Drought’s effect on quail unknown

Ashley, Ohio — While much of Ohio has reached drought levels this summer, thus far, it could be worse for bobwhite quail.

Biologists are hopeful that the state’s population of the small game birds won’t be too adversely affected by the drought here.

As of the middle of August, the U.S. Drought Monitor had much of Ohio classified as “moderate drought,” though a small portion of the southwest corner of the state, part of the bobwhite’s range, did rate higher as “severe drought.”

Still, that’s far better than states to the west, starting in Indiana and Illinois, parts of which were at the top end of the scale with “extreme” and “exceptional” classifications.

“It’s been dry, but not nearly as dry as states to our west,” said Nathan Stricker, an ODNR wildlife biologist.

Still, it’s probably too early to tell if the drought, which can hurt available food (both insects and plants), will impact a species that had actually been looking up after a mild winter and early spring.

The last couple of winters have been hard on bobwhite quail in Ohio. When snow and ice cover the ground for long periods of time, the birds need food to survive, but the effort it takes to get that food can spell the end for many a bird.

“In those conditions, we can lose 80 to 90 percent of the quail population,” Stricker said.

In general, the birds have been in decline since the late 1970s, thanks to habitat loss in the form of bigger, more efficient corporate farms that have eliminated much of the edge habitat the birds need to survive.

The population, largely estimated through the use of spring whistle counts and the overall hunter harvest, has been averaging a 9 percent loss every year. So, perhaps it was a good sign when this spring’s whistle counts were only down by 5 percent, following that mild winter.

There’s also a hope that the early spring allowed birds to nest early, and, possibly have multiple successful nests.

Sometimes, male bobwhite quail will take over and incubate a nest, allowing the female to head off and start another nest, with another male quail.

“I’m hoping to see a bounce in the population,” said Charlie Payne, a regional biologist for Quail Forever.

Payne said he hadn’t heard any reports of early nesting, but he is still hopeful it just went unnoticed (likewise, Stricker didn’t hear of any early nesting, either).

“I would assume their first nesting would have been more successful than normal,” Payne said. “There was potential for subsequent nestings. You would expect that there would have been some of that going on, but that’s just speculation.”

Payne said he wasn’t too worried about the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorizing emergency grazing on Conservation Reserve Program acres, some of which provides cover for quail.

He thinks that will help stimulate controlled burning on areas that have grown in too much, since using fire as a tool is restricted on the CRP lands.

“When you cut that back, it gives some of the forbs and other wildflowers a chance to thrive,” Payne said.

Of graver concern is the fact that 50,000 acres of CRP acreage is set to expire in Ohio, though neither Payne nor Stricker was sure how many of those acres are providing suitable quail habitat.

For that matter, habitat loss is a bigger problem than this summer’s drought, especially as urban sprawl between Dayton and Cincinnati has hurt what once had the state’s highest concentration of quail.

“Probably the biggest thing we can say about the drought is that it can put a strain on the birds, but it’s not the biggest strain impacting long-term survival,” Stricker said.

The birds have managed to survive centuries with both severe winters and summer droughts, but it’s the habitat loss that’s brought their numbers down in the past 25 years.

The birds can be resilient, but every year, they lose more and more suitable habitat, to either farming practices or development.

“With habitat conditions, we are not seeing any long-term recoveries, we are seeing long-term declines,” Stricker said.

Payne is slightly more optimistic that the birds could bounce back modestly if the state can have another mild winter.

“All it takes is one or two good years, and you can see an immediate increase,” he said.

He’s anxious to pore over this fall’s harvest data, hoping it suggests an uptick.

“It’s too early to tell,” Payne said. “We won’t know a lot more until the season.”

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