It's quail hunting season, but where are the birds? Loss of habitat for the northern bobwhite quail — the nation's most popular game bird — is blamed for its sharp decline in the Southeast, according to a University of Florida wildlife conservationist, who says improved land management practices will help restore the species.
More intensive forestry and agricultural practices, urban sprawl, and other types of development are important factors in their decline, causing bobwhite quail populations to drop by two-thirds since 1980, said Bill Giuliano, an assistant professor with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Florida hunters once harvested more than 2 million quail each year, but they now take fewer than 250,000.
Several non-game birds — such as burrowing owls, crested caracaras, eastern meadowlarks and sparrows — that share habitats with bobwhites are also experiencing long-term and large-scale declines.
In much of the Southeast, bobwhite numbers are only a small fraction of what they were only 25 years ago, he said. Continued loss and alteration of habitat through changing land management practices and development threaten the future of quail in Florida and the region. Similar problems are affecting quail populations in other areas of the nation where the birds live in a wide variety of habitats.
Giuliano said the length of the hunting season — November through March — does not appear to be a major factor in their decline. However, considering these habitat problems, there may be a need for some new scientifically based regulations to manage the harvest.
"To bring the bird's population back to 1980 levels in the Southeast, some 81 million acres of habitat need to be restored, and we are working with several public and private agencies to encourage that, primarily on private lands," Giuliano said.
Plans for restoring habitat are being developed by UF researchers in cooperation with scientists at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee.
To educate landowners, managers, hunters and quail enthusiasts on the ecology and management of bobwhite, the UF extension service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Service recently held a quail management short course in Arcadia, Fla. Giuliano, who coordinated the course, said similar programs will be presented annually.
Carlos Alfonso, a UF trustee and outdoorsman from Tampa who attended the short course in Arcadia, said quail hunting is a valuable tradition that deserves to be protected. "There has been a dramatic decline in quail populations, and we welcome efforts by UF and other public and private agencies to restore this ecosystem in Florida and the Southeast," he said.
Giuliano said quail biologists generally agree that nesting and ground- plant covers needed for brood-rearing are important factors across most of the species range in Florida and the Southeast.
"While the birds still thrive on large, intensively managed quail plantations in north Florida, their numbers have declined in south Florida where changing land-use patterns have altered their preferred habitat," Giuliano said. "In fact, the landscape has changed so much that extensive tracts of land have become completely unproductive for quail."
He said vast acreages have been cleared for citrus groves and improved pastures. Concerns from urban residents about smoke often prevent land managers from using controlled burns to control excessive plant growth that may be undesirable for quail. For example, palmetto is beneficial for quail when it covers small areas of pastureland, but it becomes detrimental when the coverage is extensive.
Jim Selph, UF DeSoto County Extension director in Arcadia, said many agricultural practices, including livestock grazing, are often blamed for the loss and degradation of habitat for quail and other wildlife. However, in many rangeland systems, grazing can actually be an effective management tool to create and maintain a good habitat for quail, he said.
The ideal quail habitat — often referred to as a "crazy quilt" of plants scattered about the landscape — includes small patches of bunchgrasses for nesting cover, weeds for foraging and other shrubs such as palmetto for escape cover, he said.
Selph, a livestock expert, said moderate grazing, which usually results in more open and diverse rangeland, produces the best habitat for quail.
Heavy grazing, particularly when shrubs and other non-forage plants are being controlled, may lead to a "golf-course effect," providing little forage for cattle and no food or cover for quail.
"Unfortunately, there is no magic stocking rate or number of animals that will always provide moderate grazing intensity and maintain the crazy-quilt that quail need," Selph said. Giuliano said habitat restoration and possibly predator management practices can boost quail populations. Predators, which kill many quail each year in Florida, include armadillos, bobcats, hawks, owls, raccoons and snakes.
Supplemental feeding, another form of predator management, can help protect the birds by reducing the time they spend away from their nests searching for food.
"Controlling imported fire ants, which are one of the leading causes of low quail numbers throughout the Southeast, will also help quail populations rebound," Giuliano said. "In fact, controlling fire ants in heavily infested areas could double quail populations."