Bobwhite Quail and Prairie Restoration

In many parts of the arid and semi-arid Southwest and Pacific coast, California Quail (and other closely related species) are ubiquitous wild ground birds.  They’re a larder for many predators and food security at the margins for people.  And Bobwhite Quail were very common historically in the (previously) patchier and more prairie- and savanna- oriented landscapes of the East Coast and the Midwest.  But not anymore:

The mating call of the bobwhite quail provides the bird its name, a ringing three-count whistle: bob-bob-white. It is a sound many baby boomers have heard while growing up and one their children might have heard. But it is one their grandchildren may never hear. In many parts of their range — from New England to the Dakotas to Texas — bobwhites have disappeared and the sport of quail hunting has fallen on hard times. […] Bobwhite quail are one of the most studied wildlife species in the United States, yet conservationists have yet to halt the declining populations….

“One of the difficult parts of quail restoration is we have to restore suitable habitat at a landscape scale,” McKenzie said. “When you compare that with deer and turkey restoration, the habitat was already suitable. It was a matter of catching remaining wild animals in places where they were and moving them to places where they weren’t and protecting them until they took care of themselves. It’s still a challenge, but nothing compared to what we face now with bobwhites.”

The reason restoring bobwhite quail is so difficult is because it involves changing the nation’s manipulated rural landscape. According to McKenzie, exotic fescue, Bahia grass and Bermuda grass took hold across the United States in the 1940s. These carpetlike grasses were planted to promote better cattle grazing and edged out the native warm-season grasses that are conducive to good quail habitat. The native grasses grow in clumps, which allow the quail to hide, move and forage and are essential to their survival.

To reiterate: bobwhite quail are essentially a bunchgrass-obligate species.  And if prairie and savanna environments are rare these days in the East (see here and here), then bunchgrass ecosystems are close to non-existent.  Oops!  Another revenge effect of the scale, rate, and intensity of land use changes over the past 200 years.

To me that’s both sad and exciting.  Sad, because of the loss.  Exciting, because there’s so much potential for not just restoration, but for creating poly-productive landscapes with a level of diversity and abundance beyond what most of us have ever seen in our lives.  Within that bigger picture of “pro-storation,” the bobwhite quail might be an indicator species of how well we’re doing for certain environment types.  As in, when our recombinant prairies and savannas can support reproductive quail populations, we’ll know we’re getting somewhere.  Sounds like a good goal at the horizon!

Along the same lines, a colleague just alerted me to this super-cool handbook on silvopasture in the Northeast, available for free download from Cornell Cooperative Extension.  Scroll down to “Silvopasturing in the Northeast” under “Publications.”   It’s short, readable, and quite comprehensive – check it out if you’re considering pasturing animals in the woods or growing tree crops in pasture land.

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3 Responses to Bobwhite Quail and Prairie Restoration

  1. Benneth Phelps says:

    Quail and bunch grass, excellent article Connor. I read the entire silvopasture doc as well, pretty interesting!

    • Benneth Phelps says:

      So, can any farm animal species enjoy bunchgrass as well, or are other grasses better for them?

      • grousedrum says:

        That’s a GREAT question, Benneth. In California, the bunchgrass prairies evolved with elk as the primary grazer, and the introduction of cattle has been a big factor in their disappearance (grazing too heavily on the plants themselves and too much erosion from the weight of the animals). On the other hand, in other parts of the West cattle have been used to help restore bunchgrass ecosystems through rotational grazing / holistic management, so I suspect it’s a stocking density and rest period issue rather than an intrinsic incompatibility. I suspect goats and sheep would do well in a bunchgrass environment and have a lower impact on the grass than cattle, but you’d need to monitor their impact on the woody plants pretty closely. So I think with any species you’re either rotating intensively, or it’s a very low stocking density in a big landscape.

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