Understanding Water Requirements of Quail

Many years ago, as a student, I remember listening to one of my wildlife professors lecturing our class about some of the animals he had worked with in the arid regions of Africa. He showed us a picture of an Oryx antelope. This critter has long sharp horns, weighs about 400 pounds and looks as if he just came out of a Dr. Seuss book.
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The professor said that it was possible for this animal to live out its life without having to drink “free” or standing water. It survives by the modifying its habits during the day and utilizing the moisture it obtains from the vegetation it consums. Although severe droughts took a heavy toll on the young oryx and reduced their reproductive success, I found it rather amazing that the adults could live under such conditions. Not too many years later I found myself working with a project that was raising this same kind of animal in large fenced areas as part of an endangered species propagation test program. I found that what I had been told was true. The Oryx were very efficient when it came to water, but on a hot dry summer day they went to the water trough and drank like all the other species.Now I can hear you thinking, “What in the world does this have to do with quail”? Let me explain. As I talk to people from West Texas to Florida about quail, one question that comes up often is, “Do my birds really need supplemental water? After all not every animal does.” Let’s wade through a few ideas concerning water and quail.

How do quail obtain water?

Quail come fresh out of the box, or rather the egg, with a neat software package that equips them with a host of instinctive behaviors, one of which is to peck. Using this pecking instinct, quail ingest the early morning dew or rain droplets clinging to vegetation to get moisture during the spring and fall. During the hot summer months of lower humidity, quail obtain moisture from insects or any available fruits such as berries.

What about special seasonal water needs?

Over the years of watching quail use our Base Camp waterers, I have seen many seasonal fluctuations. As winter weather arrives in the southeast I always observe a drastic reduction in the use of water. Sometimes we will even remove the waterer during winter and replace it with an extra feeder, but this is not true in the drier regions. I had a man call me from Arizona recently. He told me that his Gambel’s quail use the waterer throughout the year.

As the weather warms up in late spring, I noticed that water use picks up. The quail will use the waterer (and supplemental feed) heavily until the blackberries become ripe. If rain has been sufficient, by late spring the insect bloom and plant buds will provide alternate sources of moisture and feed.

When I was using remote video cameras to watch summer activity at my Base Camps, I noticed that hens were using the waterer a lot more often than roosters. That makes sense when you think about it. A quail egg is eighty- percent water so the moisture demand on a nesting hen is much higher.

In autumn the water quail need can vary greatly. In 2003 it was wet in my area. Even though the demand for water increased, it was not near what I observed during the previous three drought years. In fact during September and October of 2000, 2001, and 2002 the birds consumed more water than they did feed.

What about droughts?

In extreme conditions such as droughts, quail like other species scramble to find moisture. It is a good idea to do something to help them in their struggle by providing additional water sources. These can include everything from split tires to guzzler tanks. Other devices like the Covey Base Camp provide a nipple watering system.

Each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages. The split tires are cheap but unsightly. Also, they form a great place for mosquitoes to breed. The tires must be refilled often due to evaporation and depletion by other animals.

Guzzler tanks have a larger capacity. Also, they are covered to slow evaporation. However, on the minus side, they are quite expensive.

The third device, a nipple waterer system, has a very moderate price. Being a closed container it too provides little chance for evaporation. Since the only way to access the water is to peck at the nipple, other kinds of animals are excluded from it. The water capacity varies with nipple system you choose, but most are quite adequate to allow for reasonable maintenance. (Our Covey Base Camp waterer holds about 3 gallons.)

Whatever method you choose to help quail get water remember to conceal it near some briars or other brush. No bird should die trying to wet his whistle.

Streams and Ponds

Some people believe supplemental water is not needed because they have a pond or stream on their land. The researchers that I have spoken with, whose job it is to radio track quail year-round, tell me they have not observed a noticeable shift in a quails home range in order to be close to a water source. So even if you have a pond or drain, don’t count on every quail taking a hike just to get a drink. It’s always better to have a reliable source of water located within the quail’s range.

This is all just common sense. Unfortunately, all too often we view the landscape as a garden of Eden instead of the battlefield it really is. Water is one of the necessities of life. Everything needs it and the more available it is the better.

Quail need water to maintain their basic body requirements, to digest their feed, and to obtain maximum reproductive output. The stress caused by a limited supply of water may not kill the bird, but will definitely be a drag anchor. Remember the example with which I began. The Oryx can survive with limited water but he may not thrive with limited water. So whether you use a split tire, a guzzler, or a nipple waterer, don’t let your quail be stuck in a “dry county” if you can help it.

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