Bringing back the Bobwhite
By David Rainer
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
From The Outdoor Wire
One of the most endearing aspects of living in semi-rural Alabama in the mid-to-late 1990s was a sound emanating from a 20-acre pecan grove adjacent to our home.
During the spring and summer, just about every morning during that time, the familiar “bob-white” call would echo through the pecan trees and fall pleasingly on my ears.
During my formative years in the 1960s and ’70s, the call of the bobwhite quail was a common occurrence for those who spent most of their time outdoors.
Although my late father was involved in just about every outdoors pursuit imaginable, he was probably best known as a “bird” hunter. That bird was the bobwhite quail, and my dad always had at least two bird dogs to pursue the quarry.
On special occasions, my mother would make her famous biscuits to go with the fried quail, a testament to the number of birds that roamed the woods and fencerows of that era.
However, as agricultural practices changed and the majority of the human population migrated to more urban environments, the quail population suffered. Gone were the pea patches and numerous fencerows where quail found safety and sustenance.
Sadly, it’s been more than five years since I’ve heard a bobwhite whistle in the pecan grove next door.
While most of the quail hunting these days is done on preserves with release birds, there is a renewed effort to try to re-establish wild populations in suitable habitat.
The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) was formed several years ago but struggled to gain a foothold in the conservation world because of a lack of funding.
Last week at the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association (SEOPA) Conference in Fontana Village, N.C., I had a chance to sit down with John Doty of the NBCI to talk about the future of quail. Doty had some good news to share.
“The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative was created by the state wildlife agencies in the 25 states that make up the core bobwhite range,” Doty said. “We do not do the same things the state agencies do. They created NBCI to work at the regional and national levels to look at opportunities and obstacles to quail restoration.
“One of the biggest things that has happened lately is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved NBCI as a Pittman-Robertson program so we can receive Wildlife Restoration Act funding.”
That funding will allow NBCI to expand its outreach program as well as hire a grasslands coordinator and a central database coordinator.
“The grasslands ecosystem is a really critical part of bobwhite restoration,” Doty said. “When all the states feed in their information on habitat and restoration work, the database person will coordinate the information on the response to the habitat work.
“The Pittman-Robertson funds will allow us to work on bobwhite restoration on a landscape scale, which is pretty exciting.”
There have been many theories about the decline of the bobwhite, including fire ants and increased predation, but there is one cause that has emerged as the prevalent theory.
“The states got together and got on the same page some time ago,” Doty said. “It’s disappearing habitat and fragmentation of habitat. It’s not only development, but it’s the way people used the land for decades. That has changed.
“People remember when bobwhites were numerous, and they didn’t have to do anything to make that happen. It was just a function of the way the land was being used. Now so much has changed – from the way we manage our forests to the way we have industrialized agriculture, as well as the demise of small family farms across the region. The fencerows are gone. We’re row cropping from border to border. We’re replacing native, warm-season grasses with fescue.”
The good news is that the state wildlife agencies and general public are now paying attention to the demise of the wild quail populations.
“There is more momentum right now among these 25 states to restore wild bobwhite populations than there has ever been,” Doty said. “You’ve got 25 states working together on this, which is very unusual.
“One of the things NBCI brings to the table is there is a coordinated implementation plan now. This will get much more discussion among the public in coming years. There is a specific plan for the creation of bobwhite focal areas and how they’re monitored. We’re working with the National Park Service to restore National Battlefields to native vegetation. That’s bobwhite habitat.”
Doty said the next several weeks are crucial for the bobwhite restoration efforts in the form of the Farm Bill under consideration by Congress.
“I hope that we will be able to announce in the next three to six weeks the addition of at least a quarter-million acres of bobwhite habitat through the Farm Bill program,” he said. “Also, we are working with the U.S. Forest Service to create a bobwhite emphasis areas in national forests.”
Doty said he is working with Mark Sasser of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division to try to assist in Alabama’s quail project.
“NBCI is making a range-wide, coordinated effort in bobwhite restoration,” Sasser said. “What they’re trying to help us do, where a state can’t individually do this, is affect policy in the Farm Bill and the Farm Services Agency through the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service).
“They really went to bat for us with the new Farm Bill to help promote the Pine Savanna Initiative proposal to the Farm Services Agency in Washington, which would pay landowners for thinning their CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) timber stands at an earlier age and prescribed burning, which helps quail and a variety of other species. NBCI gives us a national voice and national attention on quail restoration.”
Doty said the longleaf pine restoration projects have garnered a great deal of attention. Now the next focus will be on shortleaf pines, which will have more of a widespread impact.
“The pine initiatives are going to be premier avenues for bobwhite restoration in the longleaf and shortleaf regions,” Doty said. “So there is a whole lot going on that’s very good for bobwhites.”
Alabama’s quail season runs from November 8 through February 28 with a daily bag limit of eight birds per person.