Wildlife Species Guide
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| The Bobwhite's Future
Among the native wildlife found by settlers when they first arrived in what is now Nebraska was the northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), the bobwhite quail. Before
settlement, quail probably were found only along woody stream courses, and in relatively small numbers.
As settlers arrived, they broke the prairie and began to fence their fields. With the
fences came woody cover for windbreaks to protect livestock and homesteads from the
persistent prairie winds, and this mixture of cropland, grassland and woody cover
allowed the bobwhite to move out of the river bottoms into previously unsuitable areas.
This expansion of their range has undoubtedly increased the total quail population
manyfold over historical levels.
Records show that by 1901, the bobwhite quail was distributed along river systems and
wherever suitable habitat occurred throughout the state. By 1919, quail were especially
numerous along the upper Elkhorn River and streams emptying into the Missouri River
west of Yankton, South Dakota. Early settlers in Antelope County reported few quail, but
as agriculture developed, quail numbers increased, and quail were plentiful there by
In the 19th century, prior to protection by state regulations, some quail were shipped
from Nebraska to eastern markets. During a 6-week period in 1875, for example, one
supplier shipped 18,700 quail from Lincoln to the East, primarily Boston and New York.
Probably because of the time and expense required for hunting, most birds taken by
commercial hunters were trapped, not shot.
Even though the bobwhite expanded its range in Nebraska with the expansion of
agriculture, the state's relatively harsh climate has always limited quail numbers. Even in
the early 20th century, the effects of winter weather on the quail population were
documented. The author of the 1908 annual report of the Nebraska Game and Fish
Commission wrote: "In my last report I called attention to the almost complete
extermination of the quail, caused by the severe winter of 1905, and predicted a speedy
recovery to normal conditions, owing to their domestic habits, and prolificacy. This
seems to have been true, as during the past season the quail have been reported more
plentiful than for years past."
The 1912 annual report declared, "The general condition of the game in this state is
quite satisfactory, showing an increase in prairie chicken and grouse, and also in quail,
during the years of 1910 and 1911, but owing to the severe winter of 1911 and 1912 the
quail have decreased; the heavy snows and cold weather for weeks at a time prevented
them from finding
shelter and food."
The bobwhite is normally considered a bird of the southeastern United States, but many
areas along its northern and westernmost range do support high population levels.
Nebraska lies in the northwest corner of the bobwhite's range, with only marginal populations north and west
of the state.
Although severe winter conditions often cause major population fluctuations, the
bobwhite survives in Nebraska. The better habitat conditions in the southeastern part of
the state keep population fluctuations there less severe there than in the north and west, especially
away from major stream courses, and quail are found in greatest numbers in the
southeast, although high densities occur in riparian habitat along the Republican, Platte
and Elkhorn rivers.
Late winter finds bobwhites grouped in coveys of six or more. As the first warm days of
spring arrive, the once sociable males in a covey begin to square off in mock combat,
and then, as early as March, mate selection begins. As the days lengthen, the birds,
until then confined to a small winter home range, begin to roam in search of mates and
Even though the sex ratio is nearly I to I when the chicks hatch, females during the
incubation period are more vulnerable to predators than the males are, and the number
of males in a covey
usually exceeds the number of females In Nebraska, adult birds average 13 males for
every 100 females, and young birds average 103 males to 100 females Surplus males
ensure that every females has a mate, and that no potential of reproduction in the covey
Few of the hens which nest in a given summer will survive the winter. Therefore, most
nesting bobwhites are first-year birds hatched the previous summer.
Coveys break up around April 1, but nearly a month goes by before nesting begins in
earnest. Preferred nesting sites early in the season are in residual stands of grass from
the previous year. Once a nest site is located, the male scratches a bowl-shaped
depression and makes a canopy of overhanging grass. Once the nest is complete, egg
laying begins. Producing the average clutch of 14 eggs usually takes 16 days.
Incubation begins as soon as the last egg is laid.
