The distinctive whistle a quail makes that sounds remotely like the words ‘bob white’ used to ring across the Southland.

Now, not so much, but that’s one negative social and recreational trend that’s changing.

Recent results of the combined efforts of wildlife enthusiasts around the country indicate the northern bobwhite quail is making a slow, but steady comeback in the Southeast.

The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI), headquartered at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn., has been instrumental in bringing together national attention and wildlife action groups to focus on the challenge of bringing bobwhite quail back across the country.

The NCBI contends, if its habitat management goals were fully implemented in key priority landscapes in key states, it could add 4.6 million coveys of quail, or an astounding 55 million more birds annually.

“The original 2002 NBCI changed the game for bobwhite conservation and grasslands conservation overall in many ways; this revised NBCI will raise our game,” says NBCI Director Don McKenzie.

“The second edition announced recently goes light years beyond the initial paper-based effort in 2002. This new NBCI is a dynamic, interactive, web-connected geographic information system created by an innovative combination of satellite imagery, landscape databases, professional biological judgment and knowledge of priorities in rural communities,” he adds. 

“This latest NBCI program is an initiative by the states, for the states. And it’s really just the beginning at a truly range-wide scale,” McKenzie says.

Virginia is one of the key quail landscapes identified by conservationists and the program is working, according to wildlife biologists and quail enthusiasts alike.

Culpepper County Va., is one of six target counties in the state. Fredricksburg, Va. wildlife biologist Mike Budd says, “Virginia, like all southern states, has seen a slow, but steady decline in quail populations over the past 20 years.

“Year to year the decline may not seem spectacular, but taken over a 20-year period of time, the loss of quail populations has been dramatic,” Budd says.

What’s good for farming may not always be so good for quail, he adds So-called clean farming is a contributing factor to the ground dwelling bird’s decline. In clean farming, Budd explains, brush hedgerows are usually eliminated and fallow fields are often mowed. Those kinds of practices reduce the quail’s ideal habitat.

Additiional funding available

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.

Alabama Quail Trail

In Alabama, the Quail Trail has built on the success of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in the state, attracting many sportsmen from around the country to hunting facilities located along a similar train across the state.

In South Carolina the Quail Project has drawn statewide attention and ties in nicely with the NCBI efforts in the state.

At a recent South Carolina field day, which drew over 200 quail hunters from across the state, South Carolina Quail Project Coordinator, Jerald Sholar, noted that some important myths about quail habitat were exposed by a project held in conjunction with the Tall Timbers Game Bird Program.

The Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy is based in Tallahasee, Fla., but has done extensive work in Alabama and Georgia and is now turning its attention to the quail hunting heritage in South Carolina.

Research Station and Land Conservancy is based in Florida, but has done extensive work in Alabama and Georgia and also is now turning its attention to the quail hunting heritage in South Carolina.

Speaking at the recent field day Sholar says, “This property has disproved the theory that lands in South Carolina cannot sustain huntable populations of wild bobwhites. Tall Timbers has both short-term and long-term formulas for bobwhite recovery management practices like control of invasive hardwoods and the creation of brood habitat.”

In addition to statewide efforts, individuals, like Denmark, S.C., businessman and quail hunting enthusiast Johney Haralson, have re-created quail hunting to closely simulate what a hunt of native birds was like 25 years ago.

“I’ve hunted quail all my life, and one of my lifelong goals has been to some day have a small place where I could hunt birds,” he says. Haralson, who holds leadership roles in both the South Carolina Tree Farmers Association and the State Wildlife Association, recently won the Southeastern Tree Farmer of the Year Award and came within a vote or two of winning the group’s national award.

Efforts by federal, state and individuals to bring bobwhite quail back in the Southeast is beginning to pay off. While pen-raised birds are still the norm for quail hunting, more and more farmers and landowners report an increase of native quail on their land.

rroberson@farmpress.com