Missouri Quail Numbers Down Statewide, Up in Managed Areas

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Quail numbers are rebounding where sportsmen, citizen conservationists and conservation agencies are building suitable habitat.

Missouri Quail  Numbers Down Statewide, Up in Managed AreasJEFFERSON CITY–2008 will not go down in history as a banner year for Missouri quail hunters, but bobwhites are making a comeback in places where sporting groups and conservation agencies have given the doughty little birds a fighting chance.

Quail are more at the mercy of the elements than deer and turkey, whose larger bodies enable them to survive extended periods of extreme cold and find food beneath ice and snow. Devastating ice storms in January and December 2007 hit quail hard, and biologists found quail frozen to death following a snow storm in northwestern Missouri. February and March were colder than normal, and another ice storm hit southwest Missouri and the Ozarks in February.

Torrential rains began in the spring. Quail can make second and even third nesting attempts if their initial efforts are drowned out, but flooding continued intermittently throughout the summer. The record-breaking rains took a terrible toll on bobwhite nests and on their bumble bee-sized hatchlings, which cannot survive prolonged wetting until their fuzzy plumage is replaced by more weather-proof feathers several weeks after hatching.

“Quail numbers were low going into the 2008 nesting season,” said Resource Scientist Beth Cole, who is the Missouri Department of Conservation’s top quail manager. “They had poor success rearing chicks this year, so we are going into fall with fewer quail than we have seen in quite some time.”

Surveys showed this year’s quail numbers down 12 percent from 2007 and 25 percent from the last 10 years’ average. The number of chicks counted was down 45 percent from last year. Total quail counts were highest in north-central and northeastern Missouri (up 51.8 percent from 2007) and lowest in the northern and eastern Ozark border regions and southeastern Missouri. Quail numbers were up 8.6 percent compared to last year in the Ozarks, but down in other parts of the state.

Even when the deck is stacked against it, however, the plucky little bobwhite perseveres, surviving in reduced numbers until more favorable conditions return. Where active quail management is underway, quail numbers actually are increasing.

“We are getting a ton of good reports on October quail counts from landowners and conservation areas that have been doing edge feathering, CP33 and other quail-friendly practices,” said Private Land Programs Supervisor Bill White. “Everyone I am hearing from reports increases in the number of quail compared to 2007.”

The lesson in these reports, said White, is that quail can thrive, even under less-than-ideal conditions, if they have quality habitat. He said some very important quail management work in Missouri is being done by citizen conservation groups like Quail Unlimited and Quail Forever that work with landowners to increase and improve quail habitat. Individual landowners who take advantage of state and federal incentives also are seeing gains in bobwhite numbers. The Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative is providing leadership at a national level.

White said managing for quail habitat on conservation areas is important. However, all the land the agency manages is less than 2 percent of Missouri’s total area, and much of what the Conservation Department manages is not suitable for quail.

“If we bring back the bobwhite quail in Missouri, it will happen on private land,” said White. “The best thing quail hunters can do to ensure the future of their sport is to work on habitat themselves and join one of these groups that are working with landowners to create and enhance quail habitat.”

Management practices that help quail also benefit other wildlife. Among the most notable beneficiaries of quail management are grassland birds that migrate between North America and South and Central America. Quail and songbird enthusiasts have combined efforts because of the common habitat deficiencies faced by multiple bird species.

Before European settlement, Missouri’s landscape was dominated by open lands, ranging from unbroken tall-grass prairie in the northwest to savannas extending deep into the Ozarks. A host of wildlife, including prairie chickens, thrived in these open lands. Many of these species also are struggling for survival today.

For a video summary of this year’s quail hunting outlook, visit youtube.com/watch?v=2Koue51ScDw. To learn more about quail management opportunities and efforts to maintain open-land habitat in Missouri go to mdc.mo.gov/n2115.