Do not seek lawns: quail want plants that provide food and shelter

California Quail

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In 2014, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative identified 33 bird species that were once quite abundant but are now in steep decline. Among them are two quails: the scaly quail, which ranges from southern Colorado to north-central Mexico, and the bobwhite quail, which occurs in the eastern and central states in southern Mexico. Ontario, Mexico and the Caribbean.

While some quail species are holding up, like the California quail and Gambel’s quail, others are struggling. The main problems for many species are habitat loss and degradation and the increasing use of pesticides. In particular, farmland is now managed so intensively that hedgerows and other fallow areas where quail once congregated for feeding and roosting are increasingly hard to find.

In some areas, quail visit feeding stations, although they clearly prefer natural food. If you live in most urban or suburban habitats, you won’t have much luck attracting them to your yard unless a tamed animal escapes from a nearby game farm, but areas more open, away from dense forests, may be ideal. Quails try to avoid short vegetation that does not provide cover, so they avoid well-kept lawns. The natural plantings in your garden may be perfect, but if your neighbors have traditional lawns, quails are unlikely to discover your garden.

The most important thing you can do to attract quail and help them, individually and as local people, is to plant the right types of vegetation to provide them with food and shelter. The Oregon State University Extension Service recommends planting grasses and legumes as well as shrubs such as serviceberry, snowberry, blueberry, blackberry, gooseberry, and grape.

Native trees that provide small nuts and acorns can also be helpful. No matter where you live, local native plants are still the best source of food for native birds.

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Local native conifers can provide safe resting and nesting sites for some quail. Thickets, tangles and brush piles can also provide excellent cover for small birds.

Bodies of water can be wonderful attractants, especially when located near shelter. Quails rarely enter raised birdbaths, but are quick to discover artificial ponds and shallow water bowls on the ground; bubblers or drops make discovery even faster. And the bodies of water also attract many other birds, so even if no quail live nearby, you will reap rewards.

Oregon State University Extension Service cautions against putting corn and seeds – exactly foods like quail – on the ground in areas where you might attract rats or where outdoor cats can hide. Unfortunately, in most areas, quail are reluctant to land on floor feeders. But since stealth is the order of the day for quail in the best of conditions, providing a natural habitat and water will give you the opportunity to observe them the way they wish to be observed, and is- isn’t that really the point of bird watching?

This article from Laura Erickson’s “Attracting Birds” column originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of BirdWatching.