Thomas V. Dailey, Ph.D.
NBCI Science Coordinator
A striking bobwhite phenomenon is their covey call in fall. As sure as the approach of winter, broods and adults are re-organizing into coveys, and apparently this process is facilitated by pre-dawn communication. The calls are the basis for sophisticated biological assessments such as NBCI’s Coordinated Implementation Program, and for landowners and quail hunters to identify the presence and abundance of bobwhites. Check out several NBCI field videos on listening for the covey call on NBCI’s technical web site Quailcount.org, and on the NBCI YouTube channel (search on Bobwhites’ Koi-Lee).
The past few years’ high quail numbers in much of the species’ range provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set a personal record, either for the most quail you’ve ever heard, or, if quail are scarce in your area, to measure, via sound, if they have reappeared. In times of abundance and mild weather some bobwhites move from habitat strongholds to marginal habitat, so you might be pleasantly surprised by their reappearance.
Bobwhites roost during the mild weather of fall in herbaceous vegetation in open landscapes (grass, weeds, crop fields, etc.), rather than among shrubs, briars, fence rows and woods. Perhaps these open-landscape nocturnal roost sites are selected to avoid raptor perches in trees and mammalian travel paths along habitat edges. Considering that bobwhites spend more of their life in nocturnal roost habitat than in any other single activity, this habitat is important to investigate.
A best (research) practice is to find, flush and count quail in the coveys you hear calling. Flushing calling coveys increases your identification of roosting habitat, accuracy of identifying the locations of calling coveys, and accuracy of total quail, via calculation of actual average covey size. Coveys often move away from roosts soon after calling, so try to flush them soon after sunrise.
Among wildlife vocalizations, bobwhites are unique because their calling in fall is predictably 15-40 minutes before sunrise. This “koi lee” sounding call likely facilitates the formation of coveys from broods. Calling is best heard on mornings when barometric pressure is high, wind speed is low, and there are few clouds. You can hear calling quail about 547 yards away, or an area around you of 194 acres.
If you hear one covey calling, research indicates there could be another covey present, and you could double your observation to an estimated two coveys on 194 acres. A rule-of-thumb average covey size is 12 quail, which translates to an estimated 1 quail per 8 acres. In the better quail habitat areas, biologists expect 1 quail per 2 to 4 acres.
If bobwhites are scarce in your area, here’s a tip—during the pre-sunrise listening period play the fall covey call with your smartphone and a Bluetooth speaker. When quail are scarce this can be the catalyst for a wild covey to respond.
Bobwhite biologists have conducted considerable research to understand fall bobwhite calling behavior. NBCI’s new online version of the National Quail Symposium Proceedings has many of these study reports—search on “covey calling.” Several NBCI partners have elaborate protocol on the technique–search the internet for “covey calling” or check these websites:
Tall Timbers Research Station, http://talltimbers.org/how-many-bobwhite-coveys-are-there/
University of Missouri http://extension.missouri.edu/p/G9433.
Texas A&M University https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Bn2p8sCTW4
All bobwhite enthusiasts should take advantage of this unique opportunity to better understand our favorite bird. As said by the biologist in the Koi-Lee YouTube about hearing fall coveys, “It doesn’t get a whole lot more exciting.”
Are you a landowner that has prescribed burning to be completed in the upcoming months? If so, you should already be in the planning stages for what needs to be done. And one of the most important items in your toolbox is a plan of operations that outlines how, when and where the burn will take place.
You should have your plan written ahead of burning season to take advantage of good burning weather conditions whenever they occur. The plan can be as simple or as complex as you want, but there are some important items that should be in every plan. (For even more information about what should go in a prescribed fire plan for your specific state, you should contact the state forestry or fire agency at http://stateforesters.org/regional-state.)
