Moving to Gloucester two decades ago, we loved being surrounded by so much wildlife. One sight we particularly enjoyed was the covey of quail sprinting across our private dirt road. They spent their days in the hedgerows and we always slowed, anticipating their inevitable conga line; a flash of brown and white and they would disappear into the undergrowth. All too soon they were gone.
It’s been years since we’ve heard their familiar “bob-bob-white” call down in our orchard. Once abundant in fields, brush, and fallow farmlands, quail have disappeared from our landscape without many of us even realizing it and the world is a sadder place with their departure. Although this looks like the end of gardening for this year, you still have some wonderful opportunities, especially this year.
The story’s the same all over the country. Once in such abundance, over the past eighty years quail numbers have plummeted and, although scientists acknowledge many factors have contributed to the decline, the single biggest factor has been loss of suitable habitat. Ironically, man has contributed to both the quail’s rise and fall. Now, a handful of dedicated individuals in Gloucester County have joined a national effort attempting to reverse the trend against strong odds.
For decades, the Northern Bobwhite was the premier game bird in at least thirty-eight states. The quintessential image of the hunter with his setter or pointer at work in the fields of rural America beckons fond memories to an aging and ever decreasing population of sportsmen. Today, some folks have never heard a quail call, much less seen one.
History proves that Native Americans hunted quail for food but in the 16th century when European explorers first arrived, quail was just one of many bird species Native Americans hunted for food. Compared to larger game birds, quail were difficult to trap or shoot with bow and arrows, so provided little more than a tasty side dish.
When the first colonists arrived in eastern Virginia, the landscape was comprised of mature forests and wetlands, habitat not particularly suited to quail. Less than one percent of pre-colonial Virginia was open land, created by Native Americans utilizing fire to clear small tracts for habitation and planting.
As settlers began to clear the forests, large fields were created and quail took advantage of the improved landscape, becoming increasingly plentiful. By the late 17th century quail were so numerous it was not uncommon to see them feeding alongside domestic fowl and had become favorite table fare. As new acreage was cleared, worn-out fields were abandoned and went fallow, quickly taken over by native scrub, grasses, and wild legumes, all to the benefit of the quail.
19th-century market hunting took its toll on many bird species and by the late 19th century quail populations were on the decline. By 1904 quail hunting in Virginia was limited to just a few months in fall. As the 20th-century progressed, urbanization of the state accelerated, eliminating quail habitat over a broad range.
But it was changing land use practices and improved farming and mowing techniques that would deal the cruelest blows. Improved machinery eliminated traditional fencerows where quail once flourished. What was once a diversity of rotating small crop fields gave way to large fields of intensely managed monoculture. Increased use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides increased crop yields but greatly reduced the habitat and food sources on which quail thrive. Without an economic incentive, few farmers were interested in managing their lands for wildlife habitat.
20th- century’s suburban sprawl took millions upon millions of acres out of cultivation and the quail population declined precipitously; from 1966 to 1980 the population declined by more than half. In 1983 concerned hunters and wildlife professionals formed the Virginia Quail Association, dedicated to quail management projects across the state. The Virginia General Assembly established a joint subcommittee to study and report on quail decline, but by 1994 quail populations had plummeted by 80% and hunters and landowners realized they had to take action if quail were going to survive.
In Gloucester the local effort began with one man—Blair Farinholt. A lifelong resident of Gloucester, an avid sportsman and business owner, Blair was in a unique position as property manager for Elmington (a large estate bordering the North River) of having almost 500 acres of prime farmland and woodlands to oversee. Blair began managing Elmington in 1986 and was soon searching for a farmer to take over Elmington’s fields for retiring farmer Buddy Bland. As he and Elmington’s owner toured the nooks and crannies of the estate it became evident that there were several small fields unsuitable for modern farming practices and perfect for wildlife habitat.
With the owner’s support, Blair began with a few small strips planted in Bi-color Lespedeza. The region’s agricultural department designed a large dammed and controlled pond located in an ideal wetlands area that would provide water and suitable planting areas for all manner of wildlife. For Blair this was a period of trial and error, self-education that eventually yielded fifteen sporadic acres planted with a variety of fruit and nut bearing plants and trees, warm season grasses, millet, milo, and sorghum.
