... Or, How do Bobwhites Fare in Bad Winters?

Winter snow scene  
   

 

The topic on everyone’s mind these past few weeks has been, “When will this blasted winter ever end?” Few Americans escaped winter’s effects this year. In my home state of Virginia it has been one of the worst 3 or 4 winters in my 51 years of breathing air on this planet. I do recall back in the late 1970s a couple of winters in southwest Virginia that were severe by most standards. Of course, compared to Wisconsin where quail used to thrive, and where some important early research was done on quail (Paul Errington – Aldo Leopold’s first doctoral student in wildlife), I suspect our winter would not have been considered severe.

I won’t get too scientific on you, partly because I don’t have a great deal of time to really delve into old literature and see what I can find about winter weather’s effects on bobwhite populations. But also because I prefer to take a practical approach whenever possible. I picture a bobwhite covey out there making a snowman of their own, using partridge pea seeds for buttons, of course, lespedeza for eyes and maybe a beggar weed pod for a long nose. Sorry, I’m digressing.

Bobwhites occur in a very wide geographic area – from Mexico all the way into the northern prairies and east through Michigan, Wisconsin and even into southern Maine at one point – though I doubt many occur there now. Obviously, they can adapt to extreme winter weather. Some say, perhaps, that a Texas quail is vastly different from a Wisconsin quail, but in reality those who get into sub-speciation are truly hair splitters –the similarities among sub-species far outweigh the differences.

What we do know about bobwhites, as for just about any other animal, is that when they become stressed by cold they need more calories to maintain their body heat. Guthery (2000) in his book “On Bobwhites” (available in NBCI’s online store at http://bringbackbobwhites.org/donate-2/online-store) states that at 32 degrees (F) a bobwhite needs 50 kilocalories a day to maintain itself. This equals about 550 milo seeds per bobwhite.

Of course, bobwhites have other ways of mitigating for cold weather. They roost at night in a tightly packed disk which helps them conserve heat, among other things. They also seek areas where cover and terrain gives them protection from winds. During the day they may seek small micro-climate areas on southern slopes where the sun provides some thermal relief. And, of course, they eat more.

All wild animals are extremely resourceful when it comes to surviving, but they can and do reach a point when cold weather becomes deadly…well at least it is the proximate cause. I would argue the ultimate cause is often the fact that they inhabit “sub-optimal range.” In layman’s terms that means their habitat is not adequate.

During the mid-1990s I was a field crew leader on a  Virginia quail study involving numerous bobwhites with radio-transmitters affixed during February. We were actually able to track them through 2 substantial snowfalls during the first and third weeks of February that year. We found  they shifted their range and moved into pine forests where heavy cover limited snow depth and also where numerous greenbrier thickets occurred. We did not do a food analysis, but assumed that they were feeding on abundant greenbrier berries, as grouse often do. There were a couple of occasions when we did believe quail died due to exposure. These were  instances when the weather changed rapidly, going from very warm to very cold overnight in late winter – similar to some conditions we have seen in Virginia this year.

In Oklahoma, during a study in the early to mid-1990s (Peoples et al., 1994 – Progress Report Packsaddle Northern Bobwhite Mortality Study), researchers found that as much as 19% of winter mortality was due to severe weather. However, when averaged out over all seasons and areas, weather only accounted for 2% of annual mortality. When an average quail population suffers 80% to 90% mortality annually – which is a now a known, well-accepted fact throughout much of their range – it would seem that winter weather overall is a minor mortality factor. I believe that to be true here.

This winter’s weather probably did kill a few quail. But quail are adapted to high mortality rates and if they have adequate habitat and a good nesting season, they can bounce back faster than a super ball coming at you off a brick wall. Our primary problem here in Virginia has been, and continues to be, too little good quail habitat. Other factors compound this problem. New research on neonicotinoid (nicotine based) pesticides suggests they could play a role.

Regardless of other factors, quail can’t survive on concrete, asphalt or fescue. Every landowner’s best insurance for having quail year-in and year-out is to have excellent quail habitat. And as much of it as you can stand.

March 21, 2014

Marc Puckett

 

 

Small Game Project Co-Leader

Virginia Department of Game and Inland FisheriesMarc and daughter

 

Marc was born in Pulaski, Virginia in 1962. He earned his BS in Forestry and Wildlife from Virginia Tech in 1992, and completed his Masters of Science in wildlife biology at North Carolina State University in 1995. Marc’s thesis focused on trapping, radio-collaring and tracking bobwhite quail within an intensive agricultural system and examining quail response to the addition of field borders. Marc went on to work on several quail research projects where he trapped and tracked over 600 wild quail. He has worked for 17 years with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries as a private lands habitat biologist, a district wildlife biologist and for the last five years as small game project leader and quail recovery initiative coordinator. Marc served as an infantry paratrooper in several airborne units including the 82nd Airborne Division from 1983 to 1987. He is married to Sarah Elam of Prospect, Virginia. Marc and Sarah, along with their daughter Grace, reside in Pamplin, Virginia where they hike, fish, hunt, and enjoy the country life together.