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Declining Quail Populations



After reading Gary Lockee’s article “It’s About a Quailing Addict,” I was inspired to investigate what has happened to Quail populations. We have published articles on Quail in past issues of the Field Trial Review and it was time to update information on Mr. Bob White.

First, checking scholarly articles on the bird, here are results.


An article published from the 2000 National Quail Symposium Proceedings by Guthery et al. addresses “Potential Effects of Global Warming on Quail Populations.” Abstract: Populations of scaled quail (Callipepla squamata) and northern bobwhites (Colinus virginianus) have declined in North America coincident with global warming. We speculate on a cause-effect relation between global warming and quail declines. Quail are sensitive to operative temperatures >38.7 C, which commonly occur under natural conditions in southern latitudes. Based on empirical results, the laying season for quail may be reduced by as much as 60 days because of high temperatures. We provide mechanistic models that show how reduction in length of the laying season suppresses per-capita annual production. Global warming could be associated with declining quail populations through suppression of reproduction; it also could exacerbate the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation. These possibilities should be explored in field and laboratory research.”

Leonard A. Brennan looked at “Broad-Scale Population Declines in Four Species of North American Quail: An Examination of Possible causes.” Abstract: “Christmas Bird Count data from 1960-1989 indicate that California quail (Callipepla californica), northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), and scaled quail (Callipepla squamata) populations have experienced significant declines in major portions of their geographic ranges. Additionally, surveys and hunter bag returns during the past 50 years indicate that maintain quail (Oreotyx pictus) populatiols have experienced a series of local extinctions across broad areas (several thousand km2) in Idaho and Nevada. Although changing land uses can be related to these declines, no single factor can be linked to all species. For northern bobwhites, clean farming methods in agricultural environments and intensive, high-density pine-dominated silviculture seem to be the two major reasons for broad-scale population declines, especially in the southeastern states.”


From the National Quail Symposium Proceedings in 1993, Church et al. looked at “Population Trends of Quails in North America.” Abstract: We used North American Breeding Bird Survey data (1966-91) to estimate distribution, relative abundance, and population trends of quails. Population trends in grassland/shrub birds sympatric with northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) were also examined. Northern bobwhite and scaled quail (Callipepl,a squamata) populations have declined since 1966. Rates of decline for these quails have increased during the past decade. California quail (C. califomica), Gambel's quail (C. gambelii), and mountain quail (Oreortyx pictus) populations have been stable over the long-term (1966-91). However, the short-term (1982-91) trend for California quail is positive, whereas Gambel's quail appear to be declining. Patterns in trends indicate similar factors may be negatively affecting breeding populations of grassland/shrub birds throughout the bobwhite's range. We discuss plausible hypotheses to explain population trends and recommend future action.”


Rollins and Carroll looked at “Impacts of Predation on Northern Bobwhite and Scaled Quail,” published in 2001. Abstract: “Northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) and scaled quail (Callipepla squamata) populations have declined throughout most of their distribution, and these declines have become more dramatic in recent years. In this review, we examine the role of predation in quail management. Predation is the major source of nest loss and of mortality for young and adult quail. Mean nest success across studies reviewed was 28%. Estimates of annual survival rates have varied from 5 to 26% for radiotelemetry studies and from 15 to 30% based on age-ratio studies. Breeding season survival estimates ranged from 13 to 51% in telemetry studies reviewed. Brood survival is the least studied aspect of quail survival; estimates ranged from 13 to 47%. Mammalian predators most often implicated in nest predation include striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis), raccoons (Procyon lotor), opossums (Didelphis virginianus), foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus and Vulpes vulpes), coyotes (Canis latrans), and feral hogs (Sus scrofa). Accipiters (Accipiter spp.) and northern harriers (Circus cyaneus) are the most common avian predators of quail. Less information is available to assess impact of predation on scaled quail, but observations from areas where bobwhites and scaled quail are sympatric suggested that scaled quail are less vulnerable to predation than bobwhites. Although quail have adapted to cope with high predation rates (e.g., renesting, large clutches), populations in some areas may be suppressed by predation. Changes in land use, management practices, and predator communities interact to depress quail populations over much of the bobwhite's range. Additional studies are needed to assess the role of predation and predation management in light of these landscape-level changes. A variation of the Integrated Pest Management philosophy used in crop production is proposed as an appropriate model to address predation management for quail.”


