By Kyle Johnson, Quail Habitat Biologist
Spend any time afield during a quail hunt and it's inevitable that a hunter will eventually break open a quail crop (craw) to see the food contents inside. That's exactly what Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) biologists did during Oklahoma's 2015-16 quail hunting season when more than 700 quail crops were analyzed throughout the majority of the state. Although a bobwhite's seasonal use of foods can vary, having a general knowledge of food resources, especially high use foods, can be valuable when it comes to making management decisions.
Overall, insects, fruits, weed seeds, and green vegetation (leaves, stems) made up the bulk of the hunting season (Nov. 14-Feb. 15) diet, but the quantities of each varied by region. Of the weed seeds, western ragweed, slickseed fuzzybean, whitemouth dayflower, thin paspalum, croton, sunflower, panic grass, and lespedeza were all readily eaten foods. In addition, woody fruits and nuts including hackberry and oak acorns were important dietary items. Other woody seeds eaten in much lower quantities include poison ivy and ash.
Although weed seeds and fruits generally make up a substantial portion of the fall and winter diet of a bobwhite, the spring and summer diets can be quite different. Green leaves and stems of low growing forbs such as clovers can end up contributing a major portion of the diet. Although this green vegetation is low in overall energy, it does provide quail some needed protein as well as water. Insects also make up a very large portion of the spring and summer diet, especially as hens prepare to nest. Young quail chicks must have a protein-rich insect diet for optimum growth and health. Despite the quail hunting season falling during the fall and winter months, green vegetation and insects were still a prominent portion of the quail diet within the many quail crops that were analyzed (see table). Of insects, stink bugs, grasshoppers, ants, and numerous beetle species were all readily eaten food items.
Overall, more than 130 different weed seeds or fruits were identified by biologists during the 2015-16 quail food habit investigation, including some which had not been documented in the diet of quail during other studies. As many as 21 different weed seed species were observed within a single quail crop, emphasizing the importance of providing diverse habitats for quail. Although agricultural grains are common across Oklahoma's landscape, whether in fields or from feeders, wheat, milo and corn combined were only observed within 4.3 percent of the quail crops that were examined and only made up 6.3 percent of the total food volume. Based on this investigation and many others, managing for diverse, native habitats, including grasslands and weed-dominated areas, all interspersed within and adjacent to patches of woody shrub cover will provide the year-round food resources for quail whether it be from green vegetation, insects, weed seeds, or fruits. Having these important habitat types in close proximity is also important when it comes to quail management.
For questions about improving habitat for bobwhites, including free habitat evaluations, call Kyle Johnson, quail habitat biologist, at (405) 684-1929 or read the Oklahoma Quail Habitat Guide on the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation website, www.wildlifedepartment.com.