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David Rainer: Uphill battle continues on bobwhite quail

Now that the white-tailed deer season has ended, hunters will likely turn their attention once again to small game like rabbits, squirrels and the bobwhite quail, although quail hunting is nothing like it once was.

When fence rows from small farms and family gardens crisscrossed Alabama and the Southeast, the bobwhite flourished. Since large-scale farming operations became the norm and many families moved to urban and suburban areas, the quail habitat has significantly diminished and so has the number of wild bobwhites.

“Unfortunately, we can’t turn back the clock to the habitat we had at landscape levels in 1970 and prior,” said Steven Mitchell of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. “We do have some private lands that manage for wild bobwhites, and they have to intensively manage year-round for wild quail. They have the resources to do that, and they have good populations there. When I say good populations, I’m talking about how many (dog) points per hour. Some places find four or five coveys per hour. That’s the old Southern style hunting off of horseback and mule-drawn wagons. So, they’re moving, and they have some big running dogs. That’s how they can find those numbers per hour hunting.

“But they have also put in the work on the habitat to have that number of wild birds.”

Alabama has numerous lodges and plantations where hunters can pursue flight-conditioned, pen-raised quail. (David Rainer contributed)

Mitchell, who recently turned over the Upland Game Bird Coordinator position to Brandon Earls, said WFF tries to improve habitat for quail whenever possible on ADCNR’s wildlife management areas throughout the state.

“It’s difficult to manage public areas for just quail,” Mitchell said. “We have to manage for multiple species, but we do have areas that we consider ‘quail emphasis’ areas, where the management is more focused on improving quail habitat conditions. We continue to identify and expand emphasis areas where feasible. Though bobwhite densities remain low, we have seen some positive responses.

“We still have people who are very interested in quail hunting. Quail hunters are still finding some birds on WMAs. Some have reported finding a few coveys in a three- or four-hour hunt. Those successful hunters contribute their success to weather and scenting conditions. Colder days were reported to be better due to increased movement of quail to satisfy their higher metabolic rates during lower temperatures. Cool, moist days are also best for dogs to locate bird scent.”

One of the emphasis areas is the Boggy Hollow WMA within the Conecuh National Forest,  cooperatively managed by WFF and the U.S. Forest Service. This acreage of Conecuh National Forest is being converted into bobwhite habitat through selective timber thinning and more frequent, smaller prescribed burns. Timber thinning increases sunlight reaching the ground, encouraging the growth of native grasses and forbs to provide food and nesting habitat for the quail. The quail harvest on Boggy Hollow is limited, with a daily bag limit of four birds and a season that ended Feb. 10, while the private land quail season runs through Feb. 29.

Visit https://www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/wildlife-management-areas for a list of WMAs and the hunting opportunities available.

For more information about quail, go to www.outdooralabama.com/what-hunt/quail-hunting-alabama for links to the publication Ecology and Management of the Bobwhite Quail in Alabama, authored by former WFF Wildlife Biologist Stan Stewart.

“We’re still continuing the work with the U.S. Forest Service on Boggy Hollow,” Mitchell said. “We’re working to manipulate the habitat management scheme there to benefit quail. We’ve seen some success, but the density of quail is still low. Habitat on Boggy Hollow is being improved through timber thinning, prescribed fire, and establishment of wildlife openings and early successional habitat.”

Mitchell returned to how the landscape across the Southeast has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. Those changes have made it difficult for the wild bobwhites to adapt.

Traditional hunts on horseback with mule-drawn wagons yield the best results for finding quail. (David Rainer contributed)

“Small farms, brushy fence rows, and unproductive ground left to fallow made up the landscape back then,” Mitchell said. “With those old fence rows and more crude equipment compared to what we have today, it was a different type of farming. It was patchwork farming, and that was everywhere. Those old fence rows, hedgerows, and small fields provided nesting, brooding, and escape cover for quail. It was ideal habitat for quail. All that is different now with clean farming. Fence rows got cleaned up, and you have farming from tree line to tree line. That’s one reason for the reduction of habitat across the quail range.

“Timber management has also changed over time to more short-term rotations. Closed-canopy pine stands don’t provide habitat for quail. Some beneficial habitat is provided after planting, but the canopy closes after a few years and shades it all out as those trees put on vertical growth. Many more years pass until the first thinning, which lets some sunlight get to the ground and improve conditions for quail. But as that canopy closes back, the cover decreases again until the next thinning.”

The attitude of some landowners has also shifted from trying to manage for a huntable quail population to providing enough habitat where they can at least hear the bobwhite’s distinctive whistle.

“We get several of those calls,” Mitchell said. “We have people with different acreages who say, ‘I haven’t heard a quail here since I bought it. What can I do?’ We provide services where we do a site visit and recommend what a landowner should do. That doesn’t mean they are going to have quail, but we can help guide habitat improvements to try.

“Timber density is usually a starting point on most properties. Cover for quail can’t grow without sunlight getting to the ground, so you have to open up that canopy. With that, nesting conditions improve, and brood-rearing conditions improve. Quail spend their entire life on the ground, and their survival depends on having proper ground cover available year-round. Terms for quail cover include escape or loafing, nesting, and brood-rearing cover. Without getting too far in the weeds on cover types, brood-rearing cover is usually the most lacking habitat component on properties we visit. This is simply weedy areas where adult quail raise chicks. Brood cover provides overhead protection from predators and bare ground underneath allowing quail chicks easy movement to forage for insects.”

Another crucial management practice is the use of fire for controlled burns, which improves the habitat for a wide variety of birds and wildlife.

“You need a good burn plan,” Mitchell said. “Quail are called the firebird. Fire is the cheapest and most efficient tool in the box for creating and maintaining quail habitat.”

The good news is hunters can find numerous quail plantations scattered all over the state, with the greatest concentration  in the Alabama Black Belt region. Visit www.alabamaquailtrail.com for a list of plantations and lodges that offer hunts on flight-conditioned, pen-raised quail.

For the 2022-2023 season, Alabama had 9,427 quail hunters overall. Of those, 2,700 hunted wild quail and harvested a little more than 27,000 quail. Including the quail plantations with pen-raised quail, hunters harvested more than 370,000 birds overall.

“Anybody who is wanting a lot of shooting, hunting pen-raised birds is the way they’re going to have to go,” Mitchell said. “Wild birds can still be found on most WMAs but be prepared to put in a lot more leg work than gun work.”

For those who want to help monitor the quail populations in Alabama by reporting quail calls, Quail Forever and its partners developed the “Bobscapes” mobile app that allows users to report hearing a quail, which is then entered into a national database.

“Private landowners and public land users can both take a lead role in future conservation efforts by helping define population distribution and abundance of bobwhite quail across their range,” said Jessica McGuire, bobwhite program manager for Quail Forever’s Working Lands for Wildlife. “It’s an app (bobscapes.org) on your phone so when you hear a bobwhite you can record it, and it sends it to us. The app asks if the citizen wants more information. If yes, it will connect them with us. Our biologists may reach out if you ask for more information, but the information is kept private.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

 

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