Shell’s Covert: A Quail Cannot Live on Lespedeza Alone

 

I hope to share with you this month some revealing — and maybe even shocking — facts about quail nutrition. Such as this …  in order to survive on a cold winter’s day, a bobwhite quail would have to eat 18,639 Kobe lespedeza seeds to meet its nutrition requirements for that single day. That means it would have to eat a lespedeza seed every 2 seconds for 10 hours!!! Hope I’ve hooked you into reading the rest of this, because there is a lot more!  Much of what follows I derived from the book “On Bobwhites” by Dr. Fred Guthery – University of Texas A&M Press. 2000. (Many inexpensive paperback versions are available on the internet.)

Many things go into an animal’s survival and nutrition is huge. But as you will see, like with humans, quail nutrition goes beyond calories alone. As biologists we have our share of inside jokes. One revolves around a seemingly long-held belief among some deer hunters that deer can feed on acorns year around. And that as long as you have an oak forest, the deer will be fine (try telling that to a deer in west Texas). The same is true for quail hunters. Many seem to believe that as long as you plant some lespedeza for them, things will be fine (try telling that to the quail that were around well before the lespedeza was). These long-held assumptions could not be further from the truth. One of the first rules of providing for animals is that you have to consider all their life stages and all seasons of the year.

Let’s begin this “lesson” with a simple chart on some common seeds and the calories they provide. A note on calories – on a cold winter’s day, meaning below freezing, a quail needs about 60 calories (kilocalories for those perfectionists) to sustain itself. To put that in perspective, think of a pack of “Nabs” – six to a pack, a pack being about 280 calories, meaning each Nab has about 47 calories. That should give you some perspective on the size of a food item with about 50 to 60 calories.

Seed Type

Seeds per ounce

Calories per ounce

Switchgrass

21,875

53

Partridge pea

4,081

68

Kobe (common) lespedeza

19,375

62

German millet

13,705

98

Ragweed

7,187

110

Corn

75

109

Soybeans

188

109

 

This chart reveals several things. One is that there are a lot of small seeds in an ounce. This also means that just because we find a quail’s crop stuffed with a particular seed it does not mean it is their favorite food. In fact, it may mean it is about all they can find.

Another is that some native seeds have as many or more calories than crop plants. Witness ragweed at 110 calories per ounce. Taking this a bit further, to make 60 calories a quail would need to eat 41 whole corn grains, or 103 soybeans, or 670 milo seeds, or 1160 sunflower seeds, or 3,605 partridge pea seeds, or 27,690 switch grass seeds. Taken on the surface, one can see where the “food plot” mentality came from. After all, if a quail can get its fill off 41 grains of corn, all we need to do for quail is plant corn plots, right?

Dr. Guthery referred to this as “the Thanksgiving Syndrome.” The human fixation on food led many well-meaning people in the early decades of quail recovery to believe that all that was necessary to quail recovery were grain food plots. And many times a goodhearted landowner set aside a ½ acre “patch” back next to a mature woodland or near a hay field, of something like corn, or milo.

Little islands of food popped up everywhere largely surrounded by a “sea” of useless cover for quail. And folks were mystified as to why “the quail never came back.” I am not knocking food plots. They have a place, for deer, for quail, for many things, but they have to be part of an entire package that addresses food, cover, nesting areas, brood-rearing areas, and relies first and foremost on native plant diversity and abundance. Food plots, and even supplemental feeding (as studies in the deep South have shown), have to be woven into a functioning ecosystem in order to be truly beneficial.

Let’s delve a little further by recognizing that fat and carbohydrates are but one aspect of nutrition. Enter the common black cricket. A rather mundane looking fellow at first glance, little would anyone know that as far as the total nutrition package – he is the “end all” for a bobwhite quail. He has, in fact, 30% more calories per ounce than corn. And as with many insects, he also contains the proteins and amino acids that are critical for feather development, egg development and many other things a quail needs beside calories. Insects average about 40% – 50% protein and contain key ingredients like methionine and cysteine without which a quail cannot persist.

I bet as you have read this you might have thought to yourself, “If partridge pea and lespedeza seemingly are not the best quail foods, why do these biologists recommend them so often?”

Very astute question, my friends. Guess what? Many legumes like these are rich in proteins and key amino acids. They help make up for the lack of insects during cold weather. I admit that I am guilty of recommending them too often, and I have perhaps been part of the problem. However, they are very reliable seeds, they often are recommended in ecosystems that have been depleted of many native legumes, and for two other big reasons…they draw insects by the gazillion in summer. And they tend to provide the type of plant structure quail, especially quail chicks, need to forage in. But, in truth, in order for these plants, or any others, to be helpful to quail, they have to be part of an entire system that includes thickets, weedy areas, grassy nesting areas, and night roosting areas – all in close proximity. A quote from Guthery’s book: “Energy costs rise with increasing foraging effort, increasing disturbance, and decreasing quality of cover.”

What a simple little quote, but it says a ton. If you desired to plant some milo strips for quail, weaving them within their thickets and weedy winter feeding areas is best. This decreases foraging effort, decreases exposure to predators and makes disturbance less likely. Just make sure that the milo strips don’t destroy the integrity of the natural cover. This quote might also make the more thoughtful hunters recognize that repeatedly hunting an area during cold weather and disturbing quail there could add to mortality beyond those killed by shot.

To wrap up, quail eat a huge variety of seeds, nuts, plant parts, greens, berries, and insects. To manage for them means to provide a rich, diverse, healthy plant environment that also attracts insects and provides escape cover. Keep the simple “Thirds rule” in mind. Manage for a third thickets and escape cover, a third weedy, fallow areas with a good vegetation canopy over some bare dirt like ragweed, partridge pea, beggar-weed etc. , and a third in areas a bit more grassy for nesting and night roosting.

Lastly, keep this old adage in mind “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”  That same wingstem, or stick weed (verbesina), that farmers hate so much – turns out to be a great quail food plant, and provides pretty good structure. So think before you bush-hog.

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