There was a time when the plucky “bob-white” call greeted the sunrise around farmlands and pine forests across the southeastern U.S. Today, the fields and forests are becoming silent, and the call of the northern bobwhite is seldom heard.
Northern bobwhites are commonly called quail or bobwhites. These quirky birds have small, stocky bodies, stubby tails, short legs and rounded wings capable of sudden bursts of flight. Quail spend most of their lives on the ground, where they nest and feed on insects, seeds and vegetation. After eggs hatch, the chicks quickly dry and run off with the hen.
Quail are valued for the simple enjoyment of having them around, but they are even more important to the environment and economy. As gamebirds, they generate local economic benefits through license sales, hunting leases and related travel expenses. Quail can also serve as the proverbial “canary in a coal mine.” Since these birds are fairly visible and easy to identify, they are useful as indicators of habitat quality.
Bobwhites were once common in the pine grasslands and small farms of the Southeast. Today, their populations are in steep decline across all of their native range. In the past, quail benefitted from the land management practices that left grassy, weedy and shrubby places for wildlife.
Current land use practices focus on producing as much food, fiber and forest products as possible. Gone are the small fields or lower density pine forests that gave quail a place to nest and raise their young. Those patches of quail habitat that still exist are often poor quality or isolated. These conditions leave quail more vulnerable to harvest and predation.
In modern landscapes, quail populations will be helped only by intentionally providing their critical habitat. Research projects have shown that converting as little as 5-10 percent of cropland to native-plant field buffers can increase local bobwhite populations by 70-200 percent.
The key is to start with areas that probably already have quail. Expand those areas by providing more quail habitat, and connect small habitat patches to form large patches. Biologists from state and federal agencies can help with habitat plans. Farm bill programs can provide financial assistance with quail habitat management. Although some landowners think it might help, releasing pen-reared quail has been shown to be harmful to wild quail living in the release area.
The quail is an iconic wild bird — one that will slip away into history if steps are not taken to stop its slide to extinction. A morning without a “bobwhite” would be a sad day.