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Return Of Alabama’s Bobwhites
Plans and programs are currently in place on some state WMAs to boost the population of wild quail.
By John Phillips
Originally published in the November 2017 issue of AON
A sky full of speckled birds and a dog locked up in a rigid point is the dream Alabama quail hunters hope to experience more of on public hunting lands.
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A liver and white pointer with his tail erect and his nose pointing straight out in front of him appears to be attached to the ground like a marble statue in a park. As we approach, there’s a rustle of wings, and speckled birds leap, fly and scatter for cover in all directions. This dream of quail hunting may be from yesteryear, or it may be a vision of the future that Alabama quail hunters hope will come true. Today, Alabama and other southern states are implementing programs and projects to restore habitat for quail and quail hunters in the South.


Alabama’s Quail Initiative

Mark Sasser, the quail project coordinator for ADCNR, has been involved with quail management and quail habitat restoration for about 20 years.

“One of the most recent projects that the Alabama DCNR and the U.S. Forest Service has participated in is with the Conecuh Chapter of Quail Forever to establish a new wildlife management area known as Boggy Hollow WMA in the Conecuh National Forest,” said Mark.  

To learn more about Boggy Hollow, AON talked with Bill Gray, supervising wildlife biologist for WFF’s District IV.

“We’ve carved out 7,000 acres in Covington County that’s been named the Boggy Hollow WMA and is designated as a quail emphasis area,” Bill said. “It’s also a small-game hunting area. Boggy Hollow is a part of what’s a larger region-wide effort to bring back the bobwhite quail in many southern states. The Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (www.acjv.org/documents/Northern_Bobwhite_Plan.pdf) is the plan that’s charged with the responsibility of working with governmental agencies and conservation organizations to bring this program to fruition.”

Quail were abundant throughout the South years ago, but the habitat conditions that they and other small game and nongame species thrived in drastically changed in recent years.

“What we hope to do is to help incentivize private landowners and work with governmental agencies to try and restore and/or modify habitat to help increase quail numbers—not only in Alabama, but throughout the quail’s native home range,” said Bill.

 The New Boggy Hollow WMA

Many people believe that all the state has to do is purchase or raise large numbers of quail in pens and release those birds back into the wild.

“Restocking pen-raised quail into the wild is not the answer, since most of them will die within the first month of their release,” said Bill. 

These 7,000 acres home prime habitat for quail. They’re in a longleaf pine ecosystem that produces plenty of pine needles that will help carry the fires needed to improve quail habitat and provide a more open habitat under the trees for the quail. Quail are ground feeders, eating seeds, young plants and insects found in new growth areas. In years past, when not as many fire departments and first responders were available to fight wildfires, and controlled burning was used as a management tool for both farmers and ranchers, quail flourished. Lightning strikes naturally created fire in Alabama woodlands, reducing the litter, bushