Being designated as a target area means there’s additional funding available for private landowners that would like to participate. “It’s a pretty easy contract system, with three to five years and only a couple pieces of paper,” Budd says                                          

Tiffany Beachy, a USDA wildlife biologist based in Smithfield, Va., says the quail initiative is designed to continue for as long as it takes to get the bird population back on track. She said officials recognized the quail’s decline in the 1990s, but that plans fell flat after funding dried up.

In addition to encouraging less clean cutting, Beachy says landowners are also encouraged to plant different varieties of grasses that grow in more of a clump pattern, a form that provides ideal habitat for quail.

There is no definitive reason for the 20-year decline in quail populations. In the Southeast, farms have gotten bigger, burn-down chemicals are widely used to manage weeds that once provided feed for quail, and in general what has been good for agricultural growth hasn’t been good for quail.

Among the reasons cited for the decline of quail populations are forestry practices focused on pine production, larger farms with larger fields and less cover, increased use of pasture grasses rather than native warm season grasses, urbanization of rural land and increased populations of other wildlife species that prey upon quail or compete directly for food.

Localized die-offs of quail have been attributed to dramatic increases in fire ants and some biologists suspect avian viruses may play role in localized loss of quail populations.

Farmers can help with the quail restoration project by doing a few simple and few not-so-simple things on the farm.

A study of rangelands in south Florida, conducted by the Tall Timbers Research Station in cooperation with the  University of Georgia, and University of Florida found that quail populations could be doubled in as little as 2 years with improved management. Specifically, it found the use of summer fire rather than winter fire and roller drum chopping in summer offered both improved forage for cattle and improved quail habitat.

A North Carolina State University study of linear and block field borders on 24 farms found that quail populations almost doubled on farms where 2-3 percent of the cropland edge was allowed to go fallow. It also found that blocks of fallow habitat (one quarter acre to 6 acres in size) produced twice the number of quail as narrow (10-foot) linear field borders.

Some things farmers can do to help improve quail habitat include: 

• Leave brushy or grassy borders around fields. These borders can help with erosion and if left un-mowed can provide nesting areas for quail.

• Leave jagged edges on fields. Fields with straight edges have less habitat for quail. Preserving woody draws is important and cover in draws will re-establish naturally if left unplowed or un-mowed. 

• Alternating crops in the same field is an excellent way to reduce erosion and build soil fertility. Planting row crops followed by wheat or other small grains the next year provides habitat diversity for quail. Planting legumes or grass every third or fourth year is a good rotation for soil conservation and quail.

• Quail prefer a mixture of grasses and legumes that do not form a dense sod. Thick mats of grass hinder movement of quail and make feeding difficult. Native warm-season grasses, properly managed, provide cover and food. Mixing legumes with grasses improves habitat for young quail.

All these practices come with some cost in materials and labor, but none require a dramatic change in the way farmers do business on a day-to-day basis.

Anumber of states have taken up the challenge of restoring quail populations. In addition to restoring the social and recreational value of quail hunting, a small but thriving quail hunting industry has sparked rural economic recovery in some cases.