The excitement begins with watching a dog get ‘birdy’, the hair on the back his neck standing on end, then locked, as if frozen, on point. Following closely behind, then comes the explosion of brown and white blurs, the pop-pop of a favorite shotgun and the smell of spent cordite on a cool fall afternoon.

Hunting quail seemed to be a lost part of Southern heritage, but thanks to a combination of increased organic crop production and an innovative federal program, native quail populations in some parts of the Southeast seem to be making a comeback.

Exactly what happened to quail populations from Virginia to the Florida Panhandle remains a hot topic of debate among wildlife biologists, farmers and scores of people who enjoyed quail hunting.

Some contend fire ants are the culprit, others blame reduced quail populations on farming practices and continued urban expansion. Most contend, a combination of factors led to the dramatic demise of quail in the Southeast.

In 2004, the USDA began Conservation Program 33 (CP33), Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds to address the national decline of Bobwhite quail numbers. Similar to other Conservation Reserve Programs (CRP), Conservation Program 33 pays landowners around $80 per-acre per-year over the length of a 10-15 year contract to take marginal lands out of production to provide habitat for quail and other wildlife.

Program is working

The program is working, and dramatically so in some parts of the habitat of northern bobwhite quail. USDA conducted the first CSP signup in Scott County, Mo. By 2010 quail populations in this rural Missouri county were restored to levels comparable to the 1970s.

In the Mississippi lowlands, even more dramatic results have come from the CP33 program. Quail populations increased more than 200 percent from 2006 to 2010 in areas where borders were planted to switchgrass and other native grasses and plants.

The program has been successful enough for the government to significantly increase the amount of acreage from 250,00 to 350,000 acres this year. This increase in acreage coincides with an increase in organic crop acreage in North Carolina.

In their hay-day quail in the Southeast thrived on a landscape dotted with small fields of grain crops, surrounded by field borders with close proximity to heavy vegetation. The combination provided for a year-round food source and protection from their natural enemies.

Northern bobwhite quail are an early-successional species, meaning that they are often the first animals to “give way” to other, possibly non-native species.

University of Georgia wildlife researcher John Carroll calls the birds “flagships for conservation” because they are clear indicators of changes in the grass and farmland ecosystems that are critical both to natural preservation and the state economy.

The recent demand for organic products, from fruit and vegetables to dairy products to organic beef and pork has driven a demand for a plethora of organic crops. The demand for organic milk and meat products, in particular, has driven a demand for organic grain to feed these animals.

In North Carolina, demand for organic grain has grown more than 20 percent per year for the past decade or so. There are five large buyers of organic grain in the state, using over $10 million worth of organic grain. Despite the growth in domestic organic grain production, most of that grain is imported to feed North Carolina-grown organic livestock.

Though not exactly like the environment in which quail thrived from the 1930s to the 1970s, organic farming brings back some of the same parameters of farming used in the golden era of quail.

North Carolina State University organic farming specialist Chris Reberg-Horton says organic farmers can benefit from the federal program to bring back quail populations and improve pest management for their organic crops. Horton says, “Instead of letting field borders go fallow and grow weeds it may be better, both for weed management as well as for insect pest management, to sow native prairie flowers and perennial grasses into the areas around your crop fields.

Needed food for beneficials

“Having a diversity of flower species that bloom during different times of the year can provide the needed food for beneficial insects. Perennial bunch grasses can provide suitable shelter for a number of beneficial organisms. These plants are much less problematic than the crop weeds that grow in fallow areas. Establishing these flowers and grasses is as easy as scattering their seed, no equipment is required, and the only management they need is a fire burning every few years,” he says.

Aaron Fox, a North Carolina State graduate student, working with the university’s Organic Cropping Systems lab in the Crop Science Department is researching how these flowers and grasses affect weeds, and especially how they affect weed seed predators.

Horton says many research projects have shown that weed seed predators such as crickets, beetles and even mice can prevent a lot of seeds from becoming new weeds. Fox will be investigating whether planting these native prairie flowers and bunch grasses can provide enough beneficial habitats for weed seed predators to have an impact on the weed populations in crop fields.

The work Horton and others are doing to develop organic farming operations in the Southeast fit well with federal programs, which are designed to bring back quail populations.

The Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NCBI) was developed in 2002 to provide the framework for recovery of bobwhite quail populations. The NBCI suggests the majority of quail population recovery could be achieved through alteration of primary land use on 6.2 percent of farm, forest and rangeland acreage.

The NCBI goes on to say, “This could be accomplished, in part, by realizing potential wildlife benefits of conservation buffer practices implemented through a number of USDA farm bill conservation programs, including CP 33.”

Recognizing the problem has been a big part of the climb to recovery for northern bobwhite quail populations. Combining federal incentive programs, innovative research programs and increasing organic farming operations bode well for restoring a part of Southern heritage.

rroberson@farmpress.com