Quite often I hear it stated as a matter of fact that “If you have rabbits, you will have quail.” These folks are well meaning, and perhaps they are fortunate to have access to land that has rabbits and quail. I wish their statement was always true because it would mean that quail would be doing a lot better than they are. In my decades of observing rabbits and quail…I find that if you have quail, you will most likely have rabbits, but the opposite is not true in many cases. An examination of why reveals the nuances of quail habitat ecology, versus that of rabbits. In this case I’ll limit my comparison to bobwhite quail and eastern cottontails, as this close to Easter someone might think I am referring to those rabbits’ carrying baskets of candy and leaving non-biodegradable plastic eggs all over the landscape.
Quail are known as species that need thickets, and there they are kindred spirits with rabbits. Both species need ample quantities of escape cover to survive the modern onslaught of predators from air and land. These thickets need to be well distributed throughout each species home range. They also both need diverse plant species to provide food, though they use them differently. From there, their habitat ecology diverges.
During the warm months, rabbits eat lots of green vegetation from multiple plant species. In the cold months they eat buds and small twigs of numerous shrubs, the lower bark of some plants, with sumac being a preferred type, blackberry and other brier canes, and the few green winter herbs they can find. They do not need two things for food that quail must have – insects and seeds, both in great quantities. And while it is true some of the plants that rabbits eat may produce seeds for quail, many do not.
Though quail sometimes eat green vegetation – particularly in spring when the hens consume plants that provide calcium for egg development, quail cannot survive on a diet of greens. Quail chicks need a diet of 85% to 95% insects in summer to properly develop flight feathers, which is a key to their survival. Adult quail need a diet rich with insects to sustain the energy needed for reproduction, brood rearing, and feather replacement. Some of the same plants that attract large numbers of insects like partridge pea, rag weed, and beggar weed also produce ample seeds that will last into winter. So, what serves as summer bugging habitat, doubles as winter feeding area.
When experts talk about quail management, they also mention access to bare ground. In the case of the bobwhite, this means numerous, small bare ground patches under a canopy of vegetation with a growth form like rag weed, or partridge pea. Small quail need to be able to move easily under vegetation that conceals them from predators but allows them to forage on insects and seed. Rabbits cherish a good dust bath from time to time, as do squirrels and songbirds, but they do not need access to bare ground in the same way quail do.
The eastern cottontail has perhaps adapted better to sod forming cattle forages like fescue, too, which is a nemesis for quail. Fescue is not preferred by rabbits, but they can move around in a fescue field feeding on other more palatable plants they find in it. It should still be controlled in rabbit management, it’s just not quite as critical as it is for quail. Rabbits can negotiate through heavier, grassy cover than a bobwhite can, too. Rabbits will use rank stands of native grasses, whereas quail rarely do. In relation to how they use the land, rabbits seem better able to survive in pockets of habitat that provide good cover, interspersed in a landscape quail would find unsuitable (think suburban areas where they survive in landscaping shrubs and eat yard plants). That is not to say rabbits don’t do better in large contiguous tracts of excellent cover, it just seems like they do O.K. in marginal areas, or on the fringes where quail have trouble surviving.
In terms of range size, comparing quail and rabbits is a bit like comparing chainsaws to lawnmowers. Since quail are usually defined by their covey range – the area needed by a covey of 12 to 15 birds that will allow them to survive the winter, and rabbits are more individualists it is difficult to draw conclusions. Suffice it say the range of an individual rabbit is normally much smaller than the range of a quail covey.
What’s all this amount to for the habitat manager? If you manage intensively for quail, you will have rabbits along with many other species. Quail management makes a good model for early-successional habitat in general. But many properties are not large enough to be productive for quail long term if they are not in a landscape where quail habitat is common. Rabbits can be managed for on as little as five acres.
For quail: soil disturbance is key in the form of fire, light disking or well managed cattle grazing on a two-to-three-year cycle, and the wetter the climate you live in and the better your soil, the more frequent that disturbance needs to be. Quail need a great mix of annual herbaceous vegetation, a bit grassier nesting cover and a good proportion of thicket cover (some use “the third rule” – their range should consist of about one third of each of these cover types well distributed throughout). Seed and insect producing plants are key, along with escape cover. Sod forming grasses need to be controlled or eradicated in quail management. Rank, over gown stands of warm season grasses are not quail habitat. Learn how to reduce their thickness and grass component (check out Dr. Craig Harper’s Booklet: “Managing Early-Successional Plant Communities for Wildlife in the Eastern U.S.”)
For rabbits: the disturbance cycle can be a little longer, four to five years, perhaps, but you must be careful not to lose the area to saplings too tall to manage by conventional means. Old fields that are not suitable for quail, because they consist mostly of shrubby cover undergrown in places with cool season grasses can still be good for rabbits. The focus should be on thickets and escape cover. Brush piles can be nice additions to rabbitat. Make them about the size of your car (see this link: Indiana Wildlife Brush Pile Job Sheet (usda.gov) ). Young, herbaceous rabbit food can be maintained by periodic soil disturbance in many of the same ways quail habitat can be maintained. Though there are nuances that separate rabbit and quail habitat, thinking “weeds and thickets” for both is sound.