By Didi Hoffman
Walking with fellow hunters or riding horseback across the rustling grain fields, you feel the tall grasses swaying along the path. The pine trees stand majestic as a cool breeze whispers from their branches – your dogs are on edge, ready – working close and excitedly to point a covey…as you walk anxiously past the dog, a covey rises in a swift chaotic unity, and scatters. Quail hunting season represents the very best in shooting sport! It’s why hunters have been visiting the Red Hills Region of Georgia and North Florida since the late 1800’s in pursuit of the little bobwhite. We are fortunate in this area to have quail in abundance. Since the 1960’s the majority of the North and Eastern US has seen quail populations decline, to almost zero in the Pennsylvania/Delaware region. For many years, we were no different; our quail were disappearing at a frightening pace. What changed? What brought the population back?
A little regional history has a lot to do with the story of our beloved quail. There was no rail here until a year before the Civil War and even then, we were the end of the line for the railroad. We were the “western frontier” in the Deep South; and, because we were the last stop by rail, it took a long time to get anything needed that wasn’t made locally. Changes to the economic landscape came very slowly. People farmed, as a matter of course, but for the most part, the area stayed closer to its native natural habitat because of its remoteness . The Red Hills Region was underpopulated and Sherman didn’t make it this far – so despite reconstruction after the Civil War in many parts of Georgia, we had nothing to rebuild. Things stayed pretty quiet and physically the area grew at a slow, steady pace. After the war, the northern tycoons headed for warmer weather in the winter. The train line stopped here, and so did they. Soon, the industrialists fell in love with the area, abundant in fishing, wild game and birds; and, mixed with a warm winter, these snowbirds of the north began to call this region their winter home.
During the late 1800’s until the early 1900’s quail and quail hunting flourished. For the industrialists, it was an elegant sport. Quail wagons pulled by a team of mules are still a wonderful southern tradition used in the hunt today. The wagons serve a purpose, they bring the dogs, the spare dogs, their water and refreshments for the hunters. For those who are spectators, the wagons offer a perfect seat. You will see them on the private lands and on the quail hunting preserves in southwest Georgia and north Florida. But you don’t need a wagon to hunt quail! Most people still enjoy hunting quail on foot.
As the Red Hills Region became better known, the northern families that moved to the area wanted to preserve the land for hunting . Although they made their fortunes from industry, they worked together to fend off industrial growth to preserve this pristine hunting environment. Quail conservation was not on their agenda, but by the early 20th century the quail had all but disappeared – due to over hunting. This loss of quail became the catalyst focusing the landowners towards preservation. This little bird was a main food source in the area, going back to the native American’s who first inhabited this region, so it was important to keep the population strong. The desire to bring back the quail, rallied the landowners together to learn everything they could about conservation. They were open to learning and exploring ways to bring back the quail and protect habitat. At this time, many of the programs now used were unknown, but early efforts made a big difference and brought back the quail. This commitment, turned the landowner’s into conservationists, which helped save the quail then, and again, many decades later.
All seemed to be going well for this special bird until the 1960’s when the quail again, began to disappear, except now it was a national problem. Every state saw the same decline. What was happening? Why was the bobwhite quail population declining? According to Quail Forever , www.quailforever.org. “Bobwhite population losses over the last 40 years ranged from 60 to 90 percent across the country. The reason for the quail population plunge was simple – massive losses of habitat suitable for quail. Five major factors lead to the losses of quail habitat; intensified farming and forestry practices, succession of grassland ecosystems to forests, overwhelming presence of exotic grasses like Fescue that choke out wildlife, and urban sprawl.” [i]
The quail population struggled with the our country’s new landscape. The significant expansion of row crop farming, although a boom for farmers, destroyed the protected nesting areas and food sources for the quail.The carpet like grasses of Bahia and Fescue for cattle grazing offered no food or protection for the quail.
Quail have a very short lifespan and about 80% die within the first year naturally; the good news is quail are prolific breeders. Nature gives the quail lots of chicks to offset their short lifespan and their high mortality. Females continue re-nesting until late into the season to keep the number of chicks high. From the start, the chicks have a difficult go, suffering about a 30% mortality rate the first few weeks due to cold, or wet climate and predators. Ground cover and food sources close to the covey are critical to survival. In the winter coveys join together to stay warm, and face out on guard for predators like skunks, foxes, owls, raccoon, dogs, snakes and domestic cats. The grasses and insects around the coveys provide warmth, protection and food. [ii] This short life span and low mortality rate makes loss of habitat for nesting and protection an urgent situation. Quail cannot survive if they cannot breed safely. A member of the pheasant family, quail are not strong fliers, mainly because don’t need fly except to flee a predator. They search for food, or forage, almost entirely on the ground, eating grains and insects. They need room to wander as adults and thickets of ground cover at night for warmth and protection. These little birds need space!
Organizations like the national Quail Forever and our local Tall Timbers http://www.talltimbers.org/ work closely with landowners to help create habitat that promotes quail population. Critical to the effort is the use of prescribed fires, something that the Native American’s also used. It’s common to see the smoke rising from fields and the woodsy scent of burning brush feels like home to many. “The Fire Ecology Program promotes the use of prescribed fire (controlled burning) as an essential tool for managing natural ecosystems in the southern U.S. Many native plant and animals’ species depend on fire to maintain their habitat and have become rare and threatened because of the lack of fire in most places.”[iii] These fires also reduce the risk of wildfires. They keep habitat healthy.
Private landowners in north Florida and Southwest Georgia have a real focused commitment to maintaining quail population, so organizations like Tall Timbers and Quail Forever, continue to be an integral part of land management. Their research helps promote suitable habitat for not only quail, but many other declining species suffering due to changes in habitat created by man “This is a major reason why quail lands across the southeast often are a bastion for threatened species on private lands. There are now over a million acres managed for bobwhites on private lands in the Southeast alone.” [iv]
Theron Terhune , Gamebird Program Director at Tall Timbers said the long term trends in quail in the region has seen a steady incline and this year the number of birds looks strong, slightly increasing. “The landowners are doing a phenomenal job to preserve bobwhite population and maintain a long term population.” With the local growth of the quail, we need to be careful to not overpopulate, game management prefers to keep the population size around 21/2 – 3 birds per acre.” iii
This plucky little bird, inspired generations of private landowners in our region to learn and implement strong conservation programs. Our area is known as the quail capital for good reason! Many regions of the US are not so fortunate, with quail populations now almost gone. The bobwhite quail flourish because of our history of slow growth, northern industrialists keeping industry away from the region which allowed hunting land to remain intact, and a quest to keep the quail population strong. Our regional private landowners have always taken the loss of this challenging bird with great seriousness and because of their efforts, all of us enjoy a thriving quail population.