If the nest is not destroyed by predators, heavy rains, fire or farm operations, the eggs
will hatch after 23 days of incubation. Although many nesting at tempts are
unsuccessful, the persistence of the quail in attempting to raise a brood successfully
perpetuates the species When a nest is destroyed, the hen will usually select a new
nesting site and try again. If the hen dies, and the nest is not destroyed, her mate will
assume the incubation duties and raise the young. If the male dies during this period, a
nearby bachelor male may take his place. A hen may leave the male to incubate her
first nest while she lays eggs for, and incubates a second nest. We do not know how
often this occurs in Nebraska.
Quail begin nesting in May, and nesting may continue into September. Maxi mum
production occurs in years when the majority of early nests are successful, since the
number of eggs per nest decreases in later nest attempts.
During the courtship and early nesting periods, quail find their food supply on the
increase. Snow-free ground in April makes the previous year's seed supply available.
Sprouting green vegetation is a preferred food at this time. As agricultural ground is
worked, fewer seeds are available, but by mid-May, insects begin to emerge in sufficient
numbers to provide a good food source for the nesting birds As the season progresses,
the quail's die is primarily insects, greens and berries.
In June, the first bobwhite chick hatch, although the peak hatching period is usually
around the end of June. The female broods the newly hatched chick about the size of
bumblebees the nest, and when all are completely dry they leave the nest never to
return. Alone with the male, they move into surrounding cover. The first several days of
the chick's life are spent searching for food when the weather is favorable, or seeking
protection from heat, cold and rain under the warm breast feathers of the adults.
Young quail are especially susceptible to cold and moisture, and rain takes it toll, as do
predation, stress and disease Approximately 80 percent of the chick do not survive to
the next nesting season
Young quail grow rapidly, and in about two weeks, their soft, yellow and black natal
down is replaced by juvenile feathers. At eight weeks, the first adult feathers begin to
show on the breast. By 13 weeks, adult plumage is dominant, at 15 weeks, adult
plumage extends over the whole body. A chick weighs 0.2 ounces when hatched, and
its weight double about every 10 days for the first five weeks. Sometime between eight
and 10 weeks, a chick will have gained half its adult weight of about 6.8 ounces.
For the first two weeks, the brood spends most of its time under the protection of the
adults, except for short periods of feeding. Immediately upon hatching, the chicks'
feeding behavior is similar to that of the adults. They scratch in the soil, picking up
insects and small seeds left from the previous fall. At one week, their wing development
allows them to fly in short hops or make short flights upward to catch insects or escape
Young quail depend on their parents for protection until they are five weeks old. From
then on, the young rely on the adults mainly for warnings of danger from predators. The
brood roosts huddled together at night, yet the birds act individually when danger arises,
flushing singly and scattering in every direction. As the young mature, they begin to
function more as a unit, flushing together and taking the same flight path when danger is
near. Their key to survival is this ability to act as a unit.
Young broods need feeding cover that allows them to move without being detected by
predators, but does not trap the small, flightless quail in pockets of vegetation. Adults
prefer this type of cover also. Mixtures of early successional plants (many of them often
considered weeds) such as kochia (fireweed), ragweed and sweet clover, along with a
grass such as foxtail, provide this type of cover. Dense grass cover with litter
accumulation such as in older Conservation Reserve Program fields is not good quail
brood habitat. The birds cannot move through it easily, and it offers little food value.
Early successional plant mixtures provide greens and seeds and will attract high
numbers of insects.
By September and October, most of the young birds are no longer dependent upon their
parents for survival. Food and cover are plentiful, and the young birds begin to wander.
Adults fight among a themselves, and a reorganization of coveys occurs. This
movement is called the fall shuffle. It was once thought that 'all coveys were family units,
but this is not entirely true. Some late broods might still be together in November, but by
then most coveys are composed of young birds 'rom several different broods, as well
adults. Pairs sometimes split, each individual joining a different covey. By this time, the
bachelor males are also scattered among various coveys. This invalidates the
proposition that quail should be hunted to break up family groups and reduce inbreeding
--nature takes care of breaking up family units before the huntng season opens.
