For bobwhites in winter, microclimate matters

140c7367-823a-447d-9eca-4581f93666fa By Jim Wooley, Quail Forever Senior Field Biologist (Emeritus)

Winter in quail country is a beautiful, and frequently deadly, time of year. Across the Midwest and a share of the mid-South, last February provided a particularly vicious object lesson. Serial blizzards, ice and bitter cold battered wildlife. Coffee shop sages speculated whether any gamebirds would escape to rebuild populations.

As usual, a thin margin of survivors did just that, but summer brood surveys traced the expected declining trendline. On my Iowa home turf, quail dropped by 36 percent -- a number surprising only because it wasn’t worse.

Midwest winters, unless mild and brown, are usually marked by high quail mortality. January and February are the tightrope walk. Bitter cold reigns over hostile landscapes. Habitat fills with snow and flattens under ice. Birds succumb incrementally to predation, catastrophically in blizzards, and occasionally from weather-related starvation. Fall’s extravagance of food is gone. Waste grain is reliable only if snow and ice don’t lock the pantry. How do they manage to survive it?
Frosty cold doesn’t bother quail much – they’re adapted for it physiologically and behaviorally. That evening roosting disk, eyes scanning all directions for predators, is also a huddle that helps coveys thermoregulate. When food is abundant, quail lay down subcutaneous fat – crucial when birds can’t feed for days.

But fat reserves, warm feathers and nifty roosting behavior aren’t enough. Bobwhites need dense brushy habitat that stops wind and snow, thermal roosting cover (grass), and reliable food near their covey headquarters.
Quail need 30-to-40 percent more food in winter than in fall to maintain body condition. Prolonged deep snow and/or ice are the most serious threat to that. Add sub-zero temperatures, and you have a trifecta built for killing quail. Quail don’t move much in winter – home ranges are 40 acres to much less.

When winter locks up food and temperatures plunge, however, quail react by sitting tight, trying to wait it out. But they can’t wait long, especially if the covey is small. Without food, in bitter conditions, they’ll die inside of two weeks.
And all food is not equal. My personal quail winter starvation story is 40 years old. Southern Iowa cropfields were covered in two feet of snow layered with ice. Out on a sunny February Sunday, I was surprised when my Labrador brought me back an emaciated quail, which promptly died in my hand. As I looked ahead, another 5 birds scattered on foot underneath multiflora rose bushes. I called her off and back at the house did a post-mortem on the quail, which had virtually no flesh on the breast plate. She did have a crop stuffed with rose hips, which unfortunately were doing her little good. Had the food source been corn, that covey might have survived.

Here’s the point: You cannot anticipate the challenges this next winter or the one five years away will pose for gamebirds, so plan for the worst-case scenario. Build a winter habitat complex. Dense quail roosting habitat (native grass and forbs) behind beefy windbreaks blunts snow and wind-chill –  creating protection like a multi-row farmstead shelterbelt.

To appreciate that, stand upright in switchgrass in a shrieking, sub-zero wind. Then, get horizontal. You’ll find the microclimate at covey level downright balmy by comparison. To reduce the exposure of feeding far from cover, place large grain food plots adjacent to protective woody shelter and roosting cover. It’s the “kitchen next to the bedroom” plan. Birds can grab a bite without risking higher winter weather and predation losses.
Well-designed winter habitat for quail (or pheasants) has just one objective – delivering maximum numbers of birds to breeding season in peak condition. So, what’s most important? Native grass and forb cover for roosting? Multi-row, shelterbelts and shrub rows for blizzard protection, travel lanes, and escape cover? Nearby food plots that reduce travel and boost body condition? Yes – all of the above. Skimping on any one component will make the others less effective.
Luckily, spring looms ahead. Plans for winter cover complexes are just a click away these days. So, pick one, and proceed. You know what they say -- the very best time to plant was yesterday. The next best time is tomorrow.