In less than two decades several covey were thriving. In the process Blair’s management efforts, and with assistance from local landscaper Bill Healy, have resulted in increased populations of wild turkey, wood ducks, and a variety of song birds and pollinators.
Realizing Elmington was not going to restore Gloucester’s quail population alone, Blair reached out to other like-minded landowners eager to participate in building a patchwork of private landholdings throughout the eastern portion of the county.
In 2012 Blair hosted a Gloucester Quail Workshop in conjunction with Brent and Becky Heath at Brent & Becky’s Bulbs in Ware Neck. Over 100 landowners participated in workshop lectures from state biologists and small game experts. A quail habitat walking tour introduced landowners to the challenges and pleasures of creating patchwork spaces ideal for quail.
In a space just 30 feet by 100 feet, ideally located along a fringe between woods and field with a southern exposure, a backyard initiative can create much improved quail habitat. Lawn fescue, anathema to quail, is burned and the resulting 3000 square feet planted with a specialty mix specifically developed for quail: Partridge Pea, Lance-leaf Coreopsis, Black-eyed Susan, Switchgrass, and Atlantic Coastal Panicgrass that provides ideal brood habitat. Every three years as woody growth and other undesirable plants invade the space, the strips are disked or burned and replanted.
“At the workshop the message was clear”, says Blair. “Change the habitat and the quail will return.” Brent Heath agrees. Blair’s father, Brown, introduced Brent to the sport of hunting who remembers him fondly as a conservationist at heart. “In the 50s and 60s there were many abandoned houses and fields here in Gloucester and it wasn’t unusual to flush twenty coveys in a day’s time between the shop and home,” Brent recalls. “One couldn’t help but notice the decline over the years.”
Now Brent and Becky’s property sports untrimmed ditches and hedgerows, and a half acre drainfield meadow planted with the specialty seed mix, bought in bulk and packaged individually to cover a 30 x 100 foot plot. “Keep in mind when you are planting, there’s no such thing as a no maintenance garden or a meadow for that matter,” Brent is quick to point out.” It all requires some degree of work. I like to look at mine as a form of recreation.”
“Quail are merely a symptom of a greater problem, the demise of grasslands, shrub lands and other so-called early successional habitat,” says David A. Bryan, Private Lands Wildlife Biologist for the Virginia Tech Conservation Management Institute. “Quail are what’s known as an umbrella species, or more popularly a poster child. Well known by farmers, hunters, birders and conservationists, they provide a face to a whole suite of species facing similar issues, including many songbirds and pollinators.”
David admits that success has been limited to areas with primarily rural populations, areas where active habitat restoration has improved conditions for existing coveys to repopulate. “It’s clearly a local effort at this point”, says David, “and we’re cautiously optimistic. It will take years to see which way the quail population is trending.”
“2013 was a great year for quail because we had a very mild winter and spring,” says David. “In the fall, the quail broods disperse, searching out new territory and forming new coveys. In the most optimal habitat in the Southeast one covey can thrive on ten to fifteen acres, with about a dozen birds per covey. In Virginia we’re looking at more like thirty-five to fifty acres per covey. Since quail don’t know property boundaries, a patchwork of small landholdings can be invaluable. It’s more difficult getting several landowners rather than one large holding to work together, but clearly in places like Gloucester it can be done. Species can rebound if given the proper help. We’ve proven that with deer, turkey, snow geese, and black bear.”
Efforts appear to be paying off. In recent years Blair, along with others, report seeing more coveys and hearing them call. “My hope is to get a neighborhood effort going with private landowners and local farmers, continuing to add to this patchwork along which quail can travel and thrive.”
“Getting farmers onboard is a must,” David cautions. “It’s a hard sell to convince farmers that they aren’t making money, comparatively speaking, planting crops along the wood’s edge where plants must compete for water and sunlight. There are federal and state programs available to incentivize planting and maintaining wildlife habitat.”
For information and assistance in establishing quail and other wildlife habitat, please contact David A. Bryan, Hanover USDA Service Center at 804-537-5225 ext. 119.
Seed is available at Brent & Becky’s Bulbs. Timing for planting is early spring. A $5 donation is appreciated and helps offset costs. 804-693-3966.