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Turkey and Northern Bobwhite Quail Habitat Needs

In the last post we talked about White-tailed Deer and their habitat needs. While the main components of turkey and quail habitat are the same as deer; space, cover, food and water. They may take on different forms, as well as the need to be located in closer proximity to each other. Turkey home ranges typically cover a few hundred acres as opposed to quail which can be as small as 15 acres. Nesting and brooding cover are extremely important to both species, especially in terms of how those 2 forms are interspersed. When these two habitat types are not interspersed well, chick and poult mortality is extremely high.

Turkey habitat can vary significantly throughout a calendar year. In terms of Space turkey home ranges are often a few hundred to several thousand acres. Spring home ranges typically encompass more open fields and openings within forested areas. Space is further defined by mature toms who are breeding. Adult males try to maintain a home range that they will defend against other mature males. Juvenile males often form loose groups of birds that typically stay separated from a tom and its small group of hens. In Winter home ranges can become smaller especially if food sources are concentrated such as agricultural fields or food plots.

hen turkey with poults
Hen turkey with poults

Cover: Turkeys require adequate roosting cover. Turkeys unlike quail prefer to roost in trees. Not just any trees, but those with enough spacing between horizontal branches that allow birds to fly up from the ground and yet support the weight of a roosting bird or several birds. Roost trees tend to be located in more open areas to allow birds to fly up and which also promotes the preferred branching structure in the tree. Dense stands of timber are not good roosting locations. Many people overlook establishing and maintaining good roosting areas. Dense cover 2-3' tall is often selected by nesting hens. This type of cover is often referred to as "old field habitat", a good mix of tall grass, forbs and woody shrub species. Once poults hatch though brooding cover is selected that is short enough for the hen to spot approaching predators and contains high numbers of insects which are the primary food source for growing poults. These brooding areas have more open ground space to allow for poults to move easily as well. Dense stands of vegetation and heavy thatch layers restrict poult movement and can cause poults to become soaked with moisture from dew and rain events leading to hypothermia. Poults mature quickly and by 3-4 weeks can fly enough to at least roost in lower shrubs. Older poults like adults also are able to scratch through duff layers in search of insects and seeds. Mature birds tend to favor more open areas for daylight activities, such as feeding and loafing, as they rely on their vision to spot potential predators.

Food: Poults feed heavily on insects. As turkeys mature they focus less on insects and more on seeds, berries, grains and nuts for their diet. Spring diets are often heavy on green shoots and forbs. Fall diets take advantage of the higher calories found in hard mast, grains and grass seeds. Unlike mammals and many bird species poults need to be self-sustaining in terms of acquiring food from the moment they hatch. Hens do not provide food directly to poults, but must be able to lead them to areas high in insect numbers.

Water: Free standing water is often required by turkeys and will be utilized by them if you make it available. Nests are often found relatively close to water sources, hens only leave nests for short periods of time while incubating eggs.

Northern Bob-white Quail require the least amount of Space out of the 3 wildlife species I have talked about. Quail home ranges can be as small as 15 acres but typically more in the 40 acre range. Keep in mind that while adult quail can readily fly, they seem more at home merely walking from one habitat source to another. I honestly don't recall seeing quail fly unless it was in response to predator avoidance. Perhaps this is a result of the energy expended to gather a covey back together if it scatters when the birds fly. While large amounts of Space do not need to present, it has been argued that larger blocks of quail habitat allow for repopulating areas that have experienced high mortality levels.

Cover: Quail require diverse, well interspersed habitat areas to be the most productive. Dense strips of cover in an area greatly reduce the ability of quail to move easily among habitat types. Good quail habitat provides large quantities of forbs, good areas of woody overhead protective cover (brush thickets) and open ground. We are not talking about large open areas, but open ground amongst the forbs and woody stems to allow them to move freely. The best nesting cover has remanent warm season grass clumps from the previous growing season, interspersed with plenty of forbs (high seed count for hens to forage) as well as open ground for the chicks to quickly transition into brood rearing areas. Brood rearing areas have lots of forbs that attract insects which the quail chicks feed on and open ground for ease of movement. The forbs should be tall enough to provide overhead protection from aerial predators like hawks. Quail also need brushy thickets, which serve as good loafing areas with less chance for predation.

Northern Bobwhite quail
Northern Bob-white Quail Pair

Food: Quail rely heavily on Spring insects for both chicks and adults alike. Adults readily feed on seeds, berries and small grains when present. However, unlike turkeys they do not typically scratch through leaf litter or heavy duff layers in search of food. Grass species in general attract very little in the way of insects during the growing season, insect densities are highest in forb (broadleaf plant) areas.

Water: Water is not necessarily needed in terms of free-standing water. Quail are often able to consume dew off of vegetation or gather enough moisture from the food they are consuming, whether that be plants or insects to meet their water requirements.

Deer, quail and turkeys are all species I want to manage for on our farm. Next week I will look at the habitat plan for my own farm. What habitat it is currently lacking and what the plan is to change things for the better moving forward.

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