Roy Roberson asked “Where have all the quail gone?” in a 2008 article in FarmProgress. He describes a typical scenario across the South: “The adrenalin rush of walking up behind two bird dogs frozen on point, expecting the explosion of 12-15 quail is right up there with hitting the game winning home run or kicking the last second field goal to win the game as the clock expires.

“Unfortunately, it's an adrenalin rush and a way of life that children of the new millennium will likely never know. Why? The quail population in the South has simply vanished. Every wildlife biologist has a theory, but the quail are still gone and the best efforts of a lot of these same biologists have made little or no headway in bringing them back.”


He cites “five major culprits that most wildlife biologists point to as reasons for the dramatic drop in quail populations: Loss of quail habitat, intensified farming and forestry practices, succession of grassland ecosystems to forests, overwhelming presence of exotic grasses like fescue that choke out wildlife, and urban sprawl. If you add in fire ants, increased degradation from coyotes, and changes in agricultural chemical use, none of the reasons make a plausible excuse for the near genocide of the popular game species.”


Ames Plantation’s Allan Houston and Jill Easton published in December 2021 in Gamekeepers: Farming for Wildlife Magazine, reprinted in Mossy Oak, an article “The Decline of Bobwhite Quail Populations During the 20th Century.” Houston traces “what we’ve done since 1950” to eradicate the quail population. “To make it simple, quail need food, nesting cover, brood feeding habitat, loafing cover and escape cover. Limit any of the these and manipulate a few other factors such as predator numbers, then marginal habitat becomes no habitat, good habitat becomes marginal, and even the best habitat becomes limited.” First, changing the landscape from largely rural to urban, suburban, and ex-suburban destroys quail habitat. As generations are removed from the farm they are more removed from learning how ecosystems work, thus human perspectives change in regards to wildlife. As agriculture becomes big business, more land changes take place and quail habitats along fence rows are destroyed. Then native grasses were replaced with fescue and other “exotic” grasses. Remove controlled burns that refresh, cleanse, and maintain native grasslands and “drive a final nail into the native grass coffin.” Then introduce even more exotics, like Kudzu. Improved herbicides used in agriculture turn the landscape into a “no-quail zone,” land that is “too sparse with overhead cover, a place that is a ‘shooting gallery’ for predators. Without wooly, weedy, uncultured places, the chicks would not have the type of habitat that produces high volumes of insects, something that they absolutely must have during the first six weeks of life.” Then coyotes expand their range because the alpha predators have been erased. “Finally, we can invent pen-raised quail release operations where folks believe that turning semi-tame quail loose in habitats that could not support the street-wise, wild birds as being a cure-all.” If we want to once again hear the “clever little, two-note song” of the bobwhite quail, “somehow we must reverse-engineer the past 60 years for the quail’s sake.”


The American Bird Conservancy’s (ABC) profile of the Northern Bobwhite finds that “populations plunged between 1966 and 2014, resulting in an overall decline of 85 percent… Habitat loss and the increased use of pesticides are thought to be the culprits behind this steep decline…” The ABC’s Pesticide program works “to eliminate toxic chemicals, particularly neonicotinoids, the most-used pesticides on Earth. ‘Neonics’ contribute to die-offs of honeybees and are so deadly to birds that a single neonic-coated seed can kill a songbird. Birds that frequent agricultural fields are particularly at risk.”


