What happened to our quail? Part I

I've never been a hardcore quail hunter — the go-at-it-every-day-of-the-season kind of guy who babies his bird dog like his only child and guards his favorite coverts with the ferocity of a sow grizzly. Nevertheless, I've been a bobwhite fan since I was old enough to carry a shotgun.

I started quail hunting because of the stories my mother used to tell about her father, Daddy Claude, who died before I was born. They were the kind of stories that put a sparkle in a young boy's eyes, tales of a man she said I grew up to be so much like, a man in love with the outdoors, a man who treasured his moments afield, especially when those moments were spent in pursuit of quail.

Daddy Claude, she said, raised some of the South's finest bird dogs, and people came from all around to buy the setters he trained. Each morning when he left the house to check the livestock, there was a bird dog at his side and a shotgun in his hand. And every morning around breakfast time, Claude Owen would return home with a brace of quail in his game vest. He'd dress the birds, and my grandmother would cook them and serve them with gravy, biscuits, jelly and eggs. Until the day she died, that was my mother's favorite meal.

So, you see, quail hunting was, in a way, my legacy. When I started hunting on my own, I always made an extra effort to bag a quail or two for Mom. It was never a burden because I hunted almost daily, and there were plenty of bobwhites in the east Arkansas coverts I hunted. It's sad to say, however, in those same coverts today, a covey of quail is a rare treasure.

Often, when I get back home for winter visit, I'll visit those familiar hunting grounds to reminisce. I walk along the fencerow by the pecan orchard where I used to jump birds and lament its emptiness. The thickets on Aunt Mae's old farm are now mature woods, and quail have long since disappeared. The creek bottom along the pasture is planted in fescue, and the heart-stopping sound of the covey break is nothing but an empty memory.

Facts and Figures
Quail hunters in other parts of the country also are noticing the lack of bobwhites. With few exceptions, northern bobwhite populations have declined over most of their range during the last three decades. State wildlife agency harvest reports and North American Breeding Bird Surveys (BBSs) reflect this decline.

From 1966 through the present, the BBS, which is conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, Patuxent Environmental Science Center, provides the most consistent range-wide measure of bobwhite abundance and population trends. In southeastern states, the BBS indicates a 3.8 percent per year decline from 1966 through 1999. And the rate of decline is increasing. BBSs for the southeastern U.S. from 1966 through 1979 indicate a 1.7 percent per year decline, whereas those from 1980 through 1999 show a 5.3 percent per year decline. During the period 1966 through 1979, four of 10 southeastern states exhibited significant declining trends, whereas from 1980 through 1999, 10 of 10 states exhibited declines.

As bobwhite populations have declined, quail harvest also has fallen. Let's use the Southeast as an example once again. In 1970, hunters in these 10 states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia) killed an estimated 17.1 million bobwhites. But by 1995, the annual harvest had fallen to just 3.5 million birds.

Overall, the North American population of bobwhites has declined 82 percent during the past 40 years. The number of birds has fallen from 31 million to just 5.5 million. In some states, experts say, "the northern bobwhite could be approaching extirpation by the end of this decade."

Hunter numbers also took a huge tumble. One report notes that the rate of decline in hunter numbers from 1980 through 1995 (6.9 percent per year) exceeded the rate of bobwhite population decline (4.8 percent per year) during the same period, reflecting a reduction in hunter participation. If bobwhite numbers continue falling, this pattern will continue as well.

Habitat loss is the problem
What's happened to our quail? Declining populations have been attributed to many factors, including coyotes, nest predators, fire ants, pesticides and avian predators, all of which may contribute to the problem but none of which is a major factor by itself.

Inclement weather, such as the 2007 drought in the Southeast, has caused short-term losses in some areas as well. But periods of good and bad weather tend to offset each other over a period of years.

The most persistent problem facing quail populations is large-scale habitat loss.

In agricultural systems, farming has changed from favorable practices such diverse rotational cropping of row crops, small grains, hay and legumes to unfavorable practices such as intensive monocultural production of cotton, corn, soybeans and rice. In intensively cultivated regions, lack of suitable grassy cover for nesting, weedy areas for brood rearing, and woody fencerows for winter and escape cover have reduced the land's capacity for supporting bobwhites.

In forested regions, reduction in extent and frequency of fire, increasing forest coverage, loss of small agricultural fields to natural succession and reforestation, expansion of densely planted pine plantations, and increasing use of total vegetation control in clearcuts and regeneration stands have reduced availability of grassy and weedy areas required for nesting, foraging and brood-rearing. Modern land use practices simplify the landscape, and a reduction in landscape complexity reduces the amount of usable space for bobwhites.

Urbanization is an additional problem. Each 100,000 increase in the human population in the U.S. is accompanied by a conversion of 150,000 acres of rural land to urban uses, rendering it largely unfit for bobwhite management. The U.S. Census Bureau projects the U.S. population will grow by about 43 million by 2020. This will result in the conversion of nearly 65 million acres to urban uses nationwide. A significant portion of this will occur throughout the bobwhite's range.

Next Post: Part II — The Good News