I grew up hunting quail and spent years hunting them as a young adult. As a youthful hunter our pheasant hunts usually included running into a covey or two. On some farms we could find twice that many most days.
By the time I was a young adult, I had been formally schooled about a variety of game birds and occasionally had the opportunity to hunt areas some distance from my home. I learned in college that northern Illinois and Indiana were at the northern edge of the bobwhite’s natural range. These classroom lessons were reinforced as I ventured on road trip hunts to distant areas. The farther south I went, the more abundant the quail populations were likely to be. The best hunting I ever experienced was in far south Texas, not far from the Rio Grande where finding a dozen coveys per day was possible. Even closer, in the midlands of Indiana it wasn’t uncommon to locate a half dozen coveys or more each day if we hunted hard.
Regardless, in the areas I hunt now and used to hunt locally, the quail population is almost extinct. For the first time ever at my rural home in Newton County I heard zero bobwhites calling over the summer. There has always been at least a covey or two on my land and the acreage of my adjacent neighbors. That’s sad but what’s even sadder is quail numbers in Dixieland and other areas where bountiful populations formerly existed have also dropped precipitously.
In all of these areas habitat changes have been the major cause of bobwhite population declines, but not the only cause. Weather and climate has an affect — including droughts, floods, cold winters. Excess predation by both four legged and winged predators has played a role. For a while, fingers pointed to persistent pesticides as a factor. Today’s weed and bug killers are far less toxic to quail and other birds, but widespread use does affect food availability and habitat.
In the end, wildlife management almost always reverts back to habitat. Ideal habitat is the ultimate buffer against harsh weather, predators and other stressors. Good habitat can provide the food, nesting and resting areas to keep bobwhite populations healthy.
In recent years, people, agencies and conservation groups have been working all across the range of bobwhite quail in a massive partnership called the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. The NBCI membership is made up of state and national wildlife management and agriculture agencies as well as governmental parks, forest and outdoor recreational areas. Many colleges and universities are giving strong support to the NBCI as well as dozens of non-government organizations from Quail Forever, to Audubon Societies, forestry alliances and general conservation groups such as the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
The NBCI recently released their “State of the Bobwhite 2020 Report” which revealed that 3,217,523 acres were managed for Bobwhites during the reporting period. Highly important is that 78 percent of the acreage affected was private lands.
It’s important to remember most of these efforts would not be in existence if quail were not a game bird. Thousands of people love quail because they love quail hunting and are willing to put their money into quail management efforts. Compared to other negative impacts affecting quail numbers, the role of sport hunting is negligible
Also keep in mind dozens of other species of birds benefit from habitats provided for bobwhites. These others, along with quail, are species many birders enjoy searching for and attracting to their properties. The new Native Grasslands Alliance established by NBCI and its partners continue to emphasize the conservation of existing native grasslands and the increased use of native plants in USDA Farm Bill conservation programs.
State of the Bobwhite 2020 is a range-wide snapshot of the population status and conservation status of bobwhite quail, as well as other features apparent on varied projects of interest around the core bobwhite range. The digital version of this report may be accessed at www.bringbackbobwhites.org.