Conservation and Restoration Efforts

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency implemented a strategic plan in 2017 to restore Bobwhite quail to the state’s landscape. TWRA designated four wildlife management areas to serve as anchors within a quail focus area. Wolf River WMA in Fayette Co., Bark Camp Barrens WMA in Coffee Co., Bridgestone/Firestone Centennial Wilderness WMA in White Co. and Lick Creek Bottoms in Greene Co., will act as permanent reserves for quail. The anchor areas will act as permanent reserves where TWRA says wildlife management efforts will focus on maximizing ideal habitat and conditions “to foster a healthy and prolific quail population.” You can read the full plan here: https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/twra/documents/birds/northern_bobwhite_plan.pdf

Mississippi also hopes to aid in the recovery of bobwhite quail through habitat improvement through MDWFP’s Small Game and Habitat programs. Godwin and Hamrick described those efforts in a 2011 article in Mississippi Outdoors. They noted that “bobwhites have been declining since at least 1966 across most of the range of the bird.


“In 1998, the directors of the Southeastern states’ fish and wildlife agencies charged the Southeast Quail Study Group (SEQSG) to develop a regional recovery plan for bobwhites. The end result was the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI), a recovery plan for ‘Northern Bobwhites’ (the proper common name for bobwhite quail) across 22 southeastern states.


“Today, the NBCI office is housed at the University of Tennessee and is a collaboration of state, federal, and private organizations and agencies that continues to be the focal point of bobwhite recovery efforts nationwide. For more information, please visit www.bringbackbobwhites.org.”

MDWFP has emphasized quail habitat on some of its public Wildlife Management Areas. “Both private and public land managers have documented increases in populations in areas where sound management results in habitat that successfully provides the life requirements of bobwhites. One of the more encouraging results has been the ability of the ‘Bobwhite Buffers’ practice to produce countable increases in quail just by adding suitable cover along the borders of working Mississippi crop fields. Cost-share opportunities available make this practice a win-win for farmers and for wildlife.” For more information on bobwhite quail management and conservation in Mississippi, visit the MDWFP agency quail page at home.mdwfp.com/quail or call (601) 432-2199.


Sources:

Guthery, Fred S.; Forrester, N. David; Nolte, Kenneth R.; Cohen, Will E.; and Kuvlesky, William P. Jr. (2000) “Potential Effects of Global Warming on Quail Populations,” National Quail Symposium Proceedings: Vol. 4 , Article 48. https://trace.tennessee.edu/nqsp/vol4/iss1/48

Brennan, Leonard A. (1993) “Broad-Scale Population Declines in Four Species of North American Quail: An Examination of Possible causes.” in Sustainable Ecological Systems: Implementing an Ecological Approach to Land Management (1994) by W. Wallace Covington, Northern Arizona University, and Leonard F. DeBano, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. [This book compiled information from sessions at the Sustainable Ecological Systems conference in Flagstaff, Arizona, July 12-15, 1993.]

Church, Kevin E.; Sauer, John R.; and Droege, Sam (1993) “Population Trends of Quails in North America,” National Quail Symposium Proceedings: Vol. 3, Article 6. https://trace.tennessee.edu/nqsp/vol3/iss1/6

Rollins, Dale; John P. Carroll (2001) “Impacts of predation on northern bobwhite and scaled quail,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 2001, 29(1): 39-51.

Roberson, Roy (2008) “Where have all the quail gone?” Farm Progress. March 5. www.farmprogress.com/where-have-all-quail-gone

Houston, Allan; Jill Easton. (2021) “The Decline of Bobwhite Quail Populations During the 20th Century,” GameKeepers: Farming for Wildlife Magazine. Dec. 16.

www.mossyoak.com/our-obsession/blogs/small-game/the-decline-of-bobwhite-quail-populations-during-the-20th-century

American Bird Conservancy, “Northern Bobwhite” (2017). https://abcbirds.org/bird/northern-bobwhite/

Hodge, Bob (2014) “TWRA begins plan to restore quail population. Knox News. Oct. 11.

Godwin, Dave; Rick Hamrick (2011) Bobwhite Quail Conservation: An Update on Efforts to Help this Important Gamebird. Mississippi Outdoors (Sept.- Oct). https://www.mdwfp.com/media/3953/bobwhite_quail_conservation.pdf



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