Bad News, Good News
Even as bobwhite numbers continue to free-fall, ambitious conservation programs are showing that for quail and other grassland birds, a little habitat goes a long way.
Idylwild Wildlife Management Area, a 3,300-acre oasis in the agricultural desert of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, lives up to its name. On the next-to-last day of April, flowering dogwoods flash glossy-white bracts beneath the greening canopy of one of the last large, unbroken forest stands in Caroline County, up against the Delaware line. Scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, wood thrushes, and other songbirds announce their territorial imperatives within earshot of canoeists on Marshyhope Creek and horseback riders on the site’s 25 miles of trails.
But the northern bobwhite, which I had hoped to find singing at Idylwild, doesn’t oblige. It had been some years since I’d last heard the sweet whistled call—bob-whoit!—that accounts for the plump little bird’s name, and I was briefly fooled by a fragment of quail song. Alas, it was just a mockingbird running through its repertoire from the stage of a nearby sweetgum tree.
“It’s early for quail to be breeding in Maryland,” said Bob Long, upland game bird biologist for the state’s Department of Natural Resources. He was explaining to this writer from upstate New York, where Colinus virginianus is a rara avis, how former cropland abutting the Idylwild forest is managed to produce a sufficient wild bobwhite population for public hunting. The wild version of the bird is a scarce commodity on the Eastern Shore, where pricey put-and-take shooting of pen-reared quail on private game farms is the norm.
The reason becomes obvious when you drive down any two-lane road in Caroline County. Fields of soybeans, wheat, and corn stretch from the highway shoulder to the horizon with not a brushy fencerow in sight. The desolation is broken only by grain storage bins and white chicken houses, each as long as a football field and filled with thousands of broilers destined for the Perdue plant farther down the Delmarva Peninsula. In essence, most of Maryland’s wild quail coveys, along with songbirds that also depend on native grasslands and what scientists call “early successional habitat”—herbaceous annual and perennial plants—have been traded for shrink-wrapped quarters, breasts, and legs.
Indeed, the once-ubiquitous northern bobwhite, the best known of North America’s six native quail species, is in deep trouble across its Southeast stronghold. From the Chesapeake shore to the oak savannas of Texas, quail counts have been in free fall since the annual Breeding Bird Survey was launched in 1966. Maryland’s bobwhite population, for example, has plunged 90 percent. No wonder, then, that this game bird recently landed at the very top of National Audubon’s Common Birds in Decline report, which estimates the national population plunge at 82 percent over the past 41 years.
The economic impact is huge, since quail hunting, a grand southern tradition, has collapsed along with the bird’s storied abundance. Reggie Thackston, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ go-to man on quail matters, said the decline in hunting in the Peach State alone has resulted in the loss of tens of millions of dollars in annual income, much of this in rural communities. The fallout, however, reaches well beyond vanished hunting opportunities. Bobwhites are an indicator species, a sign of ecological vigor on rural lands as far north as Michigan and Wisconsin. When quail disappear, so do other species that depend on grasslands and shrubby habitat. In Georgia, for example, the list of songbirds that share quail territory includes the orchard oriole, painted bunting, dickcissel, LeConte’s sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, sedge wren, and loggerhead shrike.
The good news, as Long stressed, is that high-quality bobwhite cover can be produced in three to five years, and there’s a new federal program dubbed “Bobwhite Buffers” designed to restore 250,000 acres of habitat in 35 states. Meanwhile, quail devotees from across the Southeast have an ambitious plan, the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI), to return covey counts to 1980 levels. That goal may seem quixotic, given all the quail country that has disappeared over the past 40 years and the limited resources of state wildlife agencies. Still, the scheme—modeled after the popular North American Landbird Conservation Program of Partners in Flight—has a number of enthusiastic private participants, including Audubon Texas, which added a full-time quail biologist to its staff and has taken the lead role in restoring the Lone Star State’s bobwhite populations.
The root of the bobwhite’s plight is no mystery: wide-scale land-use changes. Suburban sprawl and concomitant shopping malls have gobbled up untold acres of quail habitat. “Quail were as common as mockingbirds when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in northwest Georgia,” Thackston recalled one day in early May when bobwhites were calling from the briar patches. “I would come home from school in the afternoon, take out our bird dogs, and flush three or four coveys before supper.” Now, he said, that area is an overdeveloped Atlanta suburb with few if any quail, adding that these days only two out of 10 bobwhites bagged by Georgia hunters are wild birds. Most are game-farm birds shot at hunting preserves, including luxurious plantations that offer corporate clients a one-day “gentleman’s game” for $1,500.
