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State taking steps to bring back wild quail

Northern bobwhite quail range across most of eastern North America from the Midwest to the Southeast but wild quail became hard to find in the past few decades. Photos by John N. Felsher

For centuries, sportsmen pursued bobwhite quail across the South, but in the past few decades, populations of these wild birds plunged. Today, people mostly hunt pen-raised quail on commercial preserves.

“The wild quail population in Alabama and across the Southeast has been going down since the 1960s,” says Steve Mitchell, an Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources biologist. “The population probably declined 80 percent across the Southeast, but there are pockets on private land and some wildlife management areas that still hold wild quail populations.”

Multiple problems beset wild quail, including flourishing predator populations, but habitat loss probably contributed more to plummeting quail numbers than anything else. Vast pine plantations with trees all planted in rows largely replaced huge strands of the virgin longleaf pine savannas. In addition, giant agricultural corporations plowing every inch of available ground replaced small farms separated by thick fencerows.

Bobwhites prefer grassy fields, brushy rangeland and longleaf pine savannas that provide them seeds and bugs to eat. The birds also require open ground beneath the cover for rearing their young and canopies overhead to hide them from avian predators like hawks.

“Quail habitat is all about cover,” Mitchell says. “If the birds can hide from predators, some quail will survive to breed. Brood rearing cover is the most limiting factor to a quail population. When young birds hatch, the parents take them to a place with early successional growth like a fallow field. It needs to be something that creates a canopy overhead, but open at ground level. It also needs to attract insects.”

On most properties, good management starts with prescribed burning. Fire clears out undesirable growth and eliminates ground debris. Fires also stimulate new plant growth by allowing more sunlight to hit the ground and adding nutrients to the soil. Some seeds only sprout after a fire. On forested property, owners can selectively cut trees to open the canopy. A dense canopy blocks sunlight, which inhibits plant growth at ground level.

“To manage property for quail, I put it on a three-year burning rotation,” says Andy Edwards, a Quail Forever biologist. “Burning removes undesirable species, woody species, thins the grasses and stimulates the seeds already in the seedbank if done at the right time of year. Many plant species require periodic burning to survive.”

Most of the best quail habitat in Alabama exists on private property, but the state began initiatives to increase and enhance quail habitat on public lands. In cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, the state opened Boggy Hollow Wildlife Management Area in 2017. Managed specifically for bobwhite quail, the WMA covers 7,000 acres of the Conecuh National Forest in Covington County.

“Across Alabama, we’re trying all we can to improve quail habitat on our WMAs with marginal or suitable habitat,” Mitchell says. “Hopefully, we’ll see some increases in quail populations on these areas. In the right habitat and right weather conditions, the quail population can rebound pretty well.”

Like most of the surrounding national forest, Boggy Hollow consists mainly of mature longleaf pine forests and open parklike savannas. Land managers periodically burn selective sections and thin forest canopies to create more openings and encourage beneficial successional plants to grow.

“Quail are an early successional species, as are deer, songbirds, rabbits and other kinds of wildlife,” says Griff Johnson, the state biologist over the area. “The focus on Boggy Hollow is bobwhite quail, but what benefits quail also benefits many other species. Quail numbers should increase as we continue doing the habitat work.”

Not far from Boggy Hollow, sportsmen might also spot some wild quail on Blue Springs WMA, which includes 24,783 acres of Covington County. In addition, Geneva State Forest holds wild quail. The largest state forest in Alabama, Geneva covers 16,093 acres of mostly longleaf pine forests in Geneva County near Florala southeast of Andalusia.

Barbour WMA covers 28,214 acres of Barbour and Bullock counties near Clayton. In northern Alabama, quail hunters might also visit Freedom Hills WMA in Colbert County near Cherokee or Lauderdale WMA in Lauderdale County near Waterloo. One of the largest WMAs in Alabama, James D. Martin-Skyline includes 60,732 acres of Jackson County near Scottsboro and holds some wild quail.

With good habitat and proper management, quail numbers can recover rapidly. Private landowners can receive technical assistance from state biologists. For more information, contact the nearest Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division office.

 

John N. Felsher lives in Semmes, Ala. Contact him through Facebook.