The Case of the Disappearing Quail

If you've noticed a peculiar absence of quail where once they were numerous, you're not alone.

  • Bill Lawren
  • Oct 01, 1993
A Cooper's hawk screeches through the piney woods at Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee, Florida. Startled, a lone bobwhite takes flight, wings whirring. In a few seconds, the hawk takes the quail right out of the air, kills it and carries it off. Watching, bird biologist Clay Sisson makes a note: one less bobwhite.

These days, to experts like Sisson-and to the nature lovers and legions of quail hunters who have long been fascinated with the birds-a hawk's bobwhite dinner is symbolic of a distressing trend. Strained by human development and agricultural chemicals, many quail populations are declining in this country at a precipitous rate. Add in nature's usual stresses of predation and extreme weather conditions, and in some regions (particularly the Southeast) the decline adds up to as much as 70 percent over the past 20 years.

Says wildlife biologist Leonard Brennan of Mississippi State University, "If things keep going the way they're going, we'll be losing quail from broader and broader areas, especially in the Southeast." But that "if" doesn't have to happen, say experts-especially if farmers can make their land more quail hospitable. Even so, says Brennan, the birds will "probably never be as abundant as they were 20 to 30 years ago."

Says Sam Droege, a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, "Quail are going down the tubes, and they're going down in one of the biggest waves of all the species." The question, he says, "is what are the populations going to sink to?"

The continental United States is home to six species of quail: northern bobwhite (found throughout the North and Southeast, Midwest and Pacific Northwest); scaled quail (Texas, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado); California quail (Pacific Coast); Gambel's quail (desert Southwest); mountain quail (western coastal mountains from Oregon to Southern California); and Montezuma's quail (New Mexico highlands). Most prefer open habitat, such as farmland or desert, dotted with low bushes or tall grass for cover.

The northern bobwhite, perhaps the best known of the six, is one of the most troubled. Figures from the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count indicate that in 77 percent of the 31 states where northern bobwhites are traditionally found, populations have declined steeply. In Florida, for example, the birds suffered a population loss of 89 percent between 1961 and 1988. Michigan's bobwhite population declined by 73 percent during the same period, Massachusetts' by 54 percent. The Breeding Bird Survey finds similar declines in two species (northern bobwhite and scaled quail) in 27 of 30 states surveyed.

"No one knows for sure," says wildlife biologist Kevin Church of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, exactly why those populations are suffering. "All we have are theories." High on the list are changes in the birds' habitat. In some areas of the Northeast and Southeast, urban and suburban sprawl are destroying the brushy areas that quail like. In Idaho, where mountain quail are in serious trouble, new dams and cattle grazing have destroyed river and creekside brush.

Then there is modern farming. Fifty years ago, farms were smaller with idle areas filled with the low brush and tall grasses that quail favor for nesting and feeding. Now fields tend to be larger (in Mississippi, for example, the average field grew from 55 acres in 1942 to 290 acres in 1982), and most arable land is devoted to single crops like corn, soybeans and sorghum. The result, Church says, is a dearth of "trash areas that support quail."

Of course, some crop vegetation itself supports quail, but that's also where farmers apply herbicides and pesticides. "Just after the chicks hatch in the spring," explains Droege, "you have these little fuzzballs running around eating bugs." The chicks need vegetation "that's not too thick so they can get through it, but not too thin so there are enough insects." Bug-supporting weeds used to sprout between crop rows. But these days, even with the growing acceptance of alternative farming methods like integrated pest management, most row-crop farms "are deserts because they've been sprayed to hell," says Droege. Even if quail are undisturbed by the spraying, they still end up with no prey.

In the managed pine plantations in the South, slow-growing species like longleaf pine, which make for great quail habitat, have been replaced by faster-growing species like loblolly. Quail will invade a clearcut area for a time, but within a few years the forest canopy closes. With diminished sunlight, prime quail forage-in the form of scrub plants and grasses-dies off.

Changes in habitat can also take a toll on reproduction, which depends in part on the right habitat for the male to establish a territory and the female to nest. After the male identifies his turf, the female chooses a nesting site and calls to the male. The male answers, and then circles the female, dragging his wings along the ground, extending his neck and puffing his throat feathers.

