After years of wallowing in the saddening despair of the bobwhite decline, this summer has given me glimpses of hope. For those that need catching up, here is a brief summary of what is has happened to quail populations in Virginia and across the Northern Bobwhite’s range. This is taken directly from the Northern Bobwhite Quail Action Plan for Virginia. The entire pdf can be found at www.dgif.virginia.gov/quail
“Populations of northern bobwhite quail and other bird species with related habitat requirements have experienced severe long-term declines in Virginia over the past 50 years. In colonial times, farming created habitats that began to favor quail. As land was cleared and farmed, quail populations flourished. For perhaps 200 years or more, quail were one of the most common birds of the rural Virginia landscape. During the first half of the 20th century, as a shift from a rural-farm to urban-industrial economy began, idled and abandoned farms continued to support quail populations. However, since then major land use changes have taken place. Virginia’s agricultural landscape became dominated by large, intensively managed crop fields, fescue pastures, and hayfields.
Total farmland acres declined. In 1900, approximately 80% of Virginia’s landscape was in open agricultural land. Today agricultural lands make up only 34% of our landscape. Many of the formerly open farm fields are now dominated by intensively managed pine forests. While cut-over timber lands still provide some early-succession cover, plant diversity is low and productivity for quail is poor. The loss of early succession habitat, particularly nesting cover and brood range, has been identified as the most significant factor limiting quail populations. The bobwhite is a legacy species in Virginia and their decline has led to concerns about ecological, economic, and recreational impacts throughout rural Virginia. Data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) indicate that quail have declined 4.2% annually between 1966 and 2007.”
I have spoken with lots of different people regarding these iconic birds, from birdwatchers to farmers and the common theme is that quail have pretty much disappeared from much of the Virginia landscape. Fortunately, there are folks here that are determined to see this trend reversed. Comprised of a diverse group of stakeholders, the Virginia Quail Council hopes to stop the decline and begin to build quality habitat in the hopes of helping these birds and other early successional habitat dependent wildlife species. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has stepped up their efforts as well. Under the leadership of Marc Puckett, our state wildlife agency has made saving quail one of its top priorities.
As members of the Virginia Quail Council, Virginia Forestry and Wildlife Group is passionate about quail and the restoration of quality habitat. We currently have several habitat restoration projects in various stages of establishment. One of our first projects to create quail habitat was to eradicate fescue and plant a mixture of native warm season grasses and forbs at Castle Hill in Albemarle County. This will be the second growing season for the planting and we have been keeping any eye on progress throughout the spring and summer. While standing in chest high grasses and wildflowers back in June I heard a whistle. Stopping to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, the “bob-white” range out. Needless to say I was ecstatic. Bobwhite were heard on the next several visits to the farm as well. There is still a lot of fescue on the farm, but this is a promising start. Within the past month we can report quail have been seen and heard at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park, an organic farm in Rappahannock County as well as on a few orchards in Nelson County.
We have momentum, but we need more habitat, more people to become aware and educated, more fire on the landscape and the continued work of the Virginia Quail Council. It is my hope that one day my future child (he/she is on the way!!!) will be walking through the fields with me and when I get excited about hearing that bobwhite, he/she can say “Jeez Dad, it’s just another quail, we hear them all the time.”