If you ask anyone in these parts what has happened to quail, they will quickly answer, “too many predators,” and rattle off hawks, coyotes, free-ranging house cats or any number of predatory culprits.
OK, they are guilty on all counts to some degree, but not the main culprit. Read on.
Have you heard any bobwhite quail whistling lately around your backyard, farm or deer hunting property? When is the last time you saw any? If you have, consider yourself lucky, the sight and sound is getting pretty rare lately.
When I first came to North Georgia in 1972 to attend the University of Georgia, quail were everywhere. I rented a house trailer in Madison County near Hull. If I could get home from classes by 3 or 3:30 p.m. and find my landlord, we would load up his birddog (half pointer, half setter known in those days as a “drop”) and go quail hunting, he knew every farmer in the county. By sunset, we would flush from three to nine conveys of quail by moving from one soybean field to the next, not even bothering to hunt single birds after the convey rise. He would occasionally get a limit (12 birds) and I would occasionally get three or four on a good day (they were mostly too fast for me).
Here we are almost 40 years later. What in the world happened? Those small soybean or corn fields with heavy cover around the edges, weedy creek drains, and weeds in the corners have turned into pasture, hayfields, pine trees, and subdivisions.
While deer and turkey can get by and make a pretty good living under these conditions, quail cannot. Quail need food and cover in small connected patches. They need plenty of seed to eat especially in fall and winter, and they need plenty of nesting and brood rearing cover, which is best produced by fallow fields, cropland boarders, hedgegrows, and blackberry thickets. People used to burn their pine woods once every two or three years. When is the last time you saw anyone doing that? Winter burning made good food and cover areas for quail, especially adjacent to cropland or old fields.
Fescue and Bermuda grass make great pasture and hayfields, but make terrible quail habitat. Quail can hardly walk through these aggressive turf perennial grasses, never mind find any food or overhead cover. They don’t eat fescue seed or Bermuda grass seed, nor do these sod grasses produce very many insects for quail chicks to feed on when they are just a little bigger than your thumb.
The old timers (I’m not one of those yet, maybe) blame the quail decline on hawks and other predators. While there are certainly plenty of predators around both furry and feathery, there are also many examples in parts of South Georgia where predator populations are even higher than here and quail populations are good or excellent. If you have good quail habitat, you can have quail despite predators.
What can we do now to get quail back? The answer is not cheap or easy. We cannot go back to the old days of corn and soybeans. There is a state program called the Bobwhite Quail Initiative funded by the sale of special vehicle license plates. However, it is confined to a 15-county area in the Upper Coastal Plan of South Georgia where there is still is a lot of row crop agriculture. The program pays farmers incentives for certain quail management practices such as establishing hedgerows, field boarders, and controlled burning. Even through there is not money available for Northeast Georgia and not enough row crop agriculture, folks serious about quail could do the same practices here.
In addition, there are a lot of bare, clean fencerows that could easily be allowed to grow up in plum trees, briars, honeysuckle and all kinds of wild plants beneficial to quail. Certain plantings work very well including bicolor lespedeza, brown top millet, Egyptian wheat, grain sorghum, wheat, and partridge pea.
Even strips disked in fall and left fallow produce an abundant ragweed crop the following spring for nesting and brood rearing cover. However, there may still be a landscape problem with disconnection of these small but good habitats.
Don’t fall into the trap of buying and stocking pen-raised birds to boost the quail population. Most won’t survive for a week, and they surely won’t survive and reproduce from one year to the next. It’s been tried and failed thousands of times all over the country.
If conditions were right, there would be more wild quail there already. Trying to raise quail populations by stocking pen-raised birds is like pouring water into a bucket with holes in it.
Quail management is a habitat issue. If you build it, they will come.
Kent Kammermeyer is a certified wildlife biologist. His column appears monthly.