What About Bob?

It's time for conservation dollars to be spent on bobwhite quail.

“I don’t understand,” said my host. “I mean, I’ve been gone a few years, but these farms used to be full of quail.” We had just followed a pair of English setters across the southern Iowa countryside for five hours without seeing a single bird. We sat on the edge of a stock tank and wiped sweat from our foreheads while he told me of years past, when a hike over this land turned up a dozen coveys or more.

I didn’t doubt my host’s memories of the glory days. I’ve been a bobwhite hunter since I was old enough to walk, and my heart keeps a growing list of places that used to be full of quail. The bobwhite is the bird of my youth. I killed my first quail with a Stevens single-shot .410 while my father and grandfather watched. We hunted quail and cottontail rabbits simultaneously in the game-rich fields and thickets of western Kentucky. But those fields and thickets have changed. The fields are bigger and cleaner, and the thickets have grown into a mature forest canopy: fine habitat for whitetails and turkeys, but no sort of home for a quail.

You don’t need a degree in wildlife biology to know that bobwhites are in trouble; all you need is a dog and a pair of brush pants. There is big money in deer and turkeys, but little commercial payoff in rabbits and quail. As a result, few sportsmen seem to care-or even notice-that bobwhites have fallen on hard times.

While game departments trumpet the “conservation success stories” of wild turkeys and whitetails, a growing number of upland hunters are wondering when the bobwhite quail’s turn will come.

Going Downhill
Just how bad is the problem? Consider the grim statistics compiled in Missouri, a state that once was a mecca for Midwestern quail hunters. Missouri’s conservation department has charted an 85 percent decrease in the quail harvest there over the past 30 years, from more than 3.5 million birds in 1970 to barely half a million in 2000. Faced with such a decline in bird numbers, Missouri quail hunters have given up the sport in droves; hunter numbers fell by two-thirds over the same period.

But the bobwhite decline isn’t just a Show-Me State situation. The Missouri experience merely typifies a much wider problem that stretches from Nebraska to Florida. This bird is in serious trouble throughout its range. In their traditional Southeast stronghold, bobwhites declined 62 percent from 1966 to 1993. A more recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Breeding Bird Survey noted that the nation’s bobwhite population dropped from 19.6 million birds in 1980 to 6.7 million birds in 1999. That’s a 66 percent nationwide dip in only 20 years. Bobwhite numbers have remained stable only in isolated pockets at the western fringe of the bird’s range, mainly in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

What is happening? Talk to people in quail country and you’ll hear an earful of theories on the quail’s decline, some of them bordering on fanciful. Predators, of course, are ever-popular scapegoats whenever game species dwindle. Some even suggest wild turkeys are eating quail chicks.

Not according to Mike Hubbard, a turkey biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. He says that dozens of studies of turkey food habits and hundreds of quail-mortality studies, conducted throughout the nation, prove that young quail are not becoming truffles for turkeys. Hubbard says, “Never once have we seen quail turn up as a food item for turkeys, and never have we documented any instances of quail-chicks or adults-being killed by turkeys.”

As for predators, the current proliferation of coyotes and hawks may actually benefit quail, since both of these species commonly prey on more quail-hungry predators, such as foxes, skunks, raccoons and snakes. Most researchers agree that predator management is not the right way to bring back the quail.

The real issue these days isabitat. “The planting of pastures with fescue has been very detrimental to quail in our region,” says Roger Wells, a Kansas native who is national habitat coordinator for Quail Unlimited.

The land-use change he describes is an example of a wider phenomenon: the loss of adequate nesting and brood-rearing habitat for quail throughout their range. Bobwhite chicks need idle, weedy areas with abundant shrubs and forbs. These “early successional” habitats thrive wherever land is regularly cleared by fire or other disturbances and then allowed to revegetate. Such areas brim with insects, which make up almost all of a quail’s diet in its first several weeks of life. Over the past four decades, such habitat has been lost to clean farming methods, urban sprawl and forest maturation.

According to Wells, even the important Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has often been implemented in ways that are not helpful to quail. He says quail need “edge habitat,” not the homogenous tracts of cover commonly planted on CRP contracts. Quail also need more hands-on management of the land, rather than the “plant-it-and-leave-it” methods so often employed by CRP contract holders. [pagebreak] What’s Being Done
Hopefully, a new and significant management plan for quail conservation is gaining momentum. In the fall of 2002, the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies endorsed the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI). Modeled after the well-known North American Waterfowl Management Plan, the NBCI aims to restore bobwhite covey densities to 1980 levels throughout the species’ geographic range. That amounts to an increase of about 3 million coveys in the bobwhites’ traditional ranges.

Breck Carmichael, a biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, serves as the NBCI’s national chairperson. He says the plan is a crucial step in securing a future not only for quail, but for a host of other species as well. “Approximately thirty species are headed for threatened or endangered status unless we secure their habitat needs,” says Carmichael.

Hopefully, the NBCI will prevent the loss of bobwhites or songbirds. Sixteen states have already adopted the plan, and others may soon follow. The plan works primarily by establishing quail habitat on the private lands that are so critical to the quail’s future. “At last we have our ‘marching orders’ for bringing back the bobwhite quail,” says Roger Wells.

How Hunter’s Can Help
Of course, no conservation plan comes without costs. “In a big way, we are hanging our hat on federal conservation dollars,” says Carmichael, who is working with federal conservation agencies to integrate the NBCI into their existing programs. Carmichael also points to the latest Farm Bill and its attendant conservation measures as a critical success factor for the NBCI.

Like quails themselves, conservation must find sustenance at the grassroots level. Carmichael encourages outdoorsmen who live in quail country to contact their state legislators and urge them to help implement the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. Carmichael also recommends that hunters become members of groups such as Quail Unlimited (803-637-5731, www.qu.org).