If you have plans to conduct a prescribe burn this burning season, contact your local forestry agency as soon as possible to get on their list for firebreak installation. If you’re not comfortable with conducting your own burn, or you don’t have a contractor, ask if they assist landowners in conducting prescribed burns. If so, get on that list too. Just remember, they may not always be able to get to everyone that requests assistance because of varying circumstances, i.e., weather, number of requests, wildfire danger, etc. If the local forestry agency doesn’t assist with burning or they have a large backlog of requests, they should have a list of contractors who conduct prescribed burning in your area.
Another beneficial item in the toolbox is a map of the area to be burned. It should show where firebreaks should be installed, along with identifying any natural firebreaks that may be in the burn area. A map should also show any sensitive areas and/or areas such as improved areas, areas of young reproduction, etc. that you want excluded from fire. The map should also indicate the desired wind direction for conducting the prescribed burn, where the fire should be ignited, control areas, etc.
The fire weather forecast is your best friend as it comes closer to the time for conducting any prescribed fires because the weather doesn’t always cooperate. Plans may be to burn on a certain day, but the fire weather forecast may not be the best on that day, so burn managers and landowners have to be flexible with their calendar. Give Prescribed Burning Your FIRST Priority When Weather Conditions Are Favorable.
Some states also require notification be given when conducting a prescribed burn and a permit number issued. It’s always a good idea to notify the authorities when planning a prescribed burn, regardless.
When burning for bobwhites and other wildlife, prescribed burns should be carried out on a more frequent basis than when burning for other purposes (preferably every TWO years and no more than three years between fires). Burning on a 4-5 year rotation WILL NOT maintain bobwhite habitat. Burn units should also be smaller (a goal should be 50 acres or less) with adjacent areas of approximately the same size being left unburned. Burning large unbroken areas at one time leaves large areas with no escape cover for bobwhites. Having a mix of smaller burned and unburned areas within a stand or forest provides plenty of escape cover. Unburned areas should be close enough to burned areas for short fliers like bobwhites.
Remember, prescribed fire is one of the most important tools, that we, as landowners and land managers, have in managing and maintaining the habitat that we want and that bob requires. The other, in my opinion, is the paint gun for marking the trees that we either want to leave or remove from the forest. But that is for another time.
This month’s BLOG is not only late – it is short and to the point.
I am proud of our Private Lands Wildlife Biologist team. We have become known as the “Quail team” but this group of biologists is so much more than that. Their capabilities have grown to include a wide array of habitat management skills across a wide range of ecosystems. And they continue to improve and broaden their capabilities. It is hard to believe they have been working with us for almost 8 years now. Many of them are playing key roles in the quail world.
Most recent examples include leading a major marketing strategy for the Communications Subcommittee of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee, and playing key roles in the design of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife Program’s new Cattle and Quail Initiative for Virginia – providing a template for many other states involved. They called themselves the B.I.G. Team – for Bobwhites in Grasslands. The link provided with this BLOG will take you to their latest edition of the Bobwhite Bulletin. It speaks for itself. We hope you enjoy it.
This year our team was lucky enough to be able to attend the Quail 8 Symposium in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee and heavily supported by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (a nice job to all involved!). The Quail Symposium Series is held only once every 5 years. It is said that the bobwhite quail is one of the most studied animals in the annals of wildlife science. I don’t know how to verify that, but in this year’s symposium series there are 94 manuscripts from 72 authors. Most of the general public and most quail hunters do not know about all this work. But it is the job of project leaders like me all across the bobwhite’s range to read, participate and understand the latest in quail science and get it to you.
Translocating Wild Quail
I am often asked why we do not actively translocate bobwhite quail like we have done with turkeys, deer, bears and other species to speed up re-population efforts. The truth is we have tried it here in Virginia back in the late 1990s. And it has been tried in multiple states with varying degrees of success (or failure in many cases). Over a 50- year period about 900 wild turkeys were relocated in Virginia. This took a lot of work and it was successful in many cases.
