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Northern bobwhite quail were once staple gamebirds for Midwestern settlers, but changes in the Midwestern landscape threatened their populations throughout the 1900s. Read on to see how they’re doing today and get more closely acquainted with Iowa’s only quail: the bobwhite.
Bobwhites were not terribly prevalent before pioneer settlement, as they preferred disturbed habitats like recently burned grassland and weedy forest edges. However, as row crops were introduced to the Midwest, the land’s regular disturbance and the new abundance of food led to enormous population booms. Bobwhite quail became a staple food source for early Midwesterners, along with prairie chickens and passenger pigeons. Bobwhites remain the primary game bird in southern states with no ring-necked pheasants.
However, the industrialization of the landscape in the last century led to greatly reduced habitat, including tighter crop rows with fewer insects and urban development, and bobwhite populations plummeted. Today, conservation efforts and habitat restorations across the Midwest have quail numbers starting to recover, and their future growth will continue to depend on the space we manage for them.
Bobwhites generally like less dense cover than pheasants. These barrel-chested quail start life as bumblebee-sized chicks, and bare ground is easier for their tiny legs to navigate. As they grow, mixed grasses and thorny thickets provide optimal hiding spots for nests and adult groups called coveys. Pheasants have larger babies and a less social nature, so they can stick to areas with denser cover, like cattails.
Bunches of Babies
Bobwhite quail can repopulate an area quickly because hens have an average of twelve eggs per clutch, and it’s not uncommon for hens to raise two or three broods in the same breeding season. Some hens do this by mating with a male, laying their clutch and leaving it for him to incubate while they move on to other mates, and others simply lay another clutch after the last has hatched. When the chicks emerge they are fully feathered and ready to move, but they’re still easy prey for a wide range of predators, including chipmunks, moles, raccoons, opossums, domestic cats, foxes and raptors. To protect their young, the chicks’ parents may feign injury, such as a broken wing, to such lure predators away. But after one or two short weeks of parental help, the baby bobwhites have to forage and survive on their own.
Weather or Not, They Survive
Unfortunately, ground-dwelling birds like quail are particularly susceptible to declines during years of drought, when there is little food, and years of heavy flooding, which can reduce available habitat and wash away young. Their populations also suffer during harsh winters, which make it difficult for groups of adult coveys to find enough food. Still, these birds are short-lived and prolific by nature (the average lifespan of a bobwhite is only six months) and the birds that do survive are likely some of the smartest animals. These can repopulate available habitat quickly (as mentioned above), and a bad season or two is not likely to eliminate entire populations.
After breeding season, bobwhites congregate in extremely large groups, which then break up to form coveys of eight to 20 birds. These are the groups the bobwhites will stay in all winter, and this social reorganization is called a fall shuffle. The shuffle prevents different groups from becoming isolated and inbred. Individuals in a covey rely on each other for body heat and safety until the following spring. To detect threats quickly, the covey forms an outward-facing circle when resting to see a threat from any side. In early spring the coveys break up into territorial mating pairs again, and you can hear the males’ characteristic “bob-WHITE” call.
Hunting for Habitat
In Iowa, some of the best bobwhite habitat is managed and improved through the DNR’s Iowa Habitat Access Program, which allows landowners to receive assistance for creating wildlife habitat in exchange for allowing the pubic to hunt there. Most of the areas managed for bobwhites specifically are in the southern three tiers of Iowa counties. Thanks to this management and recent mild winters, this last year’s bobwhite harvest was 165 percent greater than the 2014 harvest.