By November, quail have settled into coveys, and their home range is fairly well
established around cover that will satisfy their winter needs. In agricultural areas, this
range is normally associated with woody or brushy cover for protection from predators
and winter storms, a grassed area for roosting and a corn or milo field for food. The
quality and proximity of these cover types determines the number of birds an area can
During the fall and winter months, as normal mortality reduces the size of coveys,
reshuffling occurs. A covey reduced to fewer than six or eight birds will merge with
another covey. Even though the total population may be greatly reduced, average covey
size changes very little during this period.
Nebraska's regulation of upland bird harvest began in 1866. The earliest seasons,
through 1929, were set by the legislature. Since then, seasons have been set by the
Game and Parks Commission and its predecessor agencies. Although 19th century
quail numbers were sufficient to support some market hunting, agency reports from the
early years of the 20th century express concern over quail populations, and quail were
completely protected from 1917 through 1943. In 1944, a I 0-day season opened in
Johnson, Nemaha, Pawnee and Richardson counties, with a bag and possession limit of
five. The following year the season was extended to 15 days, and Gage County was
added to the open area. In subsequent years, the area open to quail hunting grew, until
the entire state was open in 1962.
Season lengths, beginning at 10 days in 1944, steadily increased, reaching 90 days in
1973. For many years, the quail season north of the Platte River closed earlier than it
did south of the river, and January hunting was also prohibited for many years because
of typically adverse weather conditions.
Through fall and winter, northern bobwhites maintain a consistent daily routine. Coveys
spend the night in grassy habitat, usually close to woody cover.The roosting formation is
characteristic of the species and serves as protection from cold and predators; the birds
form a circle with their tails pointed inward and their heads facing out, so that at any sign
of danger, they can take flight. The circle is tight, and each bird benefits from the body
heat of adjacent birds.
A covey leaves the roost shortly after sunrise to feed. The covey moves to its feeding
area as a unit, and in many cases the proximity of a grain field to roosting cover allows
the covey to walk rather than fly. When food is in good supply, very little time is needed
to satisfy a bobwhite's appetite, and they can soon move to a loafing area where they
spend the morning and afternoon.
Most of the midday is spent loafing. preferably in an area that provides good overhead
cover and allows the birds to dust themselves. Unless disturbed, (covey will spend the
day in one location before moving off late in the afternoon to feed again. Following
evening feeding the birds move to the roosting area for the night. This routine is
repeated each day unless the birds are disturbed.
Knowing this routine helps avid quail hunters to find their quarry at any time of day. An
important key to quail hunting success is understanding the birds' habitat requirements,
and knowing in what habitat types the birds are likely to be found at any given time.
Bobwhite, like many other species, prefer edge habitat areas where different habitat
types join and hunting the center of a large grain field or deep in a wooded area will
seldom be productive. Instead, they are more likely to be found where preferred habitat
types, including grassy areas, grain fields and brushy or woody cover, occur in close
Although quail can be hunted without a dog, the hunter who has one will benefit in
several ways. Quail will often remain hidden and will not flush even when a hunter
approaches very close to them. A hunter without a dog will often walk past a covey of
birds and never know they are there, but a dog, with its sensitive nose, will more likely
After a covey flushes, individual birds generally remain motionless for as long as 15
minutes or more after they land, and then gradually start to move. A dog is then useful in
helping to locate these singles, especially in heavy cover.
Finally, a dog is invaluable in finding and retrieving wounded birds or dead birds lost in
Approaching winter storms will usually stimulate a covey of quail, like most species of
wildlife, to continue feeding throughout the day. During severe storms, the birds may not
be able to leave the roost for a day or two, and the food supply may be covered by
snow. It is during periods of sub-zero temperatures accompanied by deep snow or
freezing rain that mortality is highest among Nebraska's bobwhites. Low temperatures
alone are not as harmful as when they are accompanied by deep or thickly crusted
snow. Quail require a lot of energy to survive sub-zero temperatures, but as long as
enough food is easily accessible, they usually have little trouble withstanding the cold.
