by Renee Bodine, NRCS
Bill Barnhill recalls the days when a robust quail population brought hunters to Florida’s panhandle for national field trials. Since then, the species has declined 85 percent in the United States, according to some estimates. So when he hosted a quail habitat workshop recently, it was no surprise when 100 people crowded into his hunting lodge eight miles northwest of Crestview, Florida to learn how to bring back the northern bobwhite quail. Here is just some of what they learned.
Why are quail in decline? A loss of habitat is the primary reason. In the 1940s, coveys thrived on small farms along the edges of fields, hedgerows, fencerows and windbreaks. But small fields gave way to industrial farms with large expansive fields and development consumed open native grasslands. After decades of fire suppression, undergrowth was choking out quail forage, nesting cover and protection.
What do quail need to thrive? Forage, nesting cover and brood-rearing habitat, according to wildlife biologists. Juvenile birds consume insects while adults primarily eat a vast variety of seeds augmented with plants, fruits and berries. Quail are weak scratchers and require bare ground to pick up seeds. Chicks need overhead cover to protect them while they forage. A mixture of bunch grasses, broadleaf plants, low woody brush and enough bare ground to move around easily are primary components of good habitat. They provide high-protein seeds, insects, overhead coverage, warmth and protection. Good plots a quarter-mile in proximity to one another can support one bird per acre, but most populations are well below this density.
How can you help quail on your land? Forest landowners can develop quail habitat as they manage their timber stands, especially longleaf pine. Longleaf can be burned early in its development to manage for plants beneficial to quail, and its canopy permits more sunlight to reach the ground. Landowners can plant native trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs along fencerows. Prescribed burning, disking and livestock grazing maintain vegetation density and promote the growth of plants that bobwhite prefer to eat.
How can conservation can help? For 15 years, Barnhill, a fourth-generation forest owner, started planting grasses and forbs and burning his 1,500 acres of loblolly and slash pine to create quail habitat. Last year, he planted 110 acres in longleaf pine forest, adding to the 165 acres he planted the year before, all with technical and financial assistance from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Working Lands for Wildlife partnership. Barnhill and his father have worked with the agency more than 40 years to install conservation practices on their property. “This has helped build the habitat, but we will need to transplant some birds to get the population to where it should be,” he said.