Learn How to Help Bobwhites Thrive in Iowa

New extension publication explains how Iowans can support northern bobwhite quail

May 23, 2023, 12:57 pm | Adam Janke

AMES, Iowa – Known for singing their own name, the bobwhite quail is an iconic bird in Iowa and the Midwest. When temperatures warm, this brown and white bird makes its presence known by repeating the familiar phrase: bob-WHITE!

Although popular, the species is also in decline, mostly because of the continuous loss of habitat.

To help Iowans better understand this bird and the environment that it needs to thrive, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has published a nine-page guide, “Northern Bobwhites in Iowa.”

Bobwhite quail.Authored by Adam Janke, extension wildlife specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach, and Iowa State graduate student Riggs Wilson, this publication covers the basic lifecycle characteristics of bobwhites, considerations for rural and urban habitat, and a description of the different foods these birds need to survive.

Bobwhites live their entire lives in the same few acres of land each year, according to Janke. This means even more attention is needed for the food, cover and arrangement needs for the birds throughout the year.

The best cover depends on the season and the lifecycle of the birds. For nesting, bobwhites need bunch grasses that grow in discreet clumps, interspersed with wildflowers, as opposed to grasses like turfgrasses that form sod. He recommends native warm-season bunch grasses like little bluestem, sideoats grama, Indiangrass or big bluestem because these provide overhead concealment for ground nests, while still maintaining open spaces needed for movement.

For brood rearing, Janke and Wilson recommend a cover that is less dense than nesting, because young bobwhites need to be able to move along the ground, with access to insects from the soil. Bobwhite chicks are born smaller than a ping-pong ball, and their habitat requires relatively frequent disturbances, such as fire, to prevent an excessive buildup of litter and to maintain open conditions.

During winter, bobwhites need overhead cover near food sources. Shrubby vegetation such as that provided by wild plum thickets, cedars, stands of dogwoods or patches of brambles and briars is essential.

Janke says it’s also critical that bobwhite habitat have the proper “arrangement,” which means all habitat must be in close proximity to feeding, nesting, brooding and overwintering grounds. Research shows bobwhites live most of their lives on the same 65 acres, so a complete system is necessary.

The publication also outlines 12 common food sources, including grasses, forbs, shrubs and field crops. Detailed charts and graphics show how to establish habitat across the whole farm or property.

“Bobwhites make extensive use of natural vegetation in and around places where people farm and live,” according to Janke. “Everywhere we look, we can find possible bobwhite habitat, if the vegetation supports the needs of food, cover and proper arrangement.”

Bobwhite habitat can be found, or made, across any farm by simply allowing idle areas to grow to annual plants, perennial grasses and forbs, or shrubs. Such areas may include abandoned farm lots, side yards, roadside ditches, fencerows, drainages or other similar areas.

For more information, Janke can be reached at 515-294-7429 or ajanke@iastate.edu

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