Bringing Back the Bobwhite
The trademark mating whistle of “bob-bob-white” was once commonly heard across 38 states — from Nebraska to Texas, Pennsylvania to Florida, and the states in-between. Today, almost an entire generation of Americans has grown up without hearing the call. What happened to the bobwhites?
The rise and fall of Northern bobwhite quail can be summed up with one word: habitat.
The bobwhite is a creature of grasslands, savannahs, and early successional forests. “Conventional quail wisdom says that bobwhite populations really peaked with the onset of the settlers,” says Elsa Gallagher, a biologist and Missouri statewide quail coordinator for Quail Forever. “Quail were a by-product of land use practices.”
Bobwhite numbers were at their height during the mid-1800s in northern states and from the late 1800s through the 1940s in the southeast. During that time, Americans were homesteading — creating small farms and managing them for multiple uses, including crops, grazing, gardens, and fallow fields, Gallagher explains.
However, as the country shifted toward a more industrial agriculture system — larger farms, more machines, fewer hedgerows and cover crops — bobwhite numbers plummeted and have continued to decline. Wildlife managers were concerned about bobwhite numbers as far back as the early 1900s.
Over the past 25 years, bobwhite populations have dropped 60 to 90 percent across the country. In addition to the disappearance of small farms, says Gallagher, chemical control of insects, over-grazing, fire control, forestry trends, and monocultures of non-native grasses have all played a significant role in the quail decline.
Introduction of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) through the Farm Bill fostered a brief resurgence in quail populations in the early 1980s. “Fields came out of crop production and were allowed to remain fallow, then planted to a grass/forb mix,” Gallagher recounts. “They were weedy the first three to four years, with adequate bare ground, and quail rebounded at that point. After year four or five, however, many CRP fields became too thick for quail and provided little usable space.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that from 1980 to 1999, bobwhite populations declined from an estimated 59 million birds to about 20 million birds.
Quail are not the only species affected by loss of grassland and early successional forest habitats. From the Northern Harrier to the Eastern Cottontail, many species rely on the same habitats as bobwhite quail — and are declining just as widely.
Reversing bobwhite declines depends in large part on restoring habitat, and several organizations are working to do just that. The goal is to restore the quail to 1980s population numbers by better managing public and private lands for wildlife habitat....