COLUMBIA, Mo. - The past year hasn't been kind to the northern bobwhite quail in Missouri. Ice storms left many to freeze or starve and heavy rains washed away nests and drowned hatchlings.

But quail numbers are actually on the rise at a University of Missouri research farm that has served as a laboratory for practices that integrate habitat for bobwhite quail into modern farm operations.

In October, an MU research specialist, a state conservation biologist and student volunteers from the Mizzou chapter of The Wildlife Society began covey call counts to estimate the quail population at the Bradford Research and Extension Center, several miles east of Columbia. Covey call counts help estimate the number of quail that hatched and survived the summer, giving an indication of what the hunting season may be like in a particular area.

"Bobwhites are very social birds and form coveys of 10 to 15 birds during the fall," said Bob Pierce, MU Extension fish and wildlife specialist. During the fall, coveys often communicate with one another by whistling just before sunrise. Generally, when the number of coveys in an area increases, the proportion of coveys that "talk" with one another also increases.

At sunrise, the counters deployed to six locations throughout the farm and listened for the call-a clear, loud whistle, vocalized as "koi-lee."

"This year they heard whistles from as many as 26 coveys," said Tim Reinbott, superintendent of Bradford Farm. Five years ago, the number of coveys was two.

Over the past 30 years, bobwhite quail populations have declined by as much as 70 percent in Missouri. Much of this decline resulted from the loss of habitat and usable space within the agricultural landscape of the state, Pierce said.

"Farms are now generally larger, field sizes have increased, monocultures of grasses and crops have been promoted, and farm equipment is much more efficient," he said. "Although there have been economic benefits, there have also been trade-offs. These practices have contributed to a loss of plant diversity on many farms, and a loss of habitat at the edges of fields when farm operations started planting crops from fence row to fence row."

Pierce said quail numbers are going up at Bradford Farm with the help of techniques that farmers and landowners can use on their farms without sacrificing profits.

"We have incorporated some basic wildlife habitat management schemes that can be implemented on all farms," Reinbott said.

The critical limiting factors for quail at Bradford were a lack of suitable cover for brood-rearing and a lack of brushy escape cover, Pierce said. Practices that addressed this included managing edges around crop fields and woodlands, strip disking the edges of fallow fields, conducting prescribed burns in native warm-season grass plantings and replacing fescue with mixtures of legumes and native warm-season grasses.

"We have focused quite a bit of management on the edges of our crop fields, as these areas often have poor yields, particularly when they are located next to mature trees," said Ray Wright, the research specialist at Bradford Farm who led the October covey counts.

Landowners can turn underperforming cropland into quail-friendly zones by allowing natural cover to re-establish itself or by planting a mixture of warm-season grasses, forbs (broad-leaved herbaceous plants) and shrubs, Wright said.

That's what farmer George Hobson has done for the past dozen years. Hobson grows corn, soybeans, wheat and milo on his 100-acre farm next to Bradford Farm. He has planted warm-season grasses along the entire perimeter of his farm and along fence rows. He's worked to eradicate fescue and provide nesting cover and food with legumes such as lespedeza and clover.

According to Pierce, landowners may qualify for assistance from various private, state and federal cost-sharing programs, including the USDA Farm Service Agency's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Through CRP, eligible landowners can receive per-acre payments to retire cropland and marginal pasture to create habitat buffers, which the agency calls Conservation Practice 33, or CP33.

Detailed computer analyses of typical Missouri farms by the MU Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) found that many farms could see a modest net gain in revenue under CP33, even with rising commodity prices.

The economic and ecological benefits to any given farm, however, hinge on a number of factors, from local geography to global market conditions.

Hobson cautions that inadequate planning and execution of habitat-management techniques may reduce rather than increase the local quail population. "Be careful not to destroy escape cover when creating new areas," he said. "Food plots that are narrow and not next to good cover act like a buffet line for predators."

"The first step for those who want to make their land more quail-friendly," Pierce said, "is to learn as much about bobwhite quail as possible and to assess their land's potential for meeting quail habitat requirements."

Landowners can evaluate their property with the help of an MU Extension publication, "Missouri Bobwhite Quail Habitat Appraisal Guide" (MP902). This booklet includes a worksheet and step-by-step instructions for improving habitat conditions on the farm. Another MU Extension guide, "Quail-Friendly Plants of the Midwest" (MP903), offers detailed information on identifying and managing plants that provide food and cover for bobwhite quail.

Issues of "The Covey Headquarters," a quarterly newsletter produced by MU Extension, the Missouri Department of Conservation and USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, are available for download at

You can find information on counting quail from the Missouri Department of Conservation at