One of the first differences between quail and turkeys is that there were millions of acres of turkey habitat into which to transport turkeys. Another big difference shown by modern research is that it takes far more quail to engender a response than it does turkeys, or deer, or bears. The synthesis of the best information available today states that in order to successfully repopulate an area with quail: 1) the area must be at least 1,500 acres of very good quail habitat; 2) target bobwhite population at the end of the translocation period should be about 800 quail. This is accomplished by translocation of 100 wild quail per year for 3 years and then hoping for good reproduction from those translocated individuals, 3) some wild quail should be present on the site before any translocation occurs, 4) and source populations should be disease free and obtained from as close a source as possible (Martin et.al – 2017).
There is more, but I hope this illustrates that translocating wild quail effectively will be an intense process that will only work well in select settings. We are exploring the possibilities in Virginia, and it is in our future, but we will do it right or not at all.
Many landowners struggle with assessing their quail populations. Traditionally, some form of June whistling male counts are used to track trends. In the last decade the practice of using fall morning covey counts became the gold standard. This method allowed a very solid assessment just prior to hunting season, and could be used to adjust harvest levels on individual properties.
The fall method tends to be more time and labor intensive than June whistle counts. A study was conducted to assess whether June whistling male counts could be correlated to fall density (Sisson and Terhune. 2017). The study showed that: “Peak number of males heard in spring and number of coveys heard in autumn were strongly correlated for all points combined; indicating that spring whistle counts are a reliable tool for assessing bobwhite relative abundance on sites where autumn covey counts are precluded or the information is needed before autumn.”
Landowners who are interested in learning how to do June call counts on their properties should contact us. It is fairly simple and we can talk you through it.
Finding Quail in the Field
One often hears quail hunters lamenting how tough it is to find quail, even in areas where they know there are quail. A study using radio-collared quail coveys, led by Tall Timbers Research Station, showed that, on average, good pointing dogs only cover enough area within a given property to have a chance of detecting about 52% of available coveys (Terhune et al. 2017). The overall probability of a dog finding a covey is about 38%. I interpret this to mean hunters should more thoroughly cover the grounds they hunt, particularly when they believe “quail should be there.”
I understand to train and keep a dog in birds now-a-days often means hunting pen-raised quail. But a study conducted in Kentucky suggests that when hunters have become accustomed to hunting pen-raised quail, their expectations when hunting wild quail may be unrealistic (Orange et al. 2017). Using radioed wild coveys and pen-raised coveys on public lands, it was demonstrated that hunters found only 29% percent of wild coveys. And they were 8.6 times more likely to find pen-raised coveys. This suggests that hunters pursuing wild quail must be educated about the differences in detection rates and expectations should be realistic to maintain support for wild quail restoration on public hunting lands.
And what about eye worms? No, they do not look like eyes, but they are often found in a quail’s eyes, especially in Texas. Over the last few years there has been a great deal of publicity surrounding eye worms being detected at high levels in Texas quail. Our quail hunters often asked me about eye worms in Virginia’s quail, so we reached out to Dr. Dale Rollins and his team in Texas to help us examine some Virginia quail. Their study, surprisingly, did find some eye worms in Virginia’s quail (Kubečka et al. 2017). Eye worms were detected at rates of 59.1% in Texas, 52.1% in Oklahoma, 14.8% in Virginia (4 out of 27 submitted – low sample size) and 1.6% in Alabama. They were non-existent in other states tested. There were also many more eye worms per quail in Texas. Of the 4 that had eye worms in Virginia, only 1 or 2 worms were detected, where as many 109 were detected in one Texas quail. While at Quail 8, Dr. Rollins team (THANKS!) gave us a hands-on class in how to examine quail for eye worms and we will be examining about 250 more heads collected by hunters here last year But currently we do not believe eye worms are an issue in Virginia. Texas is still working on the situation there.
… just some of what we learned at Quail 8 while working 12 to 14 hour days on behalf of bobwhites.
Sources all came from this year’s Quail 8 Proceedings.