To survive the winter, quail need good protective cover and a close food source not
covered by snow. Birds moving considerable distances from their roosting and loafing
areas for food during severe weather burn up much-needed energy and expose
themselves to predators.
Also threatening to quail are winter ice storms. Rain changing to snow and a rapid drop
in temperature glazes the vegetation with ice, and feeding can become difficult. If ice
covers the birds, the result is usually suffocation. Losses of 60 to 80 percent of the
statewide breeding population have been recorded, and losses of 100 percent may
occur in localized areas. In periods of severe weather, only the best habitat will see a
The bobwhite's winter food is primarily annual seeds and grain, and quail habitat should
provide palatable seeds with the highest possible energy. Studies in Kansas have
shown which plants provide the most usable energy to quail .
At the top of the list is giant ragweed. Lower, but still of considerable value, are western
ragweed, corn, sorghum, soybeans, sunflowers, osage-orange and dogwood. Foods
providing low usable energy include wheat, acorns, lespedeza and millet. Hemp, showy
partridge pea, smartweed, rosehips, sumac and switchgrass were considered poor
sources of usable energy.
Each year since 1945, rural mail carriers have recorded the number of upland species
they observe and the number of miles they drive during several four-day periods each
year. The summer survey is currently the most reliable forecaster of the following
season's hunting success, but fall surveys, begun in 1983, may eventually prove to be
equally or more reliable. The surveys are conducted at the same time each year, and
the variation in quail numbers observed suggests the changes in population level.
Year-to-year fluctuations show the effect of weather on the populations.
Long-term trends from 1945 to 1991
indicate a gradual increase in the bobwhite population. The peak occurred in 1959, and the lowest population
was recorded in 1984. In the winter of 1983-84, many areas of the state's best quail range were subject to
heavy snow and ice storms from December through March, and many quail died. The
spring of 1984 was cold and wet, resulting in poor nesting success and high chick
mortality. As a result, Nebraska's quail population was severely damaged. By 1988,
however, their numbers fell in step with those of years before that disastrous winter.
A whistle-count survey is conducted each year by Game and Parks Commission
personnel over about 40 established 19-mile routes. This survey is based on the
presumption that the proportion of calling males in the population remains the same from
year to year. These calling males are most vocal just after sunrise, so starting at
sunrise, the observers stop every mile along their routes and record the number of
"bob-white" calls they hear. The number of males recorded is compared to previous
years' records to establish a population trend.
Information is available from whistlecount surveys made since 1947 in the southeastern
and west-central counties. The lowest population occurred in 1984, and the highest in
Each year, three harvest surveys are conducted to gather information about quail
hunting. The first involves a questionnaire sent to a randomly chosen 5 percent of
resident hunters who purchased permits the previous season. The data, gathered after
the season closes, is extrapolated to estimate the year's total harvest, total number of
hunters, total days hunted and quail bagged per day.
A quail hunter "cooperator" survey is conducted each year to determine hunter success
and to obtain quail wings for study. Cooperators mail wings and information about their
hunts to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's quail biologist. Cooperators are
selected because of their interest in quail hunting, and they remain on the mailing list as
long as they submit information. New cooperators are added from news release replies
and individual contacts.
Additional harvest survey data and wing samples are gathered at voluntary hunter check
stations in southeast Nebraska. Hunters who choose to stop at these roadside locations
are asked questions about all aspects of their hunts and are asked to contribute a wing
from each of their quail.
The quail wings gathered in both surveys are analyzed for color patterns and stage of
development. These comparisons allow biologists to determine the sex, age and
hatching date of each bird.
Wide year-to-year fluctuations in population levels occur when severe winter storms and
high winter mortality follow summers in which ideal nesting conditions have produced
birds in excess of the carrying capacity of the range. As the population grows, quail
disperse into areas not capable of supporting them year-round or in extreme conditions.
If a severe storm strikes when the population is extremely high, the statewide breeding
population can drop as much as 80 percent or more in one year. Localized areas may
experience complete die-offs.
