It used to be a rural way of life! Get up before dawn, eat a plate of ham gravy and biscuits, load the bird dogs in a box on the back of a pickup truck and head to the corn, soybean fields, or bicolor lespedeza and sedge fields of — you pick the state.
Anywhere across the South the scenario was much the same.
The adrenalin rush of walking up behind two bird dogs frozen on point, expecting the explosion of 12-15 quail is right up there with hitting the game winning home run or kicking the last second field goal to win the game as the clock expires.
Unfortunately, it's an adrenalin rush and a way of life that children of the new millennium will likely never know. Why? The quail population in the South has simply vanished. Every wildlife biologist has a theory, but the quail are still gone and the best efforts of a lot of these same biologists have made little or no headway in bringing them back.
In 2005, University of Florida Wildlife Conservationist Bill Giuliano blamed the dramatic drop in quail populations in Florida to loss of habitat. Giuliano contends improved land management practices will restore the species. A concerted effort in multiple states appears to have made little headway.
There are five major culprits that most wildlife biologists point to as reasons for the dramatic drop in quail populations: Loss of quail habitat, intensified farming and forestry practices, succession of grassland ecosystems to forests, overwhelming presence of exotic grasses like fescue that choke out wildlife, and urban sprawl.
If you add in fire ants, increased degradation from coyotes, and changes in agricultural chemical use, none of the reasons make a plausible excuse for the near genocide of the popular game species.
Farmers are the ultimate ecologists and environmentalists and millions of acres of farmland in the Southeast are being farmed today in a much more ecology friendly way that was the typical fence post to fence post style of the 1970s. The loss of habitat theory just doesn't seem to fit.
For sure, the biggest loss of farmland in the past 25 years has come from conversion to urban use. Still, there are millions of acres of farmland — much of it long distances from any urban influence, and the quail are gone from these farms, too.
Farming practices have gone dramatically toward no-till, minimum-till and in many cases in the Southeast — never-till. These practices, combined with uses of ultra-low rates of chemicals and consistently reduced wildlife sensitivity to this new era of pesticides, seem to indicate a more ideal environment for quail rather than one that seems bent on the removal of the species from the Southern landscape.
Nature has an amazing way of balancing predator and prey, so there is little credence in the increase in fire ants or coyote, or egrets or deer or any of the other conventional theories on how one or more species degrades the other — not to the point of near extinction.
The most plausible explanation comes not from a wildlife biologist, but rather from a life-long quail hunter. Choosing to remain anonymous, he contends all the factors brought forth by game biologists play a role in the decline of quail populations in the Southeast, but the real decline is an avian virus or other disease that affects the reproductive tract of quail.
In 2003, Texas game biologists made a plea to the state legislature to act to stop the degradation of the state's quail population — the last viable population in the southern U.S.
In their presentation to the Texas legislature, the wildlife group cited the dramatic decline in quail populations in the Southeast. In one haunting statement the group said, “in some Southern states quail will likely be extinct by 2005.”
Though extinct may be a bit over-dramatic, there are some realistically dramatic examples of how quail have simply vanished in the Southeast.
At the Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville, S.C., Entomologist Jay Chapin says quail are simply gone from the agriculture research facility. Chapin, an avid hunter, recalls in the 1980s hunting over 20 coveys of quail at the facility. Now, he says there are no quail there.
At the Piedmont Research Station in Camp Hill, Ala., a 2,100 acre research facility, there were over 20 coveys of quail as late as the mid-1980s. In recent years, quail studies by Auburn University game biologists have determined that the facility, which until recently was used as a turkey research site, has no native quail population.
Though on-farm discussions may start out with discussions of how to stop the spread of glyphosate resistant Palmer pigweed or the virtues of long-term no-till farming, frequently the conversation moves to hunting and quail. On thousands of farms from Florida to Virginia quail are gone.
Hunting is not the issue — not by a long shot. Heavy quail hunting pressure from the early 1960s until populations began to decline seemed to be more a stimulus to quail populations than cause for decline.
In Florida, Guiliano says, “the length of the hunting season — November through March — does not appear to be a major factor in their decline.”
Quail are what ecologists refer to as an r-selected species, which means they are subject to high annual mortality rates but are able to offset this mortality with high reproductive rates. Annual mortality rates may reach 70 to 80 percent depending on habitat quality, weather, predator densities, hunting pressure and other variables. Providing high quality habitat at all seasons of the year best controls predation on bobwhites.
While the drought that has extended from 2006 into 2008 has certainly hurt bobwhite production, leaders of Quail Forever contend it's the loss of suitable habitat that has put bobwhite quail in their current state. In fact, 60 to 90 percent of the U.S. bobwhite populations from just 25 years ago have disappeared.
Quail Forever was formed in 2005. One key to achieving their goal of restoring quail populations in the Southeast to 1980 levels is through Federal legislation, including the 2007 farm bill which is currently being debated in Washington D.C. Within the Farm Bill is the 39.2 million-acre Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the CP 33 bobwhite buffers initiative, and a variety of other conservation initiatives targeted at improving land as wildlife habitat.
Though native quail are mostly gone from the Southeast, quail hunting is not. The Alabama Quail Trail is prime example of how private land-owners have combined to keep the thrill of quail hunting alive and at the same time support research efforts to help bring native populations back.
The purpose of the Alabama Quail Trail is to focus the interest and resources in quail hunting, quail research, and quail conservation in a manner that increases the expenditure in Alabama of recreational dollars associated with quail and quail hunting, improves quail habitat across the landscape, and ultimately improves quail numbers.
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 goals was 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.
To copy a popular advertising slogan: Number 8 shot, shotgun shells $5; 28 gauge over and under, improved cylinder bore shotgun $500; a hunt with Johney Haralson — priceless.
With all the private sector and political emphasis finally being directed toward the loss of quail populations in the Southeast, progress is being made. A consensus across the Southland is that it is indeed possible to restore quail populations to 1980 levels. The glory days of hunting native quail in the 1960s and 1970s is probably gone forever, but hopefully the species will survive — both quail and quail hunter.