- Martin, R. Applegate, T. Dailey, M. Downey, B. Emmerich, F. Hernández, M. McConnell, K. Reyna, R. Ruzicka, and T. Terhune, II. 2017. Translocation as a population restoration technique for northern bobwhites: a review and synthesis.
- Clay Sisson and Theron Terhune, II. 2017. Use of spring whistle counts to predict northern bobwhite relative abundance.
- Terhune, II, D. McGrath, S. Wood, and J. Martin. 2017. Hunter-Covey interactions using pointing bird dogs.
- Orange, J. Yeiser, D. Baxley, J. Morgan, and B. Robinson. 2017. Evaluating hunting success of pen-reared and wild northern bobwhite in a reclaimed Kentucky mineland.
- Kubečka, A. Bruno, and D. Rollins. 2017. Geographic survey of Oxyspirura petrowi among wild northern bobwhite in the United States.
The federal farm bill’s Conservation Title provides the nation’s single largest source of money and technical assistance for quail habitat restoration. The periodic reauthorization of the federal farm bill provides an opportunity for quail enthusiasts to advocate for improved bobwhite habitat on private lands. The 2014 farm bill is scheduled to be reauthorized in 2018 and our elected leaders are already making decisions about its conservation features.
Thanks to support from Park Cities Quail, a Texas-based sportsman’s conservation organization, the NBCI is engaged actively in advocating three top farm bill priorities for quail habitat restoration and management:
Natives First – NBCI’s signature, game-changing initiative would establish a native vegetation standard as the default choice for all USDA conservation programs. Natives First would curtail the longstanding USDA practice of subsidizing invasive exotic forages and other introduced vegetation, such as K-31 fescue, Bermuda grass, and old-world bluestems.
Short-term rotational CRP –this concept, a variation of which is already being piloted as an Iowa SAFE practice, would establish a habitat management technique for CRP that would foster better quality quail brooding habitat over a longer portion of CRP contracts. This concept also would also relieve landowners of the need to implement “mid-contract management” provisions on affected acres in many CRP contracts.
Forest thinning/burning incentives – Across the majority of bobwhite range, forest management provides some of the best bobwhite habitat restoration opportunity. Incentives are needed to assist landowners to thin forests to allow development of a native grass understory followed by frequent prescribed fire to create ideal bobwhite savanna habitat in forested landscapes.
The NBCI is taking every opportunity to inform Congress about these quail-friendly policies that should be included in the farm bill. So far, we have advocated them at the following meetings and events.
- Testimony for the record of a June 29 US Senate Agriculture Committee hearing concerning conservation and forestry.
- A June 30 NBCI—hosted Congressional tour of quail habitat management, aimed at informing decision makers about farm bill policies needed to achieve quality habitat restoration for quail, grassland birds and pollinators. Congressional staff, wildlife conservation organizations and USDA officials attended the tour, at Chino Farms on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the site of the state’s highest bobwhite density. They now have a high degree of awareness about the value of native grassland restoration enabled by farm bill programs.
- Dale Rollins spoke to the July 31 US House of Representatives farm bill listening session in San Angelo, Texas. Dr. Rollins, representing NBCI and the Rolling Plains Quail Research Foundation, began his testimony with the “Bob-White” call, followed by very pointed comments referring to the bobwhite as the “canary of the prairie.” Dr. Rollins explained to the Chairman of the House Agriculture and other Representatives that the bobwhite is a surrogate for many other species of wildlife and pollinators that are indicators of quality habitat. He emphasized the importance of a native vegetation policy and the need to make CRP and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) more beneficial to quail and other wildlife.
So the NBCI is working diligently to spread the word about bobwhite needs on private lands and as elements of the farm bill. We urge all who care about wild quail and quail habitat to reach out to your elected representatives and support NBCI’s farm bill priorities. Contact information for all Members of Congress may be found at the following link: https://www.c-span.org/congress/members/