“The sad thing is, folks down here took bobwhites for granted until they woke up one spring morning and wondered why they weren’t hearing them call anymore,” said Thackston. It’s not just hunters who miss quail. They’re vital to the quality of life. Think of rural New York without bluebirds or Kansas without meadowlarks.
In the meantime, many landowners who haven’t sold out to developers have turned to intensive agriculture in places where patchy farming patterns dating to pioneer times once provided ideal quail habitat. Farmers tear out hedgerows and thickets to create huge fields and use herbicides to control weeds that would provide quail food. Others have switched from traditional crops to exotic grass pastures, hay fields, or thick pine plantations, equally poor bobwhite habitat. In addition, the practice of regularly burning farmland to control unwanted vegetation, which generates new bobwhite cover, has been largely abandoned.
To his chagrin, a widely published news story once quoted Thackston as telling farmers that quail need only three things: weeds, briars, and bugs. “While oversimplified,” he explained, “it does describe what quail require around the edge of croplands in the deep Southeast. However, ‘a mix of native grasses, forbs, and woody thickets’ would be a better if less catchy characterization of quail requirements across a variety of cover types.”
Creating good quail habitat, however, isn’t a one-shot deal. As Thackston emphasized, it entails continuous effort in the form of prescribed fire, winter disking, planting, and chemical or mechanical control of invasive exotics. “It can be more difficult than managing a wetland or mature forest.”
The bird demanding all this attention is a six-ounce, reddish-brown dynamo with a short lifespan. Of every 100 bobwhites alive in the fall, at the end of a long breeding season, 75 to 80 will perish over the next 12 months. The species compensates with robust reproductive capacity. Blessed with good habitat and weather, an adult pair might produce two or more broods totaling 25 offspring.
The prototypical bobwhite cock has a white line over its eyes and a white bib on its throat, though there is some striking variation among the many Colinus subspecies. The wings and stubby tail are warm brown, and as with many birds, the hen is drabber. Males use the familiar bob-whoit! call primarily to attract mates—and they are insistent whistlers. Herbert L. Stoddard, who in 1931 published a still-classic book on bobwhites, The Bobwhite Quail: Its Habits, Preservation, and Increase, counted 1,430 calls by a single cock one day between dawn and dark.
Quail pair off for the full breeding season, building a nest of dried vegetation, where the hen lays from 8 to 25 eggs—and becomes an easy target for marauding raccoons, skunks, foxes, and snakes. If she is killed, the male will take over incubation and brooding duties. Females will also turn a nest over to their mate while they lay and incubate a second clutch. Chicks hatch in 23 days, all at once, fly when two or three weeks old, and soon weigh as much as adults. The bobwhite family will stick together as a covey until late winter, scurrying over a home range of anywhere from 15 to 100 acres. Quail really don’t like to fly, but if pressed by hunters and their dogs, they’ll explode from cover with whirring wings, keeping close to the ground. That’s an exhilarating moment, as I can attest from experience pursuing wild bobwhites in the Florida scrublands.
In spring and summer, bobwhites feast on protein-rich insects, eating as many as 168 grasshoppers in a single feeding. Insects are particularly important to chicks because they contain amino acids and high protein levels not found in plant material and are required for growth and feather development. Seeds of native forbs and weeds provide 90 percent of the birds’ food during fall and winter, when quail move into woodlands or dense brush to escape harsh weather. I don’t know who did the counting, but scientists tell us that a single quail will eat 56,430 bugs and 5,379,168 weed seeds in a year. Those statistics should vindicate Thackston’s “weeds, briars, and bugs” quip as well as identify the bobwhite as a farmer’s best avian friend.
It’s important to note that there has been little change in the bobwhite’s overall range since Colonial times, though some populations of the birds have been extirpated. The issue is the number of breeding birds, which has spiraled down from an estimated 31 million in 1966 to 5.5 million today. Without a valiant effort to reverse that trend, experts say, we’ll be left with a breeding population of only 3.1 million bobwhites by 2020 and the species will have disappeared from much of its historic territory. Thus programs like the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative may be the best hope for a future filled with quail and an assembly of struggling grassland and brushland songbirds.