After mating, the female makes a shallow scrape in the ground, lines it with grass and lays 7 to 12 eggs. After about three weeks, the eggs hatch-all within an hour or two. Researchers recently found that chicks signal one another with clicking sounds while still in the egg, apparently spurring one another to develop and hatch at the same time.

Extremely dry or very wet weather shuts down the reproductive machinery of quail hens. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Midwest and Northeast endured a series of hard winters. Deep, ice-crusted snow covered rural areas for extended periods of time. For the northern bobwhite, the weather spelled disaster: "It really wiped out their range," says Church.

Then there is the question of predation. Under normal circumstances, predators take as many as 70 percent of quail eggs and chicks. At Tall Timbers, once a privately owned quail-hunting plantation and now a 4,000-acre research facility (still privately funded), the quail population has dropped from three birds per acre in the early 1970s to only one bird per acre today. The reason? "The decline cannot be explained by habitat loss or degradation, and we don't use pesticides," says game-reserve manager Sisson. "We think that increased pressure from predators, for a variety of reasons, explains a lot of it."

Answers elsewhere may not be so simple. Wrote Mississippi State University biologist Brennan in a recent paper, "Far too many people continue to blame 'those coyotes and hawks' as the primary reasons why bobwhite numbers have dwindled." Bigger habitat issues may yield more complex answers. For one thing, as quail numbers dwindle, quail plantations may be attracting larger numbers of predators like egg-loving skunks and raccoons. But the biggest threats are most likely avian hunters-especially small raptors like Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks. Not only can they catch quail in flight, says Sisson, "sometimes they'll even get down on the ground and chase the quail on foot."

As for human predators, the jury is still out on how much they harm quail populations. "Hunting can have an impact at the local level," says Droege of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "but the overall picture of bobwhite decline is not likely to be associated with hunting." Yet the main studies of this question have been conducted mostly on healthy quail populations. Another concern is that on the numerous quail-hunting plantations of the South and Southwest, release of pen-raised quail into the wild may introduce disease or weaken the genetic makeup of native quail.

Now for the good news: Mountain quail in the forests of the Northwest, except in Idaho, appear to be holding their own. So too are California quail and Gambel's quail in the deserts of the extreme Southwest. Even the northern bobwhite, so hard-hit in much of its range, is on the rise in at least two states: Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

Why? In Oklahoma. the answer, says state wildlife department biologist Alan Peoples, "is one word: weather. For the last three years we've had the right amount of rain at the right time in the spring." The moisture has nourished good quail habitat-and populations soared by 50 percent in the last year alone. In the case of the mountain quail, logging activity in sonic areas is actually creating new habitat in the form of succession brush (unlike the fast-growing trees that are planted on managed pine plantations).

To help boost populations in trouble, organizations like Quail Unlimited, a South Carolina-based hunters' group, are assisting in research projects and donating money to improve quail habitat around the country. Experts Droege and Church say the most critical key to boosting quail populations is the American farmer, who can help quail by cutting back on pesticides, encouraging the growth of hedgerows and planting crops in wide strips separated by uncultivated areas (called strip-disking). The ragweed, desmodium and other weeds that grow in uncultivated strips make perfect food and shelter for quail.

At Circle Bar Ranch in Marion County, Mississippi, five years ago owner Patrick Taylor had only one covey of quail on a 1,000-acre parcel. He removed cattle from the parcel and planted 100 acres of corn, wheat and other quail food crops. Now he has an average of one quail per acre. Meanwhile, at Rainey Farm in nearby Tippah County, owner Lucian Minor tried strip-disking. In four years, the population increased more than 400 percent to 87 coveys.

Those stories, says Brennan of Mississippi State University, "clearly show that when the right habitat components are put in place, quail populations will increase." In other words: Though the experts still can't pin down the precise causes of quail declines, they have evidence that a bush in time can save nine (birds).

New England journalist Bill Lawren wrote about saltwater fish declines in the October-November 1992 issue.

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