Focused effort by sportsmen helped to revive deer and wild turkey populations to healthy levels. It’s time for the same sort of dedication to be applied to the future of the bobwhite.

[pagebreak] Finding Quail on Public Land
Throughout the quail’s range, populations for better or worse are subject to annual fluctuation due to weather. Before planning a hunt, make local contacts for an up-to-date forecast.

**SOUTHWEST: **The region’s highest quail densities are in the “brush country” of southern Texas. Roam the 15,200-acre Chaparral Wildlife Management Area (WMA), 100 miles southwest of San Antonio. Contact the Chaparral headquarters, 830-676-3413. For more information, contact the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division, 4200 Smith School Rd., Austin, TX 78744; www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

**MIDWEST: **Southeastern Kansas offers the best hunting for wild bobwhites in the Midwest. Look to the 18,500-acre Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge near Hartford. A quail forecast for the refuge is available by calling 620-392-5553. Don’t overlook Kansas’s Walk-In Hunting Areas (WIHA) program, which provides public hunting access to select private lands. For more information, including a WIHA atlas, write to the Kansas Division of Wildlife and Parks (Region 5), 1500 W. 7th St., Box 777, Chanute, KS 66720. The division’s Web site is www.kdwp.state.ks.us.

Quail are found in good numbers on the Black Kettle Wildlife Management Area in Oklahoma. The 30,710-acre WMA runs along the Washita River near Cheyenne. For information, contact the WMA at 580-515-2030 or visit www.wildlifedepartment.com.

**SOUTH: **This region has seen the most severe losses in quail populations. Many wildlife management areas in the South offer limited quail hunting, but success ratios are hard to predict. Last year, drought plagued many Southern states and diminished quail numbers; this year, too much rain might have the same effect. Hunters should not overlook the Cumberland Mountains of southeastern Kentucky, where the Addington Enterprises WMA offers 16,000 acres of superb habitat in Breathitt, Knott and Perry Counties.

For more information, contact the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, No. 1 Game Farm Road, Frankfort, KY 40601; 800-858-1549; (e-mail) info.center@mail.state.ky.us.

If you just want to give your dogs some work, head for Mississippi’s 5,300-acre Black Prairie WMA near Columbus. The WMA is managed intensively for quail, but this is strictly a dog-training opportunity. Contact the area manager at 662-272-8303.

EAST: One has only to consider the bobwhite’s generic name, Colinus virginianus, to make the connection between it and the place where Europeans first encountered the bird. In colonial days, meadows and forest edges of Virginia were full of quail.

Today their ancestors are faring no better than quail elsewhere. Still, it’s possible to experience the thrill of a covey rise here and there in the Old Dominion, especially on private land. One of the best public hunting areas is White Oak Mountain WMA, about five miles southeast of Chatham. The 2,717-acre WMA is actively managed for quail. A map of White Oak WMA is available on the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Web site: www.dgif.state.va.us/hunting.

_Chad S. Mason’s new book, Voices on the Wind, is a collection of bird- hunting essays. Contact Down East Enterprises, 800-766-1670; [XLINK www.countrysportpress.comhaparral headquarters, 830-676-3413. For more information, contact the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division, 4200 Smith School Rd., Austin, TX 78744; www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

**MIDWEST: **Southeastern Kansas offers the best hunting for wild bobwhites in the Midwest. Look to the 18,500-acre Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge near Hartford. A quail forecast for the refuge is available by calling 620-392-5553. Don’t overlook Kansas’s Walk-In Hunting Areas (WIHA) program, which provides public hunting access to select private lands. For more information, including a WIHA atlas, write to the Kansas Division of Wildlife and Parks (Region 5), 1500 W. 7th St., Box 777, Chanute, KS 66720. The division’s Web site is www.kdwp.state.ks.us.

Quail are found in good numbers on the Black Kettle Wildlife Management Area in Oklahoma. The 30,710-acre WMA runs along the Washita River near Cheyenne. For information, contact the WMA at 580-515-2030 or visit www.wildlifedepartment.com.

**SOUTH: **This region has seen the most severe losses in quail populations. Many wildlife management areas in the South offer limited quail hunting, but success ratios are hard to predict. Last year, drought plagued many Southern states and diminished quail numbers; this year, too much rain might have the same effect. Hunters should not overlook the Cumberland Mountains of southeastern Kentucky, where the Addington Enterprises WMA offers 16,000 acres of superb habitat in Breathitt, Knott and Perry Counties.

For more information, contact the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, No. 1 Game Farm Road, Frankfort, KY 40601; 800-858-1549; (e-mail) info.center@mail.state.ky.us.

If you just want to give your dogs some work, head for Mississippi’s 5,300-acre Black Prairie WMA near Columbus. The WMA is managed intensively for quail, but this is strictly a dog-training opportunity. Contact the area manager at 662-272-8303.

EAST: One has only to consider the bobwhite’s generic name, Colinus virginianus, to make the connection between it and the place where Europeans first encountered the bird. In colonial days, meadows and forest edges of Virginia were full of quail.

Today their ancestors are faring no better than quail elsewhere. Still, it’s possible to experience the thrill of a covey rise here and there in the Old Dominion, especially on private land. One of the best public hunting areas is White Oak Mountain WMA, about five miles southeast of Chatham. The 2,717-acre WMA is actively managed for quail. A map of White Oak WMA is available on the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Web site: www.dgif.state.va.us/hunting.

_Chad S. Mason’s new book, Voices on the Wind, is a collection of bird- hunting essays. Contact Down East Enterprises, 800-766-1670; [XLINK www.countrysportpress.com