For many years, some hunters have wrongfully blamed wild turkeys for devastating quail populations by eating quail eggs and chicks. This idea may sound ridiculous, but, once again, the accusations against turkeys are flying.
Quail populations in some regions have declined over the last two decades while wild turkey populations have dramatically increased at the same time, but there is no scientific data that points to turkeys as the culprits.
According to Jim Dietsch, president of Quail Forever’s Central Oklahoma 89er Chapter, a lack of quality quail habitat – not turkey predation – is to blame.
“Habitat is one link between the rise of turkey populations and the fall of quail populations in Oklahoma and across the nation,” Dietsch said. “Predation will always occur in nature, but we can help quail by improving their habitat. Quality quail habitat and proper nesting cover allows for more successful nesting with less interference from predators and bad weather.”
Quail thrive in early growth habitat, which is dominated by small, food-bearing shrubs, weeds and grasses that provide plenty of ground cover for the small birds to avoid predators. Wild turkeys, in contrast, are more opportunistic and use all habitat types from early successional woodlands and prairies to older, more mature forests.
In the early to mid-20th century, when small family farms were popular, quail populations thrived. Wild plums, sumac and other shrubs grew around field borders, providing food and protection from predators. Wildfires also generated new forest growth that quail require.
To meet modern agricultural demands, farms have grown. Today’s farmers plant larger crops and mow field borders. Additionally, wildfires, which once cleared brush and restored plant communities to the early habitats quail prefer, have decreased and have not been replaced by prescribed burns in many areas. Without prescribed burns, young, brushy habitats perfect for quail to grow into forests more suitable for wild turkeys. Each of these factors has contributed to the decline in the quail population, but has created ideal conditions for wild turkeys.
“Turkeys can survive better than quail in much of today’s landscape,” said Brandon Houck, regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation. “Because turkeys travel farther in one day than quail will in a year, turkeys simply have more options for finding food and shelter. The good news is that quail and turkeys can cohabitate when provided with the right habitat – like in central Kansas and western Oklahoma where quail and wild turkeys thrive on the same properties.”
Currently, the NWTF is involved in numerous conservation projects nationwide that will help create the right habitat for both quail and wild turkeys. Projects include conducting prescribed fires, managing longleaf pine plantations and creating watering spots for wildlife.