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The Incredible Value of Native Food for Bobwhites

A recent quail hunt in Kansas served to reiterate just how important diversity of natural food sources is to bobwhite quail.  Several of the birds we harvested were stuffed full of native and naturalized weed seeds from a variety of families.  From sunflowers to lespedezas, these seeds provide quality nutrition and the birds were meaty, fat, and prepared for the harsh winter conditions they would soon face.  What’s more, there were no cultivated crop fields anywhere to be found; the local coveys were thriving without them.

White-tailed deer habitat managers are often deluged with information touting the benefits of forage or grain-based foods as the foundation of a management program.  Whether it’s alfalfa, soybeans, or turnips, basing management first on providing high-quality supplemental foods is often recommended.  It’s no different in the quail management world.  Food plot mixes of milo, millet, soybeans, and others are often perceived to be the necessary first steps in a quail management program.  These foods are relished by quail, so coveys will eat them readily when available.  However, we must remember that quail thrived long before modern agricultural practices.  Also, the best quail populations today are found in landscapes where grain fields and food plots are near absent (western Texas, western Oklahoma, and Southeast US plantations).  The foundation for great quail producing landscapes is large areas of quality nesting and brood habitat and an abundance of native foods.  

As land managers, Kyle and I hear from hunters all the time that we need to plant more food plots and raise more grain and we’ll have more quail.  From a hunting standpoint that seems intuitive.  Birds are very often found and harvested near grain fields.  So, more grain plots as a part of the management plan should result in more quail to harvest.  The key point to remember, though, is that quail are produced in grasslands and weedy habitats, not in grain fields.  What’s the point of planting expensive food plots for winter food sources if we lack the means to raise quail in the first place?  Before we even consider planting grain food plots for quail we must first ensure that the nesting/brood habitat and low-growing shrubby cover in our management areas are as abundant and as can be.  That should be the true foundation of any quail management program.

What about after the nesting and brood habitat is in primo condition?  Let’s plant grain food plots to feed the birds during the winter, right?  Not so fast.  You see, if we have excellent brood cover made up of a diversity of weed species and good amounts of bare ground there should also be a diversity of highly nutritious and palatable seeds produced by the weeds.  And, the quality of these weed seeds compared to cultivated crops is often superior. For example, ragweed seed contains about 47% crude protein and 37% fat, while milo seed is 11% crude protein and 1.9% fat.  What a difference!  Additionally, studies show ragweed is highly preferred by quail; on par with their preference for grain crops.  It’s almost as if our Creator provided for quail long before we started “managing” for them. 

Please don’t think we are dissing food plots as a management tool in the right situations.  They have their place.  At the northern extremes of the bobwhite’s range, some type of supplemental grain crop may be necessary for decent overwinter survival in harsh winter.  And, grain food plots can be useful for hunting management as they provide predictable places for birds to be located during the hunting season.  What we hope to convey is that grain food plots should not be the foundation of your management plan, should be considered only after nesting/brood habitat and shrubby escape cover are in good order, and better food options are available (think ragweed food plots!).  In fact, if wildlife and habitat managers across the country, no matter the species, would focus more on providing high quality permanent herbaceous cover that provides for multiple life history needs rather than focusing on supplemental forage, our wildlife populations would be more abundant and healthier.  Bottom line, that’s what wildlife management should be all about anyway.  

Figure 1.  Crop of harvested bobwhite is chocked full of natural foods.  Ragweed, Desmodium, lespedezas, and other wild seeds provided an abundant and nutritious last meal for this bird.

Frank Loncarich - Land & Legacy Consultant