When these sudden drops occur, hunters and landowners often request immediate
action to increase the population. Stocking, hunting season reductions and winter
feeding are the most common programs suggested, but habitat is the key to quail
numbers. If proper habitat is maintained, fluctuations are much less pronounced. When
normal nesting conditions are followed by mild winters, a quail population will rapidly
recover on its own. In 1969, for example, following a severe winter in northeast
Nebraska, the quail breeding population dropped 58 percent. Within four years the
population was back to the 1968 level, and above it five years later. This recovery
occurred without a change in management policy—no stocking or reduced seasons were
Stocking quail is of no value except in areas with suitable habitat but no wild birds and
no chance for wild birds to move in from surrounding areas. Cost of each bird eventually
bagged by a hunter is too high to justify the effort.
Studies show that the cost of putting one pen-raised, stocked bird in the hunter's bag
may be several times the cost of a hunting license when young birds are released prior
to the hunting season. When pen-raised young are released with wild-trapped adults,
the adults normally
adopt the young, but in this case, too. the cost of each bird eventually bagged by a
hunter is too high to justify the effort.
Late winter and early spring release of adult breeders is also a financial bust. Survival of
native birds from the end of one breeding season to the next spring averages about 30
to 60 percent, and the survival of pen-raised birds is much lower. Three major
drawbacks to pen raised quail in the wild are their tameness, which makes them
susceptible to predators; their inability to recognizeing food in a specific location; and
their tendency to remain separate and not form the coveys which are so essential for
survival of wild birds.
Hunting Season Reduction
Even though hunters remove many birds from the population each fall, equivalent
numbers would nonmally be lost to other factors including predation, exposure, disease
or a combination of these factors. In a normal reproduction year, the population
decreases 40 to 70 percent from the peak in late summer to the following spring,
because no birds normally produce many more offspring than the habitat in a given area
support. This is the "strategy" of most upland game species produce many young in a
short time to make up for high mortality rate throughout the year.
Moreover, the "law" of dimiminshing returns suggests why hunting pressure is related to
population density: when numbers are down, the extra effort required to locate them
discourages many hunters from pursuing quail. Moreover, during periods of severe cold
and snow, most hunters are reluctant to spend time in the field. These two factors justify
allowing quail hunting in areas of low population density and in months severe weather
is most likely to occur.
Reduced bag limits, another frequently offered suggestion, are a subject of some
disagreement. Although reductions may be of value in some limited areas, it is not clear
that minor changes in
limits have any significant effect, especially in Nebraska where most quail are taken
incidentally to pheasant hunting and few hunters take a full limit on any given day.
When winter conditions are severe the question of feeding gamebirds always arises.
Feeding does have drawbacks however. If feeding is not continued birds may remain in
an area with inadequate natural food instead of moving into another area where food is
more readily available. Feeding can also increase losses to predators, which become
aware that the birds will be found at a certain site at a specific time each day. Feeding
the birds along roadsides will also increases road-kill losses. Concentrating birds at a
feeding site increases the spread of disease and parasites.
Although winter feeding is too costly and labor-intensive to be undertaken on a
statewide basis, a landowner may bring a covey of quail through difficult times,
However, the indiscriminate scattering of grain serves no purpose. The range of a covey
must be known, and the feed must be placed in good cover within that range. This
means that instead of feeding birds in general, a specific covey is fed. Once feeding
begins, it must be continued throughout the bad weather.
To decrease labor and prolong food availability, however, a better method would be to
leave standing rows of corn and milo near woody cover at field edges.
The key to all successful wildlife management is habitat. To serve their needs, bobwhite,
like many other species, need various types of cover at different seasons. In most areas, only one or two types of cover are usually available, but additional types could make many areas appropriate for bobwhite. The primary method of improving quail habitat is to increase "edge." Edges are areas where different types of habitat, each filling a different need for the quail, come together. Examples include grassy areas adjacent to cornfields, fencelines bordering grain fields and hedgerows or woody draws bisecting farmground.
Since the bobwhite has a small travel area, two habitat requirements, such as food and
cover, should be available in close proximity. A quarter-section of corn provides food,
but is most useful only around the edges where a bobwhite has easy access to escape
cover. Large timber tracts are only valuable quail habitat at their edges where nesting
cover or food is available.
