The northern bobwhite, commonly referred to as bobwhite quail, has long been a favorite gamebird throughout the eastern United States, and is a welcomed upland ground dweller on farms and rural landscapes with its infamous call of “bob-white!” Highly social and displaying gregarious activity nearly year-round, bobwhites thrive in an array of varying early successional habitats. Its affinity for a variety of early successional communities makes the bobwhite both unique and fairly manageable.
The bobwhite’s popularity has decreased little throughout the years. However, bobwhite populations have decreased significantly in recent years, as much as 70 to 90 percent in some areas. Among the most influential impacts reducing northern bobwhite numbers continues to be the loss of nesting and protective cover. The removal of overgrown hedgerows, fencerows, and windbreaks from agricultural fields and rural landscapes;
the conversion of open, native grasslands, woodland edge, and other idle habitat to introduced grasses and developed lands; clean farming operations and the increased use of agrichemicals; increased grazing pressure; intensive fire control; removal of timber and brush over broad areas; and the spraying and mowing of highway and utility rights-of-way has reduced or eliminated bobwhite populations from traditionally occupied areas across the United States.
Quail occupy a wide variety of early successional habitats, including active and fallow crop fields, pastures, old fields, native grasslands, hedgerows, brushy fencerows, woodlands with grass and forb ground cover, open meadows with a shrub or brushy component, cut-over timber-lands, roadway and powerline rights-of-way, wooded riparian areas, brushy canyons and hillsides, and rural residential areas. The role of regular habitat disturbance in maintaining productive bobwhite habitat is extremely important. Disturbances, such as fire, timber harvest, grazing, and disking, are necessary to maintain the early successional
habitats used by bobwhites.
Diversity in habitat types within an area is among the greatest factors affecting northern bobwhite populations. The continued loss and conversion of hedgerows, overgrown fencerows, early successional grassland, and open woodland nesting and foraging habitat remains the largest threat to the future of northern bobwhite populations nationwide.
Preserving and properly managing grasslands, woodlands, and other rural cover types as
well as the edges between cover types can help landowners boost local bobwhite populations and benefit other wildlife species that rely on similar habitat.
Northern bobwhites forage in the early morning after sunrise and more heavily in the two hours prior to sunset. Bobwhites rely on a multitude of food items, consuming a variety of wild and cultivated seeds, fruits, leaves, stems and insects. Roughly 85 percent of a juvenile bobwhite’s diet consists of insects and other animal matter, and chicks feed almost exclusively on insects during the first two weeks of life.
In contrast, 85 percent of an adult bird’s diet consists of vegetation. In fall and winter months, the seeds of native and exotic annual plants, such as ragweeds, sunflowers, panicgrass, foxtail, spurges, bull grasses, crotons, beggar’s ticks, chittamwood, partridge pea, milk pea, smartweeds, and dayflowers are consumed, as well as the seeds of oaks, black locust, pines, and ash.
Cultivated plants consumed include soybeans, grain sorghum, wheat, buckwheat, millet, rye, corn, lespedezas (bicolor, Kobe, and Korean), cowpeas, dropseeds, prairie clovers, mesquite, tick trefoil, and peanuts. Wild fruits, such as mulberries,raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, bayberries, huckleberries, muscadines, wax myrtle, hackberry, grapes, plums, rose hips, pokeberries, persimmons, and the berries of dogwood, poison ivy, sumac, greenbrier and many others are consumed in spring and summer.
Leaves and stems of succulent green plants are also consumed. Invertebrates, such as grasshoppers, leafhoppers, flies, mosquitoes, aphids, potato beetles, spiders, and ants comprise over 20 percent of the summer diet of adult females, while adult male summer diets include only about five percent animal matter. However, bobwhites are opportunistic feeders and will consume available or abundant food items before searching for scarce and more preferred foods.