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OUTDOORS: Giving bobwhites the edge

Greater concern for the conservation and proper maintenance of field-edge habitat goes a long way toward halting the decline of bobwhite quail populations.

Greater concern for the conservation and proper maintenance of field-edge habitat goes a long way toward halting the decline of bobwhite quail populations.

Native bobwhite quail populations in the southeastern United States are now only about 20 percent of what they were in the 1960s. There are a number of factors involved in this drastic decline, but experts agree the most important is the deficiency of habitat where breeding quail can successfully nest and raise chicks.

This becomes very evident when we’re made aware of the noticeably high natural mortality rates of quail populations in any given area.

“About 80 percent of the quail in a population die each year, even without human impact or intervention,” said wildlife biologist Stanley Stewart. “With such high mortality even under the best of circumstances, a successful nesting and breeding season is critical for bobwhites to successfully restore their numbers from one year to the next. Successful breeding is measured by nesting success and chick survival, which highly depend on the availability of nesting cover and viable brood habitat.”

In our part of the country, including “Quail Capital of the World” southwest Georgia, the ideal quail nesting sites are composed of standing broomsedge mixed with briars, legumes, and other broadleaf weed species. Adult bobwhites will often construct nests at the bases of broomsedge clumps, using the dead grass blades for nesting material.

The mix of broomsedge and broadleaf plants helps conceal the birds and nests from predators while affording the birds open lanes of travel to and from the nest.

After the eggs hatch, the young chicks must have an abundance of insects for growth and survival.

“Flightless bobwhite quail chicks are extremely vulnerable to a wide variety of predators and require sheltering plant covers that properly conceal them as they move and feed,” Stewart explained. “Ideal habitat for the bobwhite broods consists of several species of annual broadleaf weeds, especially plants such as ragweed and partridge pea. Annual weed habitat is normally rich in insect life and weed foliage forms concealing, thick canopies that hide quail broods from their natural predators. Most of today’s landscapes, which are dominated by thick woods, intensive agricultural practices, mowed hayfields, and grazed pasture, are as a rule very deficient in natural plant covers. Quail simply cannot flourish and thrive without an abundance of natural grasses and weeds to provide nesting cover and brood habitat.”

According to Stewart and successful quail habitat managers throughout the region, agricultural field borders offer excellent locations for conservation-minded individuals to begin installing and managing good, viable bobwhite reproductive habitat.

Thirty-foot wide border zones that are left free of crops and are allowed to volunteer in natural weeds and grasses provide quail with nesting cover and brood-rearing habitat in agricultural environments.

As a rule, farms with field border habitats on less than 10 percent of the field areas contain four times as many quail nests as farms with no field border systems. Border covers are also valuable for other wildlife, including various grassland birds that are also declining in population.

In years past, edges and borders were the norm in Southeastern agricultural terrain. Smaller field tracts separated by hedgerows, windbreaks, and overgrown fence lines provided most of the nesting and brood-rearing habitat needed by quail and other weed-dependent species.

Today’s sprawling-field agricultural mentality has resulted in the loss of much of this prime habitat.

“Natural field borders also work to trap sediments and pesticides and help greatly minimize agricultural pollution,” Stewart said. “Permanently managed field border zones have proven to be much more worthwhile for achieving overall farm conservation than to farm them for their minimal crop yields.”

Field border habitats should be intelligently managed with a rotational system of late-winter and early-spring disking.

Management “rules” call for disking one-fourth to one-third of an established border system each year, in convenient accessible segments. A segment, for example, may be one entire side of a field. Rotate disking to an adjacent segment each following year. With a rotational disking method, most of the field border cover remains standing each year, but is managed in weed and grass stages perpetually useful to quail for nesting and raising broods. Borders with Bermuda grass or other exotic grass encroachment will require herbicide treatments to remove the exotics so natural plant growth is not hindered. Exotic vegetation growth should be carefully monitored as many exotic invasive species grow rampantly in “disturbed-ground” habitat.

“Field border habitats of natural grasses and weeds will almost certainly increase quail populations on farm lands because they readily supply critical reproductive habitats that are not present in the majority of today’s landscapes,” Stewart concluded. “Field border systems will not cure all the problems associated with the decline of native bobwhite quail, but in locations where they are being used they are definitely giving bobwhites the edge they need to shift from declining to increasing populations.”