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.
Emphasizing Quail on a Working Farm
For Greg Vaughn and his son Chris, bobwhites and birddogs have always been a passion. This passion is what inspired the Vaughns to turn their 330-acre farm in Franklin County, Tennessee into a haven for quail and other small game.
Quail Like ‘Weeds’ in Iowa
Dray Walter bought a 200-acre farm in Taylor County, IA in 2003. Of the farm, 144 acres were already signed up in the Conservation Reserve Program and the rest of the acres consisted of draws of mature woodlands. All of this CRP was planted to smooth brome (invasive cool season grasses) several years ago.
The main reason that Dray bought the property was for hunting. The first year that he hunted his new property he found one covey of eight quail and very few pheasants. Dismayed by this Dray did some research and learned about the existence of voluntary mid-contract management on CRP … and he already knew the value of native grasses compared to brome.
Dray then went in to his local Farm Service Agency office and got the okay to convert 26 acres of his CRP to a diverse mix of native grasses and forbs, and he signed up for voluntary mid-contract management on his remaining 118 CRP acres.
This past hunting season, only two years after he planted the natives and started disking and applying herbicide to portions of his brome CRP, Dray found five coveys of quail and a good number of pheasants on his property. This is hopefully only the beginning of the transformation of his property from mediocre to exceptional habitat for upland birds.
In Dray Walter’s own words, “I think the major reason for the increase in my quail and pheasant populations is that we created great habitat by encouraging the growth of what most people would call weeds.”