Thus, management of bobwhites requires knowledge of the variety of habitat, the quality
and quantity of habitat required and the relationship among the various habitat types.
Four types of cover are usually associated with bobwhites: grassy areas, croplands,
brush and woody cover. An ideal quail area has a mixture of these cover types.
Grassy areas serve quail best as nesting cover; at least two-thirds of all quail nests are
found in grass communities. Some hayfields are used, but usually grass associated with
brushy cover on unused areas such as along hedgerows is preferred. Often, grass
clumps inaccessible to cattle furnish the needed protection for quail nests. Roadsides
which are not grazed or hayed are also frequently used. A roadside fencerow may
provide additional protection and make a road ditch bank a preferred nesting area. Over
grazed pastures and harvested hayfields offer quail little useable habitat. Quail, unlike
pheasants, usually do not nest in heavy stands of alfalfa, but seek more open, less
canopied, easily traveled areas. A mixture of grasses and early successional plants
(often thought of as weeds) are used for feeding by both broods and adults. Maintaining
several of these patches scattered throughout an area will increase wildlife of all kinds
on a farm. Historically, the increasing acreage of cropland was the primary factor in
expanding the quail range. Before the land was homesteaded, range fires disrupted
plant succession and allowed weeds to grow, but grass succession eventually overcame
these beneficial plants. Early sod-breaking and farming practices created disturbed
areas and edges which were ideal quail habitat. Some modern farming techniques,
however, work against quail. Herbicides and insecticides remove needed cover and
food. Land leveling removes many weedy or brushy draws that previously formed
necessary edge habitat. Fencerows and hedges are removed to permit the use of larger
Brush is a broad term that could include an osage-orange hedgerow, a plum thicket or
even a sunflower patch. Blackberries, raspberries, plums, currants and elderberries—all
of them brush—provide both food and shelter. Any wood vegetation can provide a necessary part of the
quail "home," and the availability of this type of cover adjacent to cropland or other food
usually determines bobwhite home range. Numerous brushy areas are one reason why
southeast Nebraska and the Platte and Republican rivers and their tributaries have
abundant quail populations.
Woody cover is most useful when associated with brushy undergrowth or brushy cover
adjacent to the woodland edge. Most woodlands in Nebraska occur along rivers and
tributaries and are not as intensively managed for timber (or for quail) as are those in the
southeastern states. Their value to quail in Nebraska is limited to their association with
brush and cropland. Woodlands provide some winter cover and limited food. A heavily
grazed woodlot with little ground cover is practically worthless to quail. Red cedar,
however, commonly used for windbreaks, provides important winter cover, since snow
will bridge the branches, leaving a protective canopy and protection for the bobwhite.
The Bobwhite's Future
The northern bobwhite was a resident of much of the area we now call Nebraska when
settlers first arrived. In the early days of our coexistence, the quail flourished, as limited
agriculture created new edge habitat, and the bobwhite's range and numbers increased.
Modern farrn practices, however, have a mixed effect on quail populations. Increase
mechanization, increased pesticide an herbicide use and the trend towar monoculture
(one-crop) farming have decreased the variety of cover available in many areas, and
much quail habitat is now restricted to inaccessible, untillable areas such as rainages,
ditches, fence rows and pastures.
On the positive side, however, a many modern conservation and minimum-till practices.
The 1985 and 1990 farm bills mandated that land considered highly erodible be put into
a conservation compliance plan. These requirements and other practices—grassed
waterways and grassed terraces, strip farming, low- and no-till cultivation, native grass
planting such as those encouraged by recent government programs, "sodbuster"
legislation and shelterbelt plantings all benefit wildlife as well as the farmer.
The future of this diminutive Nebraka native is relatively bright; in spite year-to-year
fluctuations, population have remained relatively constant. The key to the continued
survival of the northern bobwhite in Nebraska will be our willingness to recognize its
basic life requirements and to continue to provide a place for it in the uses we make of