Photograph by Joe Mac Hudspeth, Jr. · www.southernfocus.com
Feature: In Pursuit of Northern Bobwhites
Generations of southern sportsmen long-gone shared stories of bird dogs and covey rises instead of the pursuit of trophy bucks and limits of mallards. To me, our hunting heritage is predicated in these stories…on the pursuit of the Northern Bobwhite quail. It is likely this is reason that many carry a passion for the species that outweighs all others.
The peak of Northern Bobwhite populations in the south and its popularity as a game bird paralleled a hundred year period where southern landscapes were fundamentally modified from the climatic forests and native prairies that once dominated the region. Forestlands were cleared, making way for unimproved pastures and cropland. Grains were grown to feed the livestock, providing food for quail and the pastures provided grasslands for nesting. This early, and messy patchwork of openings, fencerows, and forestland created the perfect habitat for the Northern Bobwhite to thrive.
This period was also marked with fewer options for the early sportsman to pursue. White-tailed deer and Eastern wild turkey populations were a fraction of what they are today. Ducks were largely hunted for market, not sport. And all those populations were even made more scarce during and after the Great Depression. Small game was all there really was to hunt, and the Bobwhite was king.
Northern Bobwhite populations grew, as did their fame as a game bird, because of change. It is also because of change that Bobwhites now struggle in the Southeast. The small openings created 100 years ago got larger. Livestock was replaced with tractors. Pastures became “improved.” Fence rows were cleared. Farms became less diverse. The irony is, the rise and fall of the Northern Bobwhite in the Southeast can be attributed to the exact same motivation. The only difference is technology and the economy of scale.
Many might find this story one of sadness, of failure. But it is far from that. With the exception of the Lower Coastal Plains, there are still far more Northern Bobwhite quail in the Southeastern United States than there was 200 years ago, because of changes to the landscape. In general, quail thrive in environments that are in a state of change or transition. The plants communities that grow in these situations provide optimum habitats for quail. The funny thing is, as soon as those desirable plant communities are established, they begin to be choked out by other, more permanent plant communities or simply removed by man for other land use applications. This creates the ultimate wildlife habitat management challenge for sportsmen, landowners and biologist who want to manage for Northern Bobwhite.
How do you sustain habitats and plant communities that are not designed to be sustained? It is very difficult. It takes a constant and perpetual effort. It is very expensive and provides no financial returns.
But it can be done and the environmental benefits are substantial.
Delta Wildlife works with those members who place significant value on quail to establish and maintain quail habitat on their property. Many become frustrated in the process because the management is much more intensive than they are often accustomed. But for those who stay the course, wild populations can balloon to support moderate hunting and take within 3 years. Regionally, Delta Wildlife also continues to establish 200-500 acres of Bobwhite nesting habitat alongside agricultural lands through CRP and CSP on an annual basis.
A lot more can and should be done to support native Northern Bobwhite populations as the habitat they prefer benefit many other species. Optimum quail habitat provides annual flowers for honey bees and native pollinators. Quail nesting habitat composed mostly of native grasses serves to improve the water quality and subsequent fisheries of our local rivers and lakes. Native grasses are preferred by wild turkey for nesting and white-tailed deer for thermal protection during extreme winter storms.
To learn more about how to manage parts of your property for Northern Bobwhite to help sustain this landmark species and provide additional wildlife and natural resource benefits to the region, please give Delta Wildlife a call.