandle; however, were good rangeland grazing management is practiced populations of this species remain abundant. Refer to the Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Northern Bobwhites are gregarious in nature throughout most of the year, forming coveys composed of broods raised in neighboring territories. Coveys usually are made up of about 30 birds, often roosting shoulder to shoulder in order to keep warm during the winter months; a few birds may even perch atop their neighbors. If disturbed, a covey may "explode" into flight. These coveys remain quite stable, and regroup after being flushed. Coveys hold together from when they are first formed in late summer until spring, just prior to the start of the mating season. It is at this time that males begin to announce their territories with the familiar "bobwhite" whistle. Northern Bobwhite can be found nesting throughout the Texas Panhandle. This species is a ground-nesting bird, with nesting activities usually underway by mid- or late April. Small fledglings have been reported as late as 20 August in Palo Duro State park. Nests are normally found in fairly open areas. An average of 12 to 15 creamy white eggs are deposited and incubated for 23 to 24 days. Male Northern Bobwhite are monogamous and choose one mate to share nesting responsibilities. Approximately 1/3 of all nests started are successful. Only one brood is produced unless the first nest is destroyed prior to hatching. Hens usually renest. Nest destruction or desertion may be a function of weather, floods, fires, humans, or predators including domestic pets, particularly cats. Large fluctuations in population size are common from year to year and typically follow several years of drought.
Northern Bobwhite use numerous kinds of seeds, grains, green vegetation (mostly forbs), berries, and insects for food; as many as 1,000 different plants may be included in their diet. Young quail eat predominantly insects. To maximize quail populations knowing which seeds provide the most energy to quail is of utmost importance. Raising or encouraging those plants for winter food supply which provide a low calorie food source is not only wasteful but can actually be detrimental to the quail. Quail food habits are largely a matter of availability as they are selectivity. Therefore if a low quality seed is in abundance the birds will use it. On poor feed quail will not be as fat and not be able to withstand severe winter weather, hens will enter the breeding season in poorer condition, lay fewer eggs and experience more physiological stress. Some seeds that contain 80% or more of the energy required to maintain a quail in winter are (in decreasing order of importance):
- Ragweed 99 - 89%
- Corn 89%
- Soybean 87%
- Sorghum 85%
- Sunflower 84%
Having several of the above seeds available to quail within their home range would offer some degree of insurance against crop failure. In most plans we will try to maintain one food plot (or feeder station where plots are not feasible) per 40 acres at the maximum density to one per 160 acres at the minimum density. The plots need not be more than 2-3 acres and in fact several smaller plots with better distribution would be better. The exception would be those fields managed for doves where larger fields are needed to attract the birds. In winter birds may feed in the morning in grain stubble, in weed patches on seeds, green leaves, shoots, berries, or on insects. Although many different seeds are eaten, Northern Bobwhite prefer those from native woody plants and forbs. In agricultural areas, seeds from grasses and field crops may comprise a considerable portion of the diet at times.
- Croton or doveweed Salsola - summer food
- Partridge pea Amaranthus - winter food
- Hackberry Bristlegrass
- Sumac Aromatic sumac - summer food
- Wild grape Mesquite beans
- Wild bean Sunflower - winter food
- Tick trefoil Ragweed
- Panic grass Green herbage
- Lespedeza Insects
- Four-winged saltbush Wild plum
Young nutritious plant shoots are important to quail preparing for to breed. Plant shoots are also an important source of moisture for quail. Insects are important (spring and summer) as they are the primary food for hatching quail for the first 3-4 weeks of their life. Insects supply the high nutrition necessary for the growth and development of young quail but they also are an important nutrition and water source for adult quail. After the first month, plant material becomes increasingly important in the young quails' diets.
Cover is an essential part of Northern Bobwhite habitat. Lack of cover and proper dispersion of food and water are limiting factors over much of the species range in Texas. Quality habitat for usually consists of scattered pockets of cover (< 1 acre in 10). Northern Bobwhite use cover in several ways:
Resting or Loafing Cover - Daytime resting or loafing cover provides overhead and lateral protection, has a central vegetation-free area, and offers many avenues of escape. Northern Bobwhite require some type of shrubby or woody cover for loafing, resting and protection from winter snow and winds. Such areas provide a safe resting sites between morning and evening feeding periods. They will use tall grasses and weed patches but prefer woody plants. Many of these sites are known as "covey headquarters" where a covy centers its daily activities. Mesquite, skunkbush, sumac, shinnery oak, and sandsage provided good loafing cover. Brush piles, abandoned buildings, corrals, and old farm equipment may substitute for natural cover. A covey may have several headquarters within its home range that it uses from time to time depending upon the weather and available food. Loafing and headquarters sites may be as small as 100 sq. ft. but ideally are at least 400 sq. ft. or more. Larger, denser sites are required for protection during extremely cold winter weather. No less than 5% nor more than 25% of a covey home range should be in woody cover that is 3' to 6' tall. Covey headquarters and loafing sites are easily made by protecting existing brushy thickets from fire or grazing, felling a tree covered with grape vines or planting small thickets to low growing shrubby species such as shinnery oak, wildplum, or sumac.
Hiding and Escape Cover - Northern Bobwhite seek hiding and escape cover when flushed. If flushed from hiding cover, birds tend to fly farther and run farther before ducking into other vegetative cover. Hiding cover varies greatly, from grassy and herbaceous plants to woody species and man-made structures. Heavy hunting pressure tends to force quail to seek denser cover for hiding.
