Category Archive 'Bobwhite Quail'

20 May 2011

The Vanished Wild Bobwhite

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William Herman Schmedtgen, Quail Shooting in Louisiana, 1897

A couple of generations ago, coveys of wild bobwhite quail could be found by hunters from Florida as far north as Southern New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Today, quail hunting exists only for pen-raised, released birds on pay-for-shooting preserves and plantations.

What happened to wild quail? Where did they all go?

The New York Times discusses the problem and advances a theory.

Quail hunting has been both aristocratic and egalitarian. It is a sport of Southern plantation gentry who ride walking horses with bespoke double guns in their scabbards and have pedigreed pointing dogs racing across the fields before them. It is also the sport of the farm kid armed with a dad’s old shotgun and a rangy mutt for a hunting companion. Both types of hunters have equally satisfying hunts, but these days social standing does not matter. Everyone is quail-poor. Bobwhite quail are one of the most studied wildlife species in the United States, yet conservationists have yet to halt the declining populations.

Biologists agree that overhunting is not the issue. Quail are prolific breeders but have a short lifespan. Hunting seasons could be eliminated and still approximately 90 percent of the quail would be dead within the year. Other predators, like raptors, coyotes or raccoons, are also not the reason for their decline, although many hunters point the finger at them.

Don McKenzie is in charge of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, a team of 25 state fish and wildlife agencies and conservation groups. The goal of the group, formed in 2002, is to get wild quail populations to what they were in 1980.

It is one of the most difficult large-scale wildlife restoration projects. Canada geese, whitetail deer and wild turkeys — all at one time low in numbers — have become so populous that they spill into the suburbs, but bringing back bobwhite populations is a struggling enterprise.

“One of the difficult parts of quail restoration is we have to restore suitable habitat at a landscape scale,” McKenzie said. “When you compare that with deer and turkey restoration, the habitat was already suitable. It was a matter of catching remaining wild animals in places where they were and moving them to places where they weren’t and protecting them until they took care of themselves. It’s still a challenge, but nothing compared to what we face now with bobwhites.”

The reason restoring bobwhite quail is so difficult is because it involves changing the nation’s manipulated rural landscape. According to McKenzie, exotic fescue, Bahia grass and Bermuda grass took hold across the United States in the 1940s. These carpetlike grasses were planted to promote better cattle grazing and edged out the native warm-season grasses that are conducive to good quail habitat. The native grasses grow in clumps, which allow the quail to hide, move and forage and are essential to their survival.

With pastures covered with invasive exotic grasses, the quail found cover along brushy fencerows and field edges, but by the 1970s modern agricultural practices that maximized every inch of soil devoured these small sanctuaries and left quail with few hideouts.

Wildlife biologists have known about this connection between warm-season grasses and quail habitat, and many landowners have tried to create an oasis for quail on their property by planting a paradise of native plants. Yet the quail population never reached the old numbers.

“Resident game bird conservation professionals have been telling landowners this for 50 years: all you need to do is some small-scale stuff on your place and you’ll have birds and everything will be fine,” McKenzie said. “Well, after 50 years of doing that, it certainly doesn’t work.”

The problem is that the islands of prime quail habitat — restored or naturally occurring — are not connected to one another to create larger plots of good habitat where quail have greater odds of survival.

“We have to come up with bigger pieces of landscape that are managed in common, and have connections with other pieces of well-managed landscape where there are sustainable populations of birds,” McKenzie said. “We must make it happen by the millions of acres instead of by the tens of acres.”

The problem is not restricted to bobwhite quail. The Times overlooks the fact that same thing has happened to the ringnecked pheasant in the Eastern United States.

Up to the 1960s, the Asiatic pheasant had been successfully naturalized for many decades, and wild pheasant populations existed from Maryland and Virginia all the way up to Southern New England.

As with the bobwhite quail, one finds today everywhere in the East, the wild pheasant population has been completely eliminated. The State of Pennsylvania stocks thousands of pen-raised pheasants annually, and it makes no difference. Within weeks, the birds are gone.

I think the Time’s authorities are correct that edge-to-edge farming, encouraged by the Department of Agriculture’s experts, had something to do with all of this, and the altered system of grasses theory has some plausibility, but I think there may be more to it than that. I don’t see how the complete protection of raptors cannot be playing a role. And, beyond that, experience shows that populations of wild birds and animals do change dramatically and unpredictably.

Back before WWII, Canada geese were becoming very scarce and some subspecies were even believed to be nearing extinction. The wood duck was rare, and had been removed from the bag list of huntable species. In those days, the prime hunting ducks were black ducks in the Northeast, and canvasbacks in the Chesapeake.

Today, Canada geese are a public nuisance. They’ve stopped migrating. Their population has exploded, and the once less common larger subspecies is a standard inhabitant of malls, office complexes, and parks. Wood ducks are now common and have the largest bag limit, and it is unusual to ever get a shot at a black duck or a canvasback.

I don’t think the experts have a good explanation for all the wildlife population changes which occur over time.

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