Setting the Table for Iowa's Favorite Farmland Birds: Bobwhite Quail and Ring-necked Pheasants

HTML5 Icon

Adam Janke
Assistant Professor
Natural Resource Ecology and Management
Iowa State University

photo of brushy habitatPerhaps no wild birds captivate the imagination of rural Midwesterners as much as the bobwhite quail and ring-necked pheasant. Both species wield an iconic call – the “bob-WHITE” whistle of male bobwhites and the conspicuous crowing of the rooster pheasant. Both species are often visible on a country drive thanks to their affinity for feeding and dusting on crop-field and roadside edges. Both species flock during winter and offer beautiful reprieves from otherwise life-less winter landscapes. Unfortunately though, both species share one more commonality – there are fewer of them in Iowa today than there was throughout most of the 20th century.Changes in Iowa’s landscape resulting in more crop production, fewer pastures and grazed woodlots, and advancing growth of once cut-over forests and fencerows has reduced the capacity of the landscape to host these iconic birds. Interest in bobwhite and pheasant conservation in rural Iowa has not waned with the populations however, and landowners in all corners of the state are interested in helping these icons of rural Iowa survive today and for future generations.

Bobwhites, pheasants, and other so-called gallinaceous birds like Hungarian partridge, ruffed grouse, and turkeys, are unique among Iowa’s birds because of their resident status. Hundreds of other bird species are annually documented in Iowa either on their annual migrations or using Iowa’s fields and forests to raise young before departing again for winter in tropical climes. While these migratory birds are busy flying south for winter, our resident gallinaceous birds are busy preparing for their own winter, which will be spent locally, often in the same township in which they were born. These resident birds are treat for wildlife lovers, because they make for a challenging quarry for hunters or offer a chance to see wild birds when most others are gone for the winter. However, their resident status adds complexity for landowners because we must “set the table” year-round. While migrant birds need only a few things from Iowa’s landscapes – namely a place to breed and raise their young—and are capable of flying long distances in search of it, our resident birds need everything – nesting cover, places to raise young, and places to spend their fall and winter days – all within a few sections of land.

The key to successfully promoting bobwhites or pheasants on your property is to provide the right habitats year-round. Wildlife biologists define habitat as food, water, cover, and special features. The only special features bobwhites and pheasants need are bare-ground areas for dusting, which are common place and not a major focus of habitat plans. Similarly, water is ubiquitous in Iowa because birds can get their water from small surface puddles, dew on vegetation, snow, or even directly from food. Thus, we’re left to focus on food and cover – two necessary, and often limiting, elements on Iowa farms, ranches, and woodlots.

“Cover” is biologist-speak for where wild critters spend their time while not feeding. The primary role of cover for pheasants and quail is to provide refuge from predators, to escape temperature extremes of cold winter and hot summer days, and to provide a place to nest.

Pheasants and quail build their nests on the ground. Pheasants nest almost exclusively in grass fields, and generally are most successful in large grass fields like those acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program or undisturbed pastures. Quail also nest extensively in grass fields, but they tend to nest near edges and even occasionally build nests in fencerows with grassy or shrubby vegetation. Peak nesting for both species is during May and June, so one key step landowners can take is to ensure haying or mowing activities don’t disturb nests during these months. Ideally mowing should be delayed until August 1 whenever possible. Any type of undisturbed grass will suffice for nesting, but the best nesting habitats are in fields with native bunch grasses like bluestem or Indiangrass, rather than the less suitable sod-forming grasses like brome or Kentucky blue-grass.

Shrubby vegetation, like brambles, blackberry, raspberry, wild plum, and dogwoods, are important cover elements, particularly for bobwhites. Such shrubby cover can be found in planted shelterbelts, along woodlot edges, and fencerows, and provides important cover for quail, and to some extent pheasants, to escape the heat of hot summer days and, most importantly, to seek refuge during cold, snowy winter days. Shrubby cover is really important habitat for birds to hide or escape from predators. Opening the canopy of woodlot edges by felling mature trees, planting shrubs around homesteads and fields, and allowing natural growth of shrubs in old fields can be a simple and effective means of increasing the suitability of your property for bobwhites and pheasants. Pheasants also benefit from dense vegetation found in wet spots like bulrushes and cattails, which can provide excellent warm and safe cover during winter.

In addition to nesting and wintering cover, providing a place for quail and pheasants to raise their young is an important consideration. This so-called brood habitat is defined by its capacity to provide days- to weeks-old birds a place to run, find insect foods for growth, and avoid predators passing overhead. Freshly-hatched pheasants and quail leave the nest within hours of hatch and start feeding on insects immediately. They start as ping-pong ball sized puffs of feathers with tiny legs, so moving through dense grasses is almost impossible. Picture a growing soybean field for a nice image of what brood cover should look like – bare ground at the birds’ level and a dense overhead canopy to avoid the hot sun and predators looking for an easy meal. Indeed soybean fields can be suitable brood cover, but the best brood cover is a variety of flowering plants and grasses that host a diversity of insects. Native plants like partridge pea and Illinois bundleflower interspersed with other flowers and native grasses provide excellent brood cover and seeds for food during winter.

Winter food, namely seeds from weeds and grains, can be hard for quail and pheasants to find in sufficient quantities because cold temperatures mean they need more food for energy to stay warm and snow often covers up food sources. Standing, seed-bearing plants like curly doc, ragweeds, partridge pea, smartweed, corn, wheat, and soybeans are important food sources for quail and pheasants. Landowners can promote the availability of these important food sources by allowing bare ground or disturbed areas to grow up during summer or by intentionally planting and not harvesting small patches of corn, soybeans, sorghum, millet or other seed-bearing crops near woody vegetation or other winter cover. During summer, any undisturbed patches of grasses, flowers, or shrubs will likely yield the fruits and insects the birds need.

A common refrain among bobwhite and pheasant enthusiasts goes something like this, “Weather and predators, like coyotes and hawks, simply kill too many pheasants and quail to sustain a local population.” Indeed, quail and pheasants have remarkably high annual mortality – the life expectancy of a quail is less than one year and that of pheasant is not much more! However, these species have always had short life spans and yet are able to thrive in many landscapes thanks to their remarkable ability to raise large broods year-after-year. In landscapes where pheasant and quail numbers are strongest, researchers have consistently found the same thing – the right habitat.

Providing the right amounts of necessary food and cover for these resident birds throughout the year is key to fighting predators and weather extremes. Further, the right habitat has to extend beyond your own farm: the best section of land in the state would remain incapable of hosting bobwhites or pheasants if it was an oasis amid miles of inhospitable habitat. So while you’re making plans to improve your property for quail or pheasants, talk to you neighbors about simple ways they could improve habitat on their land. With a little hard work, the right eye for food and cover, and some neighborly cooperation, you can enjoy the thrill of the rooster’s crow or that iconic “bob-WHITE” shrill each spring.

For more information about attracting quail and pheasants and other wildlife to your land, check out the resources from the Iowa DNR’s wildlife landowner assistance page or the resources available from wildlife extension at Iowa State University.

Date of Publication: 
July, 2016