Solutions in the works for quail population drops

Friday, September 12, 2003

Missouri Department of Conservation

When I work with private landowners, hunters and bird enthusiast, I'm often asked about the declining populations of quail.

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

It would be easy to say the predators are killing them all, or the change to large-scale and cleaner farming practices eliminated the habitat they require. Or we can point to the urbanization of the rural landscape or the use of pesticides or even weather conditions. However it is the combination of all these factors and many others that contribute to the low quail numbers we presently see. How well we understand these factors will determine whether the Bobwhite Quail continues to be a legacy of our rural landscape.

Northern Bobwhite Quail have always been a familiar and welcome icon of the rural landscape. Its cheerful whistle in the spring and the sudden explosion of a covey from underfoot in the fall endeared this species to farmers and hunters since the settlement of the country. Naturalists and birders also look fondly on the Bobwhite because the grassland and open field habitats in which it thrives also supports many other songbird species, including the loggerhead shrike, dickcissel, Henslow sparrow and eastern kingbirds. Populations of these grassland species also are declining at an alarming rate.

The decline of the Northern Bobwhite Quail population is not new and not just limited to Missouri. Many areas of the United States are experiencing the same, if not a more significant, drop in quail numbers.

Since 1980 quail numbers across the United States have declined by more than 65 percent. Recent surveys in Missouri show this trend continuing and even accelerating. Bobwhite abundance has been alarmingly poor in the 1990s, with surveys showing modern historic lows set repeatedly in 1996, 1999 and 2001. Previous low populations exhibited a pattern of summer drought or severe winter weather causing a widespread drop in numbers, followed by a one to four year recovery period in which reproduction and dispersal replaced the bird numbers. However, current low Bobwhite populations under mild weather conditions and presumably good nesting situations suggest other factors are influencing the population decline and lack of recovery.

Predation by hawks and coyotes is the first thing to come to mind when most people consider what has happen to the quail. Although predators do take their fair share of quail, scientific studies have shown the Bobwhite Quail's reproductive abilities can more than make up for the loss if they have good nesting and brood rearing habitats to use. It is important to remember that quail are born to be eaten. Predation has been, and always will be, a factor in quail life, but they have grown a tremendous capacity to overcome these losses by utilizing high reproductive abilities to stay ahead of the losses.

That's the problem. Gradual landscape changes have reduced the availability of good nesting areas and adequate places for quail to raise their young. Without these critical habitats, quail lose their ability to replace their numbers in good years and gradually disappear.

Just like a livestock farmer who relies on his livestock to breed and successfully raise young, quail must be able to add new birds to the population. Without successful reproduction, quail numbers eventually drop to a point low enough that the few remaining birds can not sustain the local population and they disappear from the area.

Good quail habitat is characterized by shrub thickets or fence rows, areas of bare ground, fields with a diversity of grasses, native weeds, clovers, legumes and crops and ungrazed or mowed wood lots. This type of habitat, common to the farms of the 1960s and '70s, provides the plant diversity and desired vegetation quail require to feed, nest and survive. This is one of the primary reasons quail were so abundant during this time period. Gradual, large-scale land use changes in both agriculture and suburban communities have significantly reduced this type of cover. The move to larger farm fields, more intensively used pastures, increases in the small acreage homesteads and the widespread use of tall fescue, which replaced the Bobwhite-friendly vegetation common to past forage species, all have contributed to the reduction of quail-friendly habitats. This loss of habitat, coupled with an increase in pressure from predators as the habitat continues to shrink, has led to the situation Bobwhite Quail are in.

So how do we stop this decline? First, we need to understand that the recovery of the Northern Bobwhite Quail must be on a nationwide scale. Because of the changes in agriculture and rural landscapes, a coordinated effort is needed to insure the recovery is not just piecemeal and will contribute to the long term sustainability of quail populations. To address this, the 22-state Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (which includes Missouri) have developed the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. This is an aggressive and comprehensive recovery plan designed to restore quail populations to 1980 levels.

The plan focuses on addressing quail management needs on a nationwide basis and sets specific habitat goals to achieve these objectives. The primary goal is to support and utilize agricultural policies and efforts that improve quail habitat on the nation's farms and rangelands. It also encourages establishing partnerships with other conservation efforts, such as the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, the Federal Farm Bill and Partners in Flight to enhance quail habitat conditions.

The Initiative is designed to be a step-down plan, allowing each state agency to outline specific plans on how to achieve the habitat goals set by the Northern Bobwhite Quail Initiative. The Missouri Department of Conservation has, in turn, developed a Northern Bobwhite Recovery Plan which will guide quail restoration efforts in the state for the next 10 years. The main elements of the plan will include increased educational efforts, updating research and emphasize improving quail habitats on both public and private lands. In addition, each MDC region will be responsible for developing an action plan to work toward quail population recovery and will set specific habitat goals based on local opportunities.

In essence, the Northern Bobwhite Quail Initiative not only mobilizes efforts at the national level, but it also encourages agencies to focus efforts down to the local level.

The successful restoration and maintenance of quail populations will depend on the cooperation and involvement of landowners, farmers, hunters, conservation groups, national conservation agencies and even the general public. This type of collective effort will be needed to offset the land use and societal changes, which have affected quail populations and turn the tide in their favor.

Bobwhite Quail are resilient, and if given the opportunity they can continue to be a staple of the rural Missouri landscape.

Larry Heggemann is a private land conservationist for the Department of Conservation.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: