Number of quail increase in county
Take a country drive, and you'll likely see a quail or two scampering in the grass along the road.
Thanks to a couple of mild winters and this year's increased rainfall, the area's quail population is on the rise, said Randy Whiteaker, wildlife biologist for Kansas Wildlife and Parks.
"Last year and the year before last it was pretty much in the tank as far as numbers of quail," Whiteaker said. "We're still well below the 10-year brood count, but relative to the past years it's looking real good."
Quail typically live in brushy areas where there's food and shelter.
"They have a 100 percent insect diet," Whiteaker said. "That's why they like the real weedy areas. The flowers attract the insects and the insects are what the broods are after."
But local observations show the numbers of quail vary. Mike McGraw, who farms all over the county, has noted an increase.
"There's been more quail than in a long time," McGraw said. "It's some kind of a cycle they're going through, and they're coming back. We've seen probably three times more quail this year."
On the other hand, Jean Murry, who lives near Jarbalo, said she and her husband, Tom, are seeing fewer quail in her area this year.
"We have one that comes up here in the yard," Murry said. "We used to see 12 to 14 of them marching through here. They may be out there but we don't see them."
And in the south part of the county, near Linwood, Jim Elder said he's seen a few quail on the hills.
"I still think that the turkey are getting rid of them," Elder said.
According to a United States Department of Agriculture press release, the nationwide quail population dropped from an estimated 59 million birds in 1980 to 20 million birds in 1999. The reason for the decline, according to USDA, is the loss of habitat.
"They like to live in stuff that's weedy," Whiteaker said. "The stuff that farmers really like to get mowed down and get mowed out of the way."
And in counties where there's increased pressure from development, of course, that cuts into the birds' habitats, as well.
It's not just weeds that make for good cover, Whiteaker said.
"Quail need a certain amount of woody cover, but it can't be trees," Whiteaker said. "What they need is shrubby type cover like what you see in a lilac bush, plum thickets and other things that don't get much more than 8 feet tall."
And they need enough of a space that they can be secure -- maybe a fourth to a half an acre, or even a couple of rows of shrubs along a field's border.
But it's best, Whiteaker said, if a border is about 120 feet wide.
"The wider it is, the less of a predator trap it is," Whiteaker said. "A narrow border doesn't take as much effort by a raccoon or opossum or skunk or black snake to find the nest and eat what's in it."
The rains this year have helped the weeds prosper, which has been good for quail, Whiteaker said.
But the biggest danger to quail isn't lack of food or predators. It's cold winters.
"The biggest mortality source is wintertime," Whiteaker said. "The last couple of years we've had mild winters. In that respect it's kept the winter kill of birds down to a minimum."
One way to provide winter protection for quail is to plant shrubs.
An area as small as 50-foot square will help, as would a couple of rows of shrubs planted along a field border.
Two Conservation Reserve Programs encourage agricultural producers to develop habitat that would be suitable for quail.
One is a general CRP signup going on right now, Whiteaker said.
"It allows the property owner to plant native grass, legumes or shrubs or a combination of those three," Whiteaker said.
And another CRP program, set to open for signup in October, is geared specifically for quail.
"It focuses on field borders," Whiteaker said. "That can be in the form of native grass or in combination with shrubs. Again, we'd like to emphasize the shrubs."
Typical shrubs included in the CRP quail initiative might include plum thickets, rough leaf dogwood and sumac.
"These are not going to exceed 10 feet tall, and they'll make nice dense clump plantings so you get good overhead cover and it gives good freedom of movement at the ground level, which is what quail and pleasant need," Whiteaker said.
Landowners are encouraged to contact their local Farm Service Agency to learn more about the CRP plans.
Whiteaker, who works out of his home at Denison, near Valley Falls, said Leavenworth County will likely never be known for a strong pheasant population.
But they can be spotted in this area, he said, and generally, people are happy to see them.
"Quail and pheasant are real hot issues whether you hunt them or not," Whiteaker said. "Even non-hunters like to see them around."