Bringing Back Bobwhite

Bobwhite quail used to be common in Virginia.  Their population began to crash about forty years ago because of changes in their habitat.   Some of this was obvious.  Farmers became more efficient and in the process eliminated lots of the bugs and weeds that quail need.  Suburbs expanded and suburban dwellers are probably even less tolerant of bugs and weeds.  Both suburban lawn owners and rural landowners also got new and better techniques to achieve their goals, which usually involved creating a “neater” landscape.  The thick green lawns, beautiful but ecologically barren, are widely possible only because of chemicals and techniques developed in the last generation.   

Wildlife habitat in general and quail habitat in particular is ragged and messy from the human perspective.  Above is an early succession field, a lot of goldenrod and ragweed. A lot of people would feel the urge to mow.  Even the gardens of “wild” flowers many of us plant are NOT really natural.   Ideal Virginia quail habitat consists of the weeds and debris that comes the year after a clear cut.  It is the disturbance itself that is the key to success. Many of us demand that this kind of thing be “cleaned up” or avoided in the first place.

My friend Mike Jones led the wildlife habitat field day to discuss ways landowners could create places for quail and other desirable animals.   This is Mike just above. He is a landowner who recently retired from the NRCS and smartest person I know when it comes to the practical creation and protection of wildlife habitat.  Mike has tried out all of what he talks about on his own land and seen the results over a lifetime. The State of Virginia is wise to take advantage of his expertise and his credibility when explaining programs to landowners. 

These field days are a sweet deal.  It cost me only $10, which probably didn’t cover much more than the lunch.  The lunch line is pictured above.  But field days are really a kind of advertising and education.  Landowners make decisions about what happens on their land and it is in the best interests of everybody in the state if they make good ones.  I didn’t really comprehend how important this was until I bought the farms.   I have spent thousands of dollars and many hours of time making improvements to protect wildlife and water resources.   I am eager to do that, since I consider improving my land a long-term investment, but I need advice about what to do.   But there is no right way to do anything.  We need to learn from scientists and experts, but they also need to learn from our experience and we have to learn from each other.  These field days are part of the extension outreach done by the State of Virginia and our universities such as Virginia Tech and a great way to share practical knowledge.  

You can make improve the environment and make profit from your land at the same time, but everything is a trade off.  Wildlife tends to thrive in a less dense forest with more space between the trees and some of that ragged and messy weed patches I mentioned above.  Of course, different animals favor different environments too.  All life is trade-off. You can see the open woods at the top of this post and you can easily see how this does not maximize timber production, but most people like it better on their land and they may be able to make back some of the money with hunting leases. I lease both my farms to local hunt clubs.  They provide a local presence and take care of boundaries.  

Hunting is a virtuous circle.  What is good for wildlife habitat is usually good for the environment, so hunters have an incentive to protect the environment.   Above is a wildlife corridor Larry Walker, a member of one of one of our hunt clubs, made for me on our land.  It will provide diverse edge community AND it allows me to get down to the creek w/o bushwacking.  He cut it through a couple of weeks ago and planted the cover that you can see coming up.  The hunters on my land have been there for a long time, in some cases for generations. They make the effort to understand the land in a way that almost nobody else does.  They have to understand and provide for the needs of deer, turkey or quail.   Hunters pays for a lot of wildlife conservation.  They also control numbers.  The deer population has exploded in the last twenty years.  In places w/o enough hunting, they are destroying the forests and preventing regeneration.  Of course, we don’t have that problem with quail.

Above is part of Genito Creek that crosses our property.  Larry’s path makes it much easier for me to get down there and it is a nice place to visit. The creek meanders around, moving sand around the bed.  The water undercuts banks and brings down the trees periodically.  The creek used to be the boundary of the property, but around 1960 the whole thing moved around 100 yards in, so now both sides are on my land … for now.

I mentioned some of the reasons for quail decline.   A habitat is only as strong as its weakest link.  When they are chicks, quail need lots of bugs to eat, so they need the mix of plants that bugs like.  This included weeds like goldenrod and especially ragweed, grass not so much.   When they get older they need seeds to eat.  They also need places to breed under cover, which is why they like blueberry thickets and they need brush and trees to hide from predators.  In other words, they need a great diversity of habitat type, with a lot of it in the early stages of natural succession.  By definition, the early stages of natural succession pass quickly, so we need a fair constant cycle of disturbance and recovery.

The State of Virginia wants to bring quail numbers back up.   They have devoted $9 million over the next five years and will hire five regional biologists to study the problem and provide advice to landowners.  They have some cost share programs for landowners targeted to five Virginia counties in order to focus efforts rather than spread them out and lose benefits too thin to do any good.  Brunswick is not among the counties.  Besides, they are aimed at crop land conversions, so I cannot get my forest lands in on any of them.

But my farms do have a lot of good edge habitat, even if they are not part of the program.  The wildlife plots we established last year are doing well and the pre-commercial thinning has done a good job of establishing biological diversity.  I visited the CP farm after the wildlife field day.  As I walked down the road just before sundown, I spooked a covey of quail.  At least a half-dozen exploded out of their cover as I slowly walked by.  I took a picture of the spot and posted it above.  I can be plenty ragged and messy w/o cost share from the state, thank you. You can see that it has the goldenrod and ragweed.  It has the cover trees and the bramble blueberry and the combination of edge communities.  The edge is plenty weedy and ragged. Not bad. I should hold a field day on my farm(s).