I've never been a true quail hunter. You know, the hard-core, go-at-it-every-day-of-the-season kind of guy who babies his bird dog like his only child and guards his favorite coverts with the ferocity of a sow grizzly. But, nevertheless, I've been a bobwhite fan every since I was old enough to pick up a gun.
Maybe it's because of the stories my mother used to tell about Daddy Claude, her father who passed away before I was born. They were the kind of stories that put a sparkle in a young boy's eyes. Tales of the man she said I grew up to be so much like. A man in love with the outdoors. A man who treasured his moments afield, especially when those moments were spent in pursuit of quail.
The common practice of clearing brush and farming up to fences leaves little habitat for quail.
Daddy Claude, she said, raised some of the finest bird dogs in the South, and people came from all around to buy the fine animals he trained and sold. Each morning when he left the house at dawn to check the livestock, there was a bird dog at his side, an old Browning 12-gauge in the bend of his arm. And every morning, long about breakfast time, Claude Owen would return home with a brace of quail in his tattered, green game vest. He'd dress the birds out by the barn, and my grandmother would roll them in flour and fry them golden-brown in an old black skillet. There was always a pan of milk gravy on the side, and plenty of buttermilk biscuits, muscadine jelly and country fresh eggs. Right up to the day she died, that was my mother's favorite meal.
So, you see, quail hunting was, in a way, my legacy. When I started hunting on my own, I always made an extra effort to bag a quail or two for Mom. It was never a burden, for I hunted nearly every day of the season, and there were plenty of plump bobwhites in the converts on Crowley's Ridge in east Arkansas. But, it's sad to say, in those same converts today, a covey of quail is a rare treasure.
Often when I get back home for winter visit, I'll cradle Daddy Claude's old Browning in my arm and walk those familiar hunting grounds to reminisce. I walk along the fencerow by the pecan orchard where I used to jump birds and lament its emptiness. The thickets on Aunt Mae's old farm are now mature woods, and the quail have long since disappeared. The creek bottom along the pasture is planted in fescue, the heart-stopping sound of the covey break an empty memory.
Many other quail hunters are also noticing the lack of bobwhite quail. In fact, disgruntled quail hunters are being heard throughout many states, asking wildlife agencies what they're going to do about declining quail populations. Unfortunately, there are no quick fix answers.
What's happened to our quail? Inclement weather has caused short-term losses in some areas. But periods of good and bad weather tend to offset each other over a period of years. The most persistent problem facing quail populations is habitat loss.
Gone are the brushy fencerows bordering small crop fields. Gone are the shelterbelts of Osage orange and cedars and honeysuckle where quail found travel lanes, cover and abundant food. Gone are the fields of native grasses that were home to untold numbers of bobwhites.
Farmers, hard-pressed to make ends meet in these troubled times, have found it necessary to till every inch of available ground. Huge treeless croplands now dominate the landscape where quail once flourished.
Clean farming techniques, where little waste grain and plant stubble are left in the fields, have also hurt quail populations. Quail need high-energy foods to keep them warm during harsh winter weather, but today, more efficient harvest equipment and fall plowing leave little residue of corn, sorghum, wheat and other winter quail foods.
Another problem, one few quail hunters are familiar with, is occurring in the pasturelands of southeastern states. At the time of settlement, the mountainous regions of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma had some of the finest grazing forage in the U.S. There were many native grass prairies where warm-season plants like Indian grass, big and little bluestem and switch grass were found in abundance. But this once excellent forage base was destroyed by unrestricted grazing and land clearing for crop production.
By the 1940s, stockmen started reclaiming old prairies and marginal cropland by planting cool-season grasses dominated by fescue. Fescue, unlike warm-season grasses, provides little, if any, food for quail, and it's grazed and mowed so low, it provides no cover either. It's hot in the summertime and cool in the winter, exactly the opposite of what quail need.
Shrinking habitat has put the pinch on bobwhites, and only the cooperative efforts of hunters, wildlife managers and landowners can assure their future well being.
Can hunters help? Certainly, and they must. If quail hunting is to survive, the sportsman must play an active role. It's not enough to just buy a hunting license and then complain to the state wildlife agency because quail numbers are low.
How can you make a difference? Perhaps the best way is to get actively involved in an organization dedicated to quail. Several important quail organizations are financing and conducting important research and working at local levels to improve quail habitat in their immediate area. By becoming a member, you can see and experience results first-hand. And your support will help these organizations thrive and grow.
Landowners can help replenish quail cover by leaving a strip as wide as their vehicle next to fences.
In the future, hunters will also need to consider paying for the betterment of their sport on private lands. The majority of habitat loss has occurred on private lands, because farmers have no economic incentive to improve quail habitat. For quail management to work on private lands, the farmer must be able to increase his income through sales of hunting rights or greater crop yields. But with few exceptions, that's just not happening today.
The quail hunter who's willing to pay for the exclusive right to hunt on private land offers the farmer a financial incentive to manage his land compatibly for wildlife, and thus plays an important role in increasing bobwhite habitat. The hunter must realize that he can no longer expect the farmer to give him a free ride. As one biologist so aptly put it, "The hunter should be willing to pay to play."
The most obvious way hunters can help quail is by trying to reverse the trend of habitat loss. Habitat improvement must be carried out on private lands in the years ahead to overcome our losses and to replenish this popular game bird. Landowners are usually cooperative, and most will help sportsmen replace what has been taken off the land if they have guidelines to follow.
Back when rail fences were being used on farms, quail habitat was abundant, because horse-drawn plows couldn't reach into every corner of the rail fence. Consequently, a strip of land 20 or 30 feet wide was left to grow back in tall weeds and native grasses. Blackberry, foxtail, panic grasses, broom sedge, sumac and wild grapes thrived in these old fencerows, and so did quail.
Today, landowners can help replenish these areas by leaving a strip as wide as their vehicle next to fences. These grown-up areas provide food and nesting and roosting areas for quail. Quail also use them for travel lanes to other parts of the land. Plant trees and shrubs such as autumn olive, cedars, wild cherry, bicolor lespedeza and sericea lespedeza and protect them from mowing, grazing and burning.
In pasturelands where cattle graze, add living fences of multiflora rose, blackberry, Russian olive, honeysuckle and cedars. At least two living fences and/or grown fencerows should exist for quail management on each 30- to 40-acre pasture. Living fences offer shelterbelts from sub-freezing temperatures, and quail use these areas extensively where they are available.
The landowner should also locate islands of blackberry, honeysuckle, multiflora rose and sumac he can mow around and leave for quail use. Patches of vegetation that grow up in the pasture don't have to be bush-hogged down. Mow around these cover islands, leaving them for shelterbelts, nesting areas, feeding areas and travel lanes. Before your land is cleared or cleaned up in any way, consider how it might affect wildlife habitat on your property.
Our "clean" instinct tells us we should burn brush piles, because they look bad. But the landowner can use brush piles to his advantage in quail management by leaving them on the land, rather than pushing them up or burning them.
When cutting firewood or clearing small openings, cut trees leaving a three-foot-high stump. Pile branches around the stump, laying one end of the limbs on the stump at an angle to the ground. Then when you've finished laying limbs all around the stump in this manner, pile the rest of the cuttings at right angles on this supporting framework to create a brush pile with openings inside that can be used by quail, rabbits and other animals.
Be sure to leave a band of cover completely around the brush pile by letting natural vegetation grow up for a distance of ten yards or so around it. This cover will provide nesting sites and food for quail, plus escape routes and travel lanes to other parts of your land.
With some preplanning, efforts can be taken to increase quail habitat and preserve the hunting heritage.