Bobwhite Quail on the Rebound

The bobwhite quail, for reasons we can finally begin to understand, are making a comeback.

Group of quails by water

Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), five at waterhole.

Photo by Michael Francis Photography

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Bobwhite quail numbers remain down, but programs to rebuild populations are being aggressively developed. Many don’t remember the good old days of quail hunting. Here is a brief excerpt from my 1989 journal:

Snow crunched underfoot as the pointer ran through a huge cornfield. Suddenly the muscular dog came to a complete stop, hesitated, and then froze in a deliberate point. Ted Hatfield moved slowly towards the pointer, carefully selecting each of his steps amid thick corn stubble.

A shiver flushed through the dog’s body. No doubt about it, pointing quail or pheasant is what this dog was born to do. Hatfield slowly moves closer. Anticipation of a covey rise grew with each step – for both hunter and dog.

Hatfield finally reached the statuelike pointer who was intensely starring at the quail. Another step and the world blew up in his face.

"BRRRRRRRRR!”

About 20 sets of thundering wings from corn stubble mixed with laid-over weeds brought us to attention as our guns raised. Hatfield twisted right, correcting his lead on a bobwhite quail before squeezing the trigger. His 20-gauge double barrel shotgun made a fine explosion as a quail folded in midair. He quickly lined up another bird to complete a bobwhite quail double. Heavy winter air held the excellent smell of burnt gunpowder longer than usual – a smell for which bird hunters live.

The pointer collected his wits and made a picture-perfect retrieve of the first quail. The second bird required more searching and effort from the dog’s keen nose. Hatfield’s shot only broke its wing, and the quail burrowed in heavy cover, its color blending in with dead grass, leaves and weeds.

The pointer worked back and forth, smelling the ground. Occasionally it paused to sniff, and then continued pushing through the corn stubble.

The dog dug its nose under the grass. Finally the English pointer grabbed the quail. Hatfield smiled and awarded the dog with a drink of water.

The story is from a hunt that took place several years ago, when coveys of quail could be found on almost every farm.

Various conventional farming practices, among other factors, are responsible for the bobwhite quail’s demise throughout rural North America. Dropping fur prices meant less trapping and furbearer hunting, and in turn more predators to rob nests of precious quail eggs. During the best years with perfect conditions, bobwhite quail have a high mortality rate of over 90 percent annually.

This is not an unusual story, especially for Midwestern states like Kansas, where annual harvest statistics show a decline since the peak year in 1966 when 3,931,000 bobwhite quail were harvested. Slight declines showed up in 1980 through 1985 when harvest estimates dropped to 1,900,000. The average picked up in 1990 through 1994 with a 2,225,000 annual average harvest and the bottom dropped out from 2000 to present day when the annual harvest average lowered to 253,869 in 2014, a frightening number.

“Actually our Kansas 2014 harvest was low, but that is partly because many believed we had less quail numbers and they stayed home,” says Jeff Prendergast, Small Game Specialist for Kansas Wildlife and Parks. “Actually quail numbers were up and about 43,000 hunters had quality hunting. But we are still working to bring back the big numbers enjoyed several decades ago.”

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 quail 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.

“One of our most popular programs is commonly referred to as ‘bobwhite buffers’ or ‘buffering.’ It is a means to provide needed nesting and brood-rearing grassland habitat adjacent to cropland,” says Jared Wiklund, Public Relations Specialist for Pheasants Forever. “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.

“Kansas farms with buffering have maintained good quail numbers,” Prendergast said. “Problem is, more farms need it. Quail will move 3 to 4 miles in search of good winter cover. Farms without the needed grass where quail thrive may lose quail while farms with the best cover may get several coveys. Well-hunted farms may give up good numbers of birds, but new birds searching for perfect cover may move in.”

“Perfect cover” means field borders and vegetative buffers providing important habitat 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,” Prendergast says. “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 the local fire department) before attempting a controlled burn, for safety’s sake. This is accomplished by disking a fire break at least 15 feet wide around the field’s perimeter, as well as other prescribed burn strategies (http://bit.ly/29GTLPF).

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. Quail actually get liquid nourishment from various insects.

Forbs, too, are upland game birds’ 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 lies in improving habitat and food sources.  


Quail Forever

Quail Forever is dedicated to bringing the quail species back to full recovery.

Quail Forever is the quail conservation division of Pheasants Forever, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to upland habitat conservation. Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever have more than 140,000 members and 700 local chapters across the United States and Canada.

Chapters are empowered to determine how 100 percent of their locally raised conservation funds are spent – the only national conservation organization that operates through this truly grassroots structure. Since creation in 1982, Pheasants Forever has spent $577 million on 489,000 habitat projects benefiting over 12 million acres nationwide.

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; call 651-209-4981, toll-free 1-866-457-8245; or email contact@quailforever.org.


Kenneth L. Kieser is an award-winning outdoor writer of 39 years. He was inducted into the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in 2010 as a Legendary Communicator. He was the Conservation federation of Missouri’s Conservation Communicator of the Year in 2014 and the Kansas Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Communicator in 2015.