Blazing fall colors and the dull ones that follow are sure signs of quail season.  Humans and canines take to the field in search of a short, plump bird about 10 inches long and weighing 6 or 7 ounces. 

From the first Saturday in November until well into January, Illinois hunters peer into the undergrowth.  They are in search of a bird that is rusty brown on the side, grey on the back, and lighter brown underneath.  It blends right into the vegetation. 

Quail are popular game birds.  Habitat conditions in southern and western Illinois are most suited to quail and populations have remained highest there.  Intensive farming coupled with severe winter conditions, can be a limiting factor in their availability for hunting. 

Through the work of game officials, grass roots hunter organizations and landowners, quail habitat is improving. 

Quail require two types of habitat.  Woody cover provides refuge from predators and the weather.  Weedy cover provides food and nesting cover. 

The successful quail hunter understands what produces good native hatched gamebirds.  Quail prefer fields containing a lush growth of annual weeds when broods are hatching. 

Because quail are ground‑nesting birds, their nests are highly susceptible to predation.  When the eggs hatch, quail chicks require proper nutrition.  During the first few weeks this means a high protein diet.  They depend upon small insects for up to 87% of their diet. 

Quail thrive on green plants and insects that result from damp soil.  Insects are critical to the survival of gamebird chicks in the wild.  They provide the birds with important nutrition for both young and adult birds.  Given green plant matter, and the insects it attracts, quail can metabolize enough water to survive and successfully reproduce.  Quail do not need standing water. 

Areas with a high percentage of this habitat in the summer have better hunting in the fall and winter. 

Some studies by biologists show that “planned neglect”, such as disking and leaving‑fallow the land, provide good habitat for quail.  Results may differ due to soil type, previous land use, weather patterns and other factors.  But they agree that a mixture of patches is probably best. 

Food patches can be either ones planted or ones that are disked and not planted.  The planned neglect/natural plant‑succession can produce some good brood habitat and hunting habitat. 

For planted food plots, it is better to have smaller plots spread around a field rather than a few large ones.  One quarter acre plot per 20 to 40 acres of permanent cover is sufficient.  The ratio should not exceed one plot per 5 acres. 

For many years tall fescue was the grass of choice for landowners grazing cattle.  However, fescue does not produce the kind of vegetative structure required by quail.  Quail need open space for both travel and foraging.  Quail will only eat what they are able to see and fescue covers up the food sources.  Fescue grows in a mat‑like structure hindering the birds moving through the stuff.  The problem becomes more problematic in winter after heavy snow and ice. 

In response to the needs of game birds like the quail, many landowners are converting from fescue to native prairie grasses.  They are finding that the conversion is beneficial to livestock producers as well as quail. 

Quail prefer a 12 to 36 inch high stand of grass, legumes and broadleaf plants like ragweed with little ground litter for roosting cover. 

For nesting they prefer 10 to 15 inch high stands composed of 80 to 90% grass with 90% of the ground shaded and some ground litter from the previous year.  They use the litter for nest building.  Clumpy grasses, such as native warm‑season grass, orchard grass, a redtop/timothy mix, are preferred.  Cover that is at least 150 feet wide is best. 

After the winter snow/ice flatten the grass, the winter or loafing cover that is best includes brushy fencerows, plum and dogwood thickets as well as forage sorghum and food plots.  This cover ideally will be within 600 feet of the center of the field. 

The birds will feed on seeds such as pigweed, ragweed, foxtail, and lambsquarter.  Milo is best for planted quail food plots. 

In order for these situations to be best for quail, all the above should be within a quarter mile of each other. 

Once habitat has been located, the hunter’s attention should change to the daily activity of quail in the wild.  Although the bird’s activities are subject to change with weather patterns, hunting pressure and feeding activity, there are locations where they are found with regularity. 

Quail seem to have a high tolerance to cold weather.  Compact body contact provides a valuable warming that contributes to winter survival of quail conveys.  Biologists estimate that it requires a minimum of seven quail to maintain body‑contact in a covey circle. 

Quail roost facing outward in a circle.  Although this is primarily for warmth, it also provides an element of surprise/confusion to any predator.  Quail, when flushed perform best in quick short distance flights. 

Pectoral muscles which contract to move the wings of a bird also press against its ribs.  This automatically forces the birds to breathe.  Birds never lose their breath; they fly into it.  Quail fly very fast for short distances, but they do not take off and fly for long distances, such as a migration. 

On average, quail have their peak activity during the hunting season early in the morning and late in the afternoon. 

The morning activity usually lasts from about 7:00 to 8:45 A.M.  The afternoon activity is less intense but lasts from 5:15 to 6:30 P.M.  The least activity usually occurs from noon to about 2:45 P.M.  Hunters find this a good time to enjoy lunch and a short nap. 

Hunters can assist quail populations by killing only a few birds out of each covey, by keeping all dogs confined during the nesting season, not hunting during critical storm periods, and self‑imposing a season limit. 

Quail are one of the most distinguished of the native birds remaining in our fields and farms.  Hunting them is great sport.  They can be located by paying attention to their biology.  The hunter, who finds the feed, will find the birds. 


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