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Supplemental Feeding of Northern Bobwhites

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Supplemental feeding of northern bobwhites has been an intensive management practice for many years. It seems to make sense that survival and abundance of bobwhites would increase by increasing food abundance and improving nutrition through supplemental feed. However, when dealing with nature, things are rarely that simple. Unfortunately, supplemental feeding programs are often implemented without full understanding of bobwhite ecology. This article discusses potential negatives and positives of different feeding techniques.

Generally, the intent of supplemental feeding is to increase survival and, ultimately, abundance. Supplemental feeding is also used to concentrate bobwhites for better hunting or viewing. Within the Cross Timbers region in central Oklahoma and north-central Texas (an area characterized by woody vegetation consisting of various oaks, elms, osage orange and ashes with naturally occurring openings comprised of herbaceous vegetation found in the Tallgrass Prairie region), the most common methods of delivering feed are stationary feeders, broadcasting along roads and pastures, and planting food plots.

There are several concerns associated with supplemental feeding of bobwhites. Stationary feeders concentrate bobwhites, increasing the risk of predation and disease transmission. Mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by fungi on grain, can cause reproductive problems or death of bobwhites and other animals. Non-target animals also consume supplemental feed intended for bobwhites. One study in the Texas Panhandle estimated that for every $250 spent on supplemental feed, only $1 went to bobwhites. And some of these non-target species are predators of bobwhites such as raccoons and feral hogs. A manager has to determine whether the potential negatives of supplemental feeding outweigh the potential positives.

Broadcasting supplemental feed across an entire landscape is intended to reduce concentration of bobwhites. This technique has been studied extensively by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy near Tallahassee, Fla., in longleaf pine forests. Tall Timbers broadcast sorghum along trails once every two weeks at a rate of at least 1 bushel per 25 acres per application. This equates to at least 40 bushels every two weeks for every 1,000 acres. This expensive method has yielded greater survival rates, longer nesting seasons, greater chick production and greater fall populations for bobwhites that received supplemental feed via this method.

Tall Timbers does not use supplemental feeding in lieu of habitat management. They state that "without a solid habitat management program, supplemental feeding is a waste of time and money." Although they have found positive results from broadcasting supplemental feed, habitat management is still key. Tall Timbers conducts research in the longleaf pine forests of Georgia and Florida - a very different environment from the Cross Timbers ecosystem in Oklahoma and Texas where this method has not been researched.

Research in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas has shown mixed results using other types of supplemental feeding programs on bobwhites. Some studies have shown no improvement in survival rates of bobwhites while others have shown an increase, suggesting that supplemental feeding has a neutral effect on survival. Research also indicates supplemental feeding decreases home range, but does not increase fall covey size or density of bobwhites. However, there is evidence that bobwhite body condition can improve during winter stress when supplemental feed is available, but it may also increase predation rates.

We tend to look for the silver bullet when trying to manage wildlife, and supplemental feeding is not the answer for bobwhites. In response to numerous research projects that studied the effects of supplemental feeding of bobwhites, it seems the best use of money and time is to focus on extensive management practices that provide quality, year-round habitat and usable space for bobwhites. Management practices such as grazing, burning, brush management, haying and mowing are all practices we can use to manipulate plant communities to meet the habitat requirements of bobwhites. Identify and address the limiting factors of bobwhite habitat to determine the best investment of resources.

Will Moseley has worked as a wildlife and fisheries consultant at Noble Research Institute since 2008. He received his bachelor’s degree in wildlife and fisheries management from Texas Tech University and his master’s degree in range and wildlife management from Texas A&M University – Kingsville. His primary interests are centered on using prescribed fire and grazing to improve ecosystem health on rangelands to benefit biodiversity.