The NBCI is the product of the Southeast Quail Study Group, a coalition of biologists and land managers from state and federal resource agencies, the academic community, and private organizations. Its authors predict that an additional 65 million acres of rural America will be converted to urban use by 2020 because of unabated population growth. However, they believe bobwhite populations can still be restored to 1980 abundance—19.6 million breeding birds—by quail-friendly management on about six percent of the Southeast region’s 81 million acres of farm, forest, and rangeland.
I asked the Wildlife Management Institute’s Don McKenzie, national coordinator of the NBCI, if that was a realistic goal. “Our philosophy is to put bobwhites back in the working landscape, not to create refuges,” he said. “We know how to manage all of those landscapes to the benefit of quail. The challenge is figuring out a way to apply the technology to millions of acres instead of five or ten acres at a time like we’re doing now.”
Audubon Texas, which launched its Quail and Grasslands Birds Initiative in 2003, is doing just that. Biologist Kyle Brazil is working with landowners and managers of more than 2.8 million acres to improve habitat, especially in the heavily farmed blackland prairie of East Texas, where quail are barely holding on. “I love having quail around, and not just to hunt,” said Jim Willis, a participant in the program, who built a home on a 200-acre cattle ranch west of Houston in 2001. “My hope was to be able to sit on my front porch and hear a bobwhite or two whistling that familiar call,” he said. “You know, a lot of groups talk about doing something for quail, but they don’t put words into action. I might have given up on improving my land for bobwhites if I hadn’t had Audubon working beside me. Now we have a symphony of quail.”
For the present, the best news about quail is the Bobwhite Buffers program, also known as Conservation Practice 33, which was introduced four years ago by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. (The official title is Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds.) Part of the ongoing Conservation Reserve Program, CP33 provides incentive payments to farmers who sign 10-year contracts to plant and maintain 35- to 120-foot-wide buffers of native grasses, legumes, wildflowers, and perhaps a few shrubs and small trees along the perimeter of active fields. And there’s another incentive: A landowner can make more money leasing those fields to hunters than he will lose taking it out of cropland. As of last October, 199,832 acres had been enrolled in CP33.
Quail managers are euphoric about the program. Wes Burger, professor of wildlife ecology at Mississippi State and a legendary quail expert, told me it is already paying huge dividends. “The take-home story,” said Burger, “is that a relatively small change in land use can produce a significant increase in numbers of quail and grassland birds. I’m talking about converting just two to five percent of a field to native border habit.” Researchers monitoring CP33 fields, he related, documented a 44 percent jump in fall bobwhite numbers in the first year along with greater numbers of dickcissels, field sparrows, and indigo and painted buntings. And the biggest response, he added, has come from wintering sparrows, whose numbers jumped 10- to 20-fold on the new border habitat. “These migrants are hard pressed to find quality grassland habitat anywhere in the Southeast,” said Burger.
I’ve saved the last word for Reggie Thackston, whose gentle drawl masks a passion I rarely encounter among wildlife professionals. “Quail conservation isn’t a single-species issue,” he said. “It’s the perfect opportunity for birders who don’t hunt and hunters who don’t bird to pull on the same rope and make positive things happen on the land.”
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|State of the Bird
Looks: About 10 inches long, chunky and short-tailed. Mostly reddish brown, with throat and eyebrow white on male, buff on female. More black on head in some parts of Mexico.
Behavior: Lives in small flocks (coveys) in winter, breaking up into pairs in spring. Forages, nests, and roosts on the ground, although males will sing from fence posts and other raised perches.
Range and habitat: Eastern North America (and formerly southern Arizona) south through parts of Mexico to northern Guatemala, mostly in brushy meadows and overgrown fields.
Status: Sharply declining over most of its range in recent decades.
Threats: Loss or degraded habitat seems to be main factor. In parts of South, as with other ground-nesting birds, young may be killed by imported fire ants. Large-scale release of farm-raised birds may have altered genetic fitness of wild populations.
Outlook: Downward trend is likely to continue unless vigorous steps are taken to improve bobwhite habitat.—Kenn Kaufman