Northern bobwhites (Colinus virginianus), like all species of wildlife, require four basic habitat components: food, water, cover and space. Anyone interested in increasing bobwhite populations must be able to identify and improve the habitat components that are limiting their population growth. Bobwhites usually obtain their daily water requirement from the foods they consume, so water is rarely a limiting factor. Space can be addressed by ensuring that the other two components are interspersed throughout the area being managed.
The purpose of this guide is to aid in the identification of plants important to bobwhites in the Midwest so that critical evaluations of the food and cover components of habitat can be made. While this guide contains many plants that are important for food and cover, it certainly is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all plant species used by bobwhites. Most of the plants listed are native to the Midwest. The exotic species included here have been in the Midwest a long time and do not exhibit aggressive spreading behavior that might displace native species or reduce biodiversity. All plants listed are likely to be naturalized or found "growing wild."
Habitat with a diversity of plant species composition and structure will increase the space available to bobwhites. Plants that seem to have no direct benefits to bobwhites may have indirect benefits, such as increasing the number of insects and other invertebrates available to feed broods.
Most of the plants listed in this guide respond well to periodic disturbance. In the Midwest, bobwhites thrive in early to mid-successional plant communities maintained by fire, disking, grazing or a combination of all three. Using these management tools will promote the growth of many of the plants listed.
We hope this guide will serve you as one of many tools needed to critically evaluate bobwhite habitat on your land and to make informed management decisions that will benefit bobwhite populations.
Plants in this guide have been grouped into three general classes:
- Forb (broadleaf plants)
- Woody (trees, shrubs and vines)
Within each of these classes, species are listed alphabetically by common name. See the index to locate plants by common and scientific name.
Beneath the class designation is a symbol or symbols denoting how quail use the plant. Plants may have the following uses:
Quail typically nest in clump grasses with fine leaves and stems, often in association with abundant forbs or legumes. Most nests occur within 50 feet of a road, trail, field edge or shrub thicket.
Bobwhites tend to roost at night in sparse vegetation 1 to 3 feet tall with abundant bare ground and little or no overhead obstruction. Roosting cover is similar in composition to nesting cover.
During periods of snow or cold, bobwhites need to conserve body heat and reduce exposure. Winter thermal cover consists of dense stems or branches that block the wind and reduce snow accumulation. Evergreens and plants with dark-colored stems absorb and release heat, resulting in a warmer microclimate. Winter cover on south-facing slopes is especially desirable.
Dense shrub thickets and tall grasses provide shade from intense summer heat, often resulting in temperatures 15 degrees cooler than areas with full solar exposure. Bobwhites may also perch on limbs several feet above ground to take advantage of cooling breezes.
When threatened by predators, quail seek the shelter of quality escape cover 3 to 12 feet tall. Escape cover is also known as covey headquarters, and consists of dense branches or stems overhead, with an open or bare understory. Patches or thickets at least 1,500 square feet in area are most likely to be used. This cover type is especially important in fall and winter, when bobwhites are seldom found more than 50 yards away.
For coveys to be present in the fall, they must have high-quality brood cover in the summer. Brood cover is characterized by diverse plant communities with an abundance of broadleaf plants and bare ground to facilitate movement and foraging for seeds and insects. Good brood cover usually results from recent disturbance, such as burning, light to moderate grazing, or disking.
The list of foods consumed by bobwhites includes several hundred species of plants, insects, slugs and arachnids. Some are dietary staples every year, while others may be consumed only rarely. Food needs change throughout the year. Laying hens and chicks require insects to meet protein and mineral demands, while leaves provide essential vitamins. Seeds are rich in carbohydrates and oils and form the bulk of the diet in fall and winter. Regardless of the type of food being consumed, it is important that the cover provide plenty of bare ground to allow bobwhites access and ease of foraging.
Naturally, many of the plants listed will benefit quail in multiple ways. The 56 plants in this guide are by no means all those that have been documented as used by quail in the Midwest — that list contains 200 or more species. Rather, many of these plants are common in quail habitats or are likely to be used by bobwhites at some point during the year. If you commonly encounter 15 or more of these plants on your land, representing grasses, forbs and woody plants, there is a good chance that your property provides the basic necessities for quail populations to grow and survive. For more information on quail habitat management, see the references listed below or consult a wildlife professional.
In general, plant names in this guide follow the naming conventions of the Flora of Missouri Project, a collaboration between the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Missouri Department of Conservation. When in doubt about a common name, rely on the scientific (Latin) name.
For more information on managing your farm for bobwhite quail, contact a natural resource or wildlife professional with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) or MU Extension.
- Wildlife Management for Missouri Landowners, third edition, published by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
- The Covey Headquarters Newsletter, quarterly newsletter that provides timely advice to landowners interested in managing for bobwhite quail.
- Native Warm Season Grass Newsletter, published by GrowNative. Call 660-885-8179 to be included on the mailing list.
- Missouri Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA)
Contact the MDC, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services or your MU Extension center for additional information.
- Bobwhite quail management workshop, a cooperatively developed video that demonstrates management techniques that can be used to enhance quail habitat on your property.
- A landowner tour: Bringing back bobwhite quail, features landowners who have successfully implemented management practices to improve habitats for bobwhites on their property.
- Managing conservation reserve program lands for wildlife, improving habitat for small game wildlife and songbirds, shows how landowners can implement approved management practices to improve CRP lands for small game wildlife and grassland songbirds.