Thinking back to my early years, nothing could have been more satisfying to me than waking up early in the morning to go hunting with dad. I can remember trampling through the woods behind him with a pack of beagles all around us with their noses to the ground and their tails wagging. I just knew a rabbit was going to burst out of that patch of honeysuckle at any moment, followed by an exciting chase. It was the greatest, it’s what I lived for back then.
It wasn’t just the hunt that I looked forward to, it was being outdoors exploring the woods, hanging with dad, and experiencing nature and all it offered. Although we were after rabbits, other wildlife encounters often occurred within the thickets of the cutover. I can’t begin to count the number of times that Northern bobwhites would explode into the sky all around us, only to land again just a few hundred feet in front of us. If you haven’t experienced a covey of bobwhites scattering straight up in front of you with wings flapping and going every which way then you’re missing a thrill. It was quite the experience; then again it would often scare the bejeezus out of me. There was no time to react, much less pull up a gun, aim and shoot; besides, dad wouldn’t allow me to shoot any game other than what we were after, regardless if it was in season or not. Only bird hunters with trained dogs had a chance against these birds.
Since those past years I now hunt using my camera, and the bobwhites aren’t as common as they once were. Even bird hunters have since adjusted to an easier approach of hunting them on game preserves, where the quail are pen raised and released for hunting and dog training.
The Northern bobwhite quail is a non-migratory game bird of the eastern United States and Mexico. It’s mostly a ground-dwelling bird. Its name (bobwhite) derives from its characteristic call – ‘bob-white’ or ‘bob-bob-white’, mostly made by males in the spring and summer. Seeds, fruits and some insects make up the biggest portion of their diet. Both the male and female participate in nest building and incubating the eggs. The nest is usually just a shallow depression in the ground lined with grasses and leaves.
It’s no secret to area birders and outdoorsmen that the bobwhite quail has been in a state of decline for the last several decades. Loss of habitat is the biggest reason for their decline. In addition, modern farming practices are part to blame for the spread of non-native invasive grasses such as fescue. Fescue grows fast and gets very thick, too thick for quail to move through. Fescue seed is often found in many of the seeds that farmers use and it thrives in fields that are routinely bush-hogged for maintenance.
A new program called Quail Forever was established in 2005 as a result of the bobwhites declining numbers. Quail Forever (QF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to quail conservation. Its mission is to work with farmers and other landowners to help improve habitat and increase awareness. Similar organizations such as Pheasants Forever and Quail Unlimited are also dedicated to the cause and work together to identify solutions to aid quail populations.
Finding large scale suitable habitat are the toughest challenges that lie ahead. The main goal for QF is to find new habitat and work with state officials to offer guidance on a variety of landowner programs and habitat management options. For instance, establish a larger and more wildlife friendly buffer around crop fields, eliminate non-native grasses, and encourage the growth of native plants. In the near future, QF hopes to offer their own brand of seed specifically designed for bobwhites.
If interested in learning more about quail habitat, the University of Kentucky and The Progressive Farmer organization have come up with a new tool that will show ways to increase the quail population on your land and other useful tips on helping quail in your area.
The Northern bobwhite photos were taken by me a couple weeks ago at a nearby animal farm.
Reference - Clarkson, Dyke. "Bring Back Bob". Virginia Wildlife Oct 2008: 4-8.