Roosting - Northern Bobwhite roost in small groups on the ground among small shrubs, forbs, grasses, weedy glades, reverting fields, and other suitable cover. Roosting habitat free of overhead cover allows birds to fly when threatened by predators.
Nesting - Nesting cover likely is the most important habitat component for Northern Bobwhite, because birds are most vulnerable to predation during this time. Birds construct their nest on the ground, typically in the protection of a clump of grass or shrug that they can walk to and yet provides some overhead protection. The nest bowl is made from dry vegetation from the previous year's growth. About 80% of quail nests are found within 20 to 25 ft of an edge where habitat types change and which serves as a travel lane for the birds. Most nests are built in a grass clump from 6" to 18" tall. Native prairie grasses with their clump-type growth form are ideal nest cover. Prairie grass sites with a clump density of no more than one 12" diameter clump per 4 sq. ft. (2' X 2' area) are the best. This allows for sufficient nesting clumps (about 10,000 per acre) and is thin enough to allow the birds to walk through the cover. Even much thinner nesting cover allows for plenty of nesting clumps and easier travel. In Texas, about 250 nesting clumps per acre (1 clump per 13' X 13' size area) is about minimum. Nesting success decreases in absence of good nesting cover.
Brood Cover - The greatest mortality of quail occurs in the first four weeks
after hatch. This is a critical period which often determines whether the
fall population will be a bumper crop or less than desired.
Quail chicks have only a few requirements but these are a must! Chicks need freedom of movement at ground level, overhead concealment and a diverse assortment of green plants or plant parts within pecking height - which for a baby quail is only about two inches. The ground cover must be very open with only 30% to 50% vegetative coverage. This means that as much as 70% can be bare ground. The low-growing greens attract insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, ants and other invertebrates which compose almost the entire diet of quail up to three weeks of age. Recently burned prairie units are ideal as are old field sites, weedy strips, legume plantings and small grain and legume mixes. Brood cover must be < 100 yards of midday loafing coverts that is typically woody cover thickets, or stands of taller dense weeds.
Water is a critical element of quality Northern Bobwhite habitat. Supplemental water or access to water year-round can increase survival of young. Although quail generally obtain enough water from their environment (i.e., dew, succulent vegetation, insects), Northern bobwhite frequently concentrate around a source of free water, which may be a critical factor for survival of immature birds during drought. Birds usually do not travel over 1 km (0.6 mi) for water.
General management recommendations for improving quality of Northern bobwhite habitat include:
Natural Habitat Diversity - Maintain natural habitat diversity and consider
quail and other wildlife when land management practices are assessed. Quail
need a wide variety of native plant species, particularly in riparian zones.:
- Grama grass - forage area for broods seeking insects and light cover
- Broom snakeweed - emergency winter feed
- Mesquite - cover and food
- Wild grape
- Wild plum
Grazing - Heavy grazing is detrimental to Northern Bobwhite habitat and may be harmful during nesting.
Fencing - Fencing can be used to protect small areas (< 1 acre) from grazing
that provide resting and nesting cover, and brood rearing areas.
Special Management Practices (SMP)- SMP's such as soil tillage or planting food plots, shrubby species, skunkbush, wildplum, tree cholla, and prickly pear cactus provide good natural food and cover.
Brush Piles - Brush piles and stacks of old railroad ties that become overgrown by native vegetation are great for providing cover where natural cover is lacking.
Half-Cutting - In many areas the amount of woody cover at "quail level" is deficient or essentially nonexistent. Where there are trees that can be used a lot of half cuttings can be made. Half cutting of trees involve cutting a tree 1/2 to 2/3 of the way through leaving a hinge of bark attached so that the tree falls over yet remains alive. Essentially this creates a living brush pile. This is particularly useful in making covey headquarters. The effect is enhanced if trees can be found which have a vine such as grape attached that will grow to cover the entire brush pile. Several trees in one site, half cut so that they fall onto each other making a brush pile of from 20 to 50 feet, across are particularly effective. The best shrubs for our area are sumac, hackberry, mesquite, wild plum, and Texas persimmon. Mesquite brush can be half-cutting multiple trunks near ground level, and allowing tips of limbs to touch the ground and serve as protection for ground cover.
Water should be provided at ground level
Ramps in and out of stock tanks provide access and prevent drowning
Develop water sources where limited or absent
- catchment ponds
- spring development
- Pipe waste water from windmill away from drinking tub onto ground
- Fence 1/2-half acre livestock enclosure where waste water stands
- Place artificial brush pile in one corner to provide temporary cover until natural vegetation can reestablish
- Plant shrubs inside enclosure near water so quail may obtain extra water when stressed.
- Disk strips inside enclosure to allow forbs to grow
- Note: It usually takes a couple of years to establish a thriving quail population
The Birders Handbook: A field guide to the natural history of North American birds. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc.
Robbins, C.S., B. Bruun, and H.S. Zim. 1966. Birds of North America. New York: Western Publishing Company, Inc.
Lehmann, V.W. 1984. Bobwhites in the Rio Grande plain of Texas. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.
Oberholser, H.O. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press,
Texas Game, Fish, and Oyster Commission. 1945. Principal game birds and mammals of Texas. Texas Game, Fish, and Oyster Commission, Austin.
Jackson, A.S., C. Holt, and D.W. Lay. Bobwhite quail in Texas: habitat needs and management suggestions. Texas Parks & Wildlife, Austin. 21pp.
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