I'm sure the last thing most people have been thinking about during this drought is bobwhite quail management, but why not? If you have bobwhites calling your native pastures home, you probably have more grass than the neighbors. Bobwhites can be a good indicator of grazing management on native pastures. Unfortunately, many pastures have been overused this year due to drought. Regrettably, the elimination and over-use of native pastures are two of the many factors contributing to declining bobwhite numbers across the Noble Research Institute's service area and most of the country.
For bobwhites to thrive in an area (farm, ranch or county), they probably need enough quality habitat to support an estimated population of 800 birds during the worst conditions. This area may be as large as 8,000 acres, depending on habitat. During this drought, odds are that the average home range of a covey has had to increase, maybe substantially, from the usual 10 to 40 acres to a larger area to meet its daily requirements. Therefore, habitat management was more important than ever in 2006, as it will be in years to come.
"Quaility" bobwhite habitat consists of a diversity and good interspersion of native grasses, forbs, trees and shrubs. Monocultures of introduced forage species such as bermudagrass, fescue and Old World bluestems could be considered a bobwhite desert. Bobwhites need an area to have a range of 25 percent to 75 percent herbaceous canopy cover that is 10 to 20 inches tall. Preferably, brush species such as sand plum, sumac, lotebush, shinnery oak or mesquite provide 20 to 60 percent canopy coverage while being well distributed across the area. To determine if your brush is well distributed, you can use the Huggins 50:50 rule, or Dale Rollins' "Softball Habitat Evaluation Technique," meaning patches of suitable woody cover should be no farther apart than you can throw a softball.
Bobwhites use more than 100 different plants as food. Forbs broad-leafed herbaceous plants such as croton, sunflower and ragweed are an important group of plants to bobwhites, providing food and cover. Unfortunately, the lack of rain and extreme temperatures that southern Oklahoma and northern Texas have experienced, combined with livestock consumption of some wildlife food and cover plants, limited the availability of some plants. If bobwhites are important to you, limited use of broadleaf herbicides in native pastures will help maintain available food and cover for bobwhites and other species of wildlife.
Bare ground also is an important component of bobwhite habitat. It should be 30 percent to 60 percent of the environment. This may seem excessive, but it is necessary to facilitate movement and assist with finding food. Much of this bare ground may have herbaceous or woody canopy over it. Sadly, bare ground is likely to be in excess of the 60 percent in many areas this year due to overgrazing coupled with the drought conditions.
Another component of bobwhite habitat is native grasses. This year, the overall lack of native grass is probably the most limiting factor for bobwhites. Research suggests that over 250 clumps of native bunch grasses (i.e., little bluestem) per acre are needed to provide a minimum amount of nesting cover. Bobwhites use last year's growth to construct this year's nest; however, there is very little of last year's growth left.
According to Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation roadside surveys, bobwhite populations across the state are down 40 percent from the previous 16-year average and down 55 percent from the 2005 surveys. Grazing management will have more of an impact on bobwhites and other wildlife now and during next year's growing season than in recent years. Bobwhites have the ability to bounce back from this drought, but land managers must use proper grazing management to provide them with the habitat to do so.