Dr. Alan Maxwell remembers as a young boy hunting with his father and being able to find multiple coveys of bobwhites on his family’s 653-acre farm in Mitchell County Georgia. He sometimes reminisces about the open understory habitat of the longleaf pine forests, which once surrounded his childhood home. Dr. Maxwell noticed a decline in the quail population in the 1960’s coinciding with the conversion of the longleaf forests to row crop agriculture.
Gene Kitchens Jr. is a farmer and dedicated bird hunter who strives to integrate agriculture and silviculture practices within a conservation framework in order to utilize and conserve the natural resources throughout his 1,200 acre of Bleckley County Georgia farm.
One aspect of that conservation framework is Gene’s participation in the Georgia DNR Bobwhite Quail Initiative (BQI), which began in 2001. He has continually re-enrolled multiple fields into the program, which has not only improved wildlife habitat but also maintained those habitat gains for the past eight years.
Through BQI, Gene has implemented 30 and 60-foot field borders around his cropfields, hedgerows, filter strips, Bermuda grass control and fallow patches in various combinations throughout the fields to both benefit quail and eliminate hard-to-farm and less productive farm acres.
Back around 2000, John Sawyers purchased a 625-acre (545 acres crop/pasture) cattle farm in Kentucky that had been severely abused as a back grounding operation. From the beginning his main purpose was to build this “biological desert,” as John often recollects, into a “wildlife promised land.”
Shortly after purchasing the property, John began researching the best way to achieve his monumental goal, but as a retired conservation officer with KY Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) he had a pretty good idea where to start. He began soliciting advice and technical guidance from local biologists while reading all the quail literature, such as that produced by Quail Unlimited, of which he is also a member.
Tom Deaton owns about 300 acres of farmland in Prentiss County, Mississippi, where bobwhite quail were once abundant. However, in the last 25 years, quail numbers have declined drastically due to changes in land use and management. This is not a problem that is unique to Prentiss County or even Mississippi. Quail numbers have plummeted throughout much of the Southeast and many other parts of their range.
Until 2004, about 210 acres of Tom’s farm was dedicated to a soybean/corn farming rotation. In 2005, Tom enrolled part of his agricultural fields in the then new Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), CP33 – Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds practice. These native grass and wildflower buffers were created to provide critical nesting and brood-rearing areas for quail and songbirds along field edges. Quail responded almost immediately to this addition of habitat.
Restoration of the northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) — widely known as bobwhite quail — is major “unfinished business” of wildlife conservation. White-tailed deer — done. Wild turkey — done. Beaver, alligator, wood ducks, giant Canada geese, bald eagles, river otters, black bears, peregrine falcons, etc. — done. Granted, management issues remain, but the restoration is complete. Even restoration of continental duck populations is well on its way to success. The wildlife profession is justifiably proud of these accomplishments.
Meanwhile, in the background, bobwhites and numerous species of associated grassland songbirds and other wildlife have slowly, but steadily, declined. One of the most abundant and popular game species a half-century ago, bobwhites now are nearly unhuntable for most sportsmen.