Improved turkey habitat can conflict with needs of quail
PRATT -- Kansas spring turkey season is in full swing, and many hunters are enjoying the abundance of this large game bird. Other hunters who enjoy turkey hunting but also like to quail hunt may be wondering why turkey populations have surged in recent years while quail populations have declined in much of the state. Jim Pitman, small game biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP), has some answers.

"Some hunters have speculated that because turkey populations are on the rise and quail are in decline in the same areas of the state, then turkeys must be eating quail or competing with them for resources," Pitman says. "They assume turkeys are having a negative impact on quail. In reality, both populations have been influenced by a large-scale landscape conversion that has occurred over several decades."

Pitman explains that wildlife biologists have been studying both quail and turkeys intensely for more than 75 years and have never documented a single occurrence of a turkey eating a young quail.

"It is a common rumor that turkeys have been shot with quail in their crops, but no biologist has ever seen a specimen or a photograph," he says. "Another problem with this claim is that most quail hatch in late June or early July, well after the turkey season has closed. It would be highly unlikely that a legally-harvested turkey would have a quail chick in its crop even if the phenomenon was known to occur. The main factor contributing to declining quail populations and increasing turkey populations is a landscape conversion from grasslands and shrubs to woodlands."

Satellite images confirm this. Woodland habitat increased 23 percent in eastern Kansas from 1984 to 2000, and if the 1950s landscape were compared to the present landscape, the woodland increase would have been much greater. This landscape transformation occurred throughout Kansas but has been most severe in the Flint Hills and eastward. The additional trees have improved habitat for many woodland species such as turkeys, deer, and squirrels, but these changes have degraded habitat for grassland species like quail.

"Large trees are required by turkeys for roosting, and as woodlands have matured and expanded into the prairie, more areas have become suitable for turkeys," says Pitman. "These trees have shaded out low-growing bunch-grasses and shrubs required by quail for nesting and protective cover. Additional woodland has also benefited quail predators such as hawks, owls, raccoons, and opossums. Other factors have contributed to quail decline, but more trees in the landscape has had the greatest negative impact."

This does not mean that good quail hunting can't be found in Kansas. In the past few years, quail numbers have increased in portions of central Kansas, from north to south. So turkey hunters should enjoy the opportunity to bag multiple turkeys this spring, as well as in the fall. And plan a fall quail hunt, as well.