Bobwhite quail once announced their presence to possible mates. “BOBWHITE,” sounded across valleys, hills and fields throughout warm weather, a beautiful sound.
This addictive sound promised quail for a fall hunt. November eventually arrived when hunters and dogs invaded fields in search of coveys. Good dogs moved back and forth across row crops and grass fields, tracking down hidden coveys. Hunters cautiously moved up behind the dogs with shotguns ready. A covey burst of thundering wings was loud and hunters often flinched before pulling up their shotguns on a flying quail. Good shots meant a splendid dinner of quail breasts. Bad shots rated dirty looks from their dogs.
Do you remember those days? Many of our young hunters do not because of recent dropping quail numbers. But I am more than happy to announce that our quail are making a comeback.
Various farming practices have been responsible for the bobwhite quail’s demise in numerous areas nationwide. Dropping fur prices meant less trapping and furbearer hunting, and more predators to rob nests of precious quail eggs. During the best years with perfect conditions, bobwhite quail naturally have a high mortality rate of over 90 percent annually. But during a good nesting year, quail numbers rebound.
State wildlife biologists across the country are working with farmers and ranchers to bring back quail numbers. Many fear that this could be the final “good old days” for both quail and hunters if efforts are not made to provide adequate habitat.
Fortunately, statewide conservation commissions and organizations like Pheasants and Quail Forever are successfully taking steps to bring back quail numbers.
“Bobwhite buffers or buffering has become an especially popular program in Kansas and Missouri,” says Jared Wiklund, public relations specialist for Pheasants Forever. “It is a means to provide needed nesting and brood-rearing grassland habitat adjacent to cropland. These important components of quail habitat have declined due to more intense grazing and cropping practices – resulting in the elimination of weedy field borders, abandoned farmsteads and small, recently undisturbed areas loved by quail.”
Acres remain available for enrollment across the country for Conservation Practice 33, the Upland Habitat Buffers practice, a continuous Conservation Reserve Program signup opportunity.
Perfect cover means field borders and vegetative buffers providing important habitats in agricultural areas by leaving a border of native grasses and legumes around the field edge, the wider the better.
Biologists warn to avoid treating field borders with chemicals and reduce in-field use of pesticides when possible. Most of the negative pesticide effects on quail occur indirectly from the reduction of insect populations. Leave fencerows, field borders and corners, ditch banks, and lanes between fields, and manage wildlife-friendly vegetation.
There, too, are grasses to avoid. For example, tall fescue is an aggressive, non-native cool-season grass that tends to crowd out important quail food and cover plants. This turf grass also can spread into unintended locations and reduces the availability of more "quail friendly" grasses, forbs and legumes from becoming established.
Burning is a good way to remove harmful grasses or woody cover. Fire reduces dead plant material, stimulates desirable legume growth and seed production, exposes mineral soil, and provides open, early successional vegetation stages.
Contact conservation officials and your local fire department for safety’s sake before attempting a controlled burn. This is accomplished by disking a fire break at least 15 feet wide around the field’s perimeter. Choose a day when the wind is constant and not exceeding 15 miles per hour. Burning on a day without wind is more dangerous because the wind could pick up and push the fire in an undesirable direction.
Start on the northern end when winds are out of the south and burn into the wind. The fire will grab material and burn at a slower rate and give critters a chance to safely escape. Next start flank fires from the side. When enough burned area is accomplished, a head fire may be set with the wind. This hotter fire will burn the cedars and other unwanted trees.
This opens up your land for beneficial quail cover and foods. Forbs and legumes found in wildflowers that bloom at different times and attract insects throughout warm weather are beneficial for quail. Insects are an important source of protein for quail. Quail actually get liquid nourishment from various insects.
Forbs, too, are upland game bird’s main source of winter food. Birds in grasslands depend on these important sources of nourishment. Landowners once considered plum thickets as great sources of quail forage, but they don’t last into winter and are eaten quickly.
Legumes contain a source of nitrogen that replenishes the system. This allows the native warm-weather grass to be a self-sustaining product. These types of plants will gain full maturity after three years.
Bobwhite quail numbers are down now, but the future may be bright for this feisty but fragile game bird. The answer is improving habitat and food sources. Quail Forever is dedicated to bring back quail.
For more information on bringing back quail in your area, contact your state fish and game commission, or Quail Forever,1783 Buerkle Circle, St. Paul, MN 55110 or call 651-209-4981, Toll Free: 1-866-457-8245, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at email@example.com.