By Mark Fike
Mr. Bob, aka bobwhite quail, was once the king gamebird of the south and even regions in the central and northern portion of the country. Bobwhite quail fed many a family years ago and the wealthy enjoyed a “gentleman’s hunt” behind good birddogs and fine shotguns.
Like many game animals, quail populations are cyclic and can be boom or bust. However, northern bobwhite numbers, depending on your source, have been on the general decline since the early 1900s. The population decline really became noticeable in the 1940s and ‘50s.
There are many variables associated with the decline of the bird that announced the spring with its unmistakable “Bob WHITE” call. Some point to farming practices that included pesticides that reduced the number of insects that quail could eat.
Others pointed at the herbicides that reduced weedy cover for the quail to hide in. Others suggested that farming practices changed so drastically in regard to lost edge habitat where quail thrive. Farmers farm right up to the edge of the woods leaving no weeds or thickets. Hedgerows are cleared and every available area that can be farmed is farmed.
While all of these variables involve farmers, the demise of the quail is not solely on the farmers’ shoulders. Farmers are trying to make a living and feed their families. Technology and advancements in science have helped us be more efficient while leaving less for wildlife.
Other people take note of the fact that trapping is all but gone. This has led to an increase of predators which love a good quail meal as much as you or I would enjoy one. Skunks, possums, raccoons, foxes, and coyotes, not to mention feral and domestic cats, hammer bird populations.
Likely what has happened is that all of the above variables have contributed to the decline of the birds. Loss of habitat is a critical factor in populations of quail. In places where there is adequate to decent edge habitat with enough cover to hide and bug in, quail thrive.
It is hard to convince a farmer or landowner to let the edges or corners of their fields grow up. It “looks bad” from their perspective. It is not neat and clean.
I recall having a conversation with a farmer’s wife whose property we use. Her place is neat and clean right to the edge. She was considering what to do with the property to keep the taxes low now that her husband has passed away. I mentioned that I manage a few properties in a conservation easement. One of those properties has a small covey of quail on it.
She asked how that all worked and I explained how there has to be cover and detailed how that looked. She immediately told me her husband would roll over in his grave if he ever saw the farm looking messy. These were people that love wildlife and enjoy watching wildlife, but had been brought up to farm every square foot and never let the weeds take over.
Quail love old home sites, hedgerows, thinned pines with open canopy and overgrown clear cuts. Such areas are harder to find and so are quail.
So, what is the answer to help the bobwhite recover? There is no perfect answer, but the biggest piece is habitat. If we can create and maintain decent habitat and keep a thumb on predators, quail will come back. Doing those two things is not very easy, but nor is it too hard. Doing these things requires a different mindset and cooperation between landowners as many properties are much smaller now than they used to be given our population and penchant for development.
Native plants and particularly pollinators are essential for quail. Non-native plants choke out the understory and make it nearly impossible for quail to maneuver on the ground. If they cannot maneuver, they have a tough time foraging for seeds and bugging for insects. They also have a tough time eluding predators.
Quail need roughly 35 to 45 feet of edge habitat to elude predators at the minimum. Otherwise, foxes and coyotes will learn to work the cover forcing the quail out of the end of what little there may be and catch them.
There are a number of groups out there that are working hard to restore quail and bring that great “Bob WHITE” call back to our landscape. In Virginia, there is a Quail Recovery Initiative that is having some success with quail recovery in some areas. You can check out their Facebook page for some great posts and ideas about what you can do. https://www.facebook.com/VirginiaBobwhiteBulletin/
Most states have organizations dedicated to bringing back the quail. If you search your state and quail recovery, you will likely find one quickly.
Last, if you have property and want to manage the land for quail recovery, seek out a wildlife biologist for some tips. There are conservation programs out there that will aid you financially as well. The USDA is one of them.