Land Stewardship
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Land Stewardship

Plant Cover for Texas Quail

This story was originally published at wild-wonderings.blogspot.com in June 2014. For the most up-to-date information, please visit our website at nri.tamu.edu.

Food and cover are the two most essential needs of a quail. As non-migratory birds with short lifespans, quail need their essentials close at hand; for every acre of land, all cover types should be included that most benefit quail (TPWD, 2005). There are four cover types that can overlap, meaning multiple cover types may be provided by one plant. Those cover types are: nesting, screening, woody, and loafing cover. In Texas, there are four species of quail: Northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), Montezuma (Cyrtonyx montezumae), Gambel’s (Callipepla gambelii), and scaled (Callipepla squamata); although each species has the same general needs, plants used for each cover can differ by species and ecoregion.

Nesting cover is necessary for most quail species, including the Northern bobwhite and Montezuma quail, since they construct small bowl-shaped depressions and need warm-season native bunchgrasses, such as bluestem (Andropogon), threeawns (Aristida), and balsamscales (Elyonurus), to curve into a dome shaped roof to hide the nest from predators (Harveson et. al 2007, Hernández and Peterson 2007). These bunchgrasses are most advantageous when basketball-sized in diameter and taller than 8 inches (TPWD, 2005), and the lack of these necessary grasses is the most widespread limiting factor of all game birds across Texas (TPWD, 2008). Gambel’s and scaled quail, in contrast, make little use of nesting cover aside from occasionally placing their nest beneath a shrub or prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) to shade the nest (Kuvlesky et. al 2007, Silvy et. al 2007).

Large clumps of prickly pear can be beneficial to quail.

Dummy nests can be constructed to learn about the construction of quail nests which alongside a scent station can help determine more about nest predation in a specific area. Great care must be taken not to allow cattle to graze bunchgrasses below 8 inches, which will be hard since they are preferred over introduced grasses as forage. It is best to rotate cattle to different pastures to allow plants time to recover and to establish a good stocking rate to avoid having too many animals on the land.

As chicks begin to hatch, they cannot fly making bare ground necessary for movement; however, this also leaves chicks very vulnerable to predators (TPWD, 2005). Screening cover consists of a canopy of tall bunchgrasses, broad-leafed weeds or forbs, and shrubs to screen the birds from predators and adverse conditions (TPWD, 2005). This canopy allows the chicks to roam on the bare ground without battling through a dense forest of plants and, according to Rollins and Carroll (2001), still allows protection from predators including northern harriers (Circus cyaneus) and accipiters (Accipiter spp.). Aside from protection, these forbs and grasses provide a year-round supply of food: insects attracted to the plants during nesting in spring and summer and seeds in the fall and winter (TPWD, 2005). Key seed-producing plants include snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata), Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), panic grass (Panicum spp.) western ragweed (Ambrosia cumanensis), giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida), paspalum grass (Paspalum spp.), and Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense); key plants for quail in the rolling plains include buffalo bur (Solanum rostratum), clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra), and erect dayflower (Commelina erecta).

Flowering buffalo bur

Decrease of tall-grass cover for screening and nesting can be detrimental to quail; the Montezuma quail, for example, will be extirpated from an area if 40 or more percent is removed (Harveson et. al 2007).

Woody cover, often referred to as loafing cover, is the clumps of woody plants used by quail for protection (TPWD, 2005). Not only does the woody cover allow for protection from aerial predators, woody cover harbors the quail from adverse weather conditions like rain, sun and wind (TPWD, 2005). According to a Bobwhite Quail habitat evaluation guide developed for the Bobwhite Brigades, an ideal area has 20–40% of woody cover with each suitable clump being about 10 feet in diameter and within softball throwing distance from each other. This allows for quail to easily move from cover to cover without much fear of being somebody’s lunch.

Lotebush can provide both food and cover for quail.

Lotebush (Zizyphus obtusifolia), mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and Shinnery oak (Quercus havardii) provide excellent woody cover (TPWD, 2005). However, if plants in an area become too dense, grasses and forbs used for other cover types and food sources will have limited use (TPWD, 2008). One way to limit woody species abundance is through prescribed burns.

A pair of scaled quail utilizing supplemental water in their typical west Texas habitat.

Gambel’s quail, once again an exception, prefer a more dense cover to loaf around in while Silvy et. al (2007) found that scaled quail prefer a less congested cover with only 10 percent woody cover (TPWD, 2005).

Half cutting mesquite trees can increase suitable quail habitat (left). Large mesquites can provide shade and cover from predators (right).
Interspersion of woody plants in the Rolling Plains Ecoregion of Texas.

Creating a mosaic or “crazy quilt” of different habitat types, known as interspersion, not only allows for excellent habitat for quail but improves the ecosystem for other species including Texas horned lizards (Phrynosoma cornutum), and an abundance of quail may be an indicator of healthy rangeland ecosystems. An easy rule of thumb for quail habitat is the “Softball Habitat Evaluation Technique.” To find more information on how to get involved and make a difference publications including Habitat Monitoring for Quail on Texas Rangelands can be found at the AgriLife Bookstore with supplementing videos on the Texas A&M Wildlife and Fisheries Extension YouTube page.

This article was developed through the Reversing the Quail Decline Initiative funded by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department through Upland Game Bird Stamp funds.

Literature Cited

Harveson, L. A., T. H. Allen, F. Hernández, D. A. Holdermann, J. M. Mueller, and M. S. Whitley. 2007. Montezuma Quail Ecology and Life History. Pages 23–39. Brennan, L. A., editor. 2007. Texas Quails Ecology and Management. Texas A&M University Press, College Station, USA.

Hernández, F., M. J. Peterson. 2007. Northern Bobwhite Ecology and Life History. Pages 41-64. Brennan, L. A., editor. 2007. Texas Quails Ecology and Management. Texas A&M University Press, College Station, USA.

Kuvlesky Jr., W. P., S. J. DeMaso, and M. D. Hobson. 2007. Gambel’s Quail Ecology and Life History. Pages 6–22. Brennan, L. A., editor. 2007. Texas Quails Ecology and Management. Texas A&M University Press, College Station, USA.

Rollins, D., and J. P. Carroll. 2001. Impacts of Predation on Northern Bobwhite and Scaled Quail. Wildlife Society Bulletin 29: 39–51.

Silvy, N. J., D. Rollins, and S. W. Whisenant. 2007. Scaled Quail Ecology and Life History. Pages 65–88. Brennan, L. A., editor. 2007. Texas Quails Ecology and Management. Texas A&M University Press, College Station, USA.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). 2005. Where have all the quail gone? PWD RP W7000–1025.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). 2008. The Upland Game Bird Management Handbook for Texas Landowners. PWD RP W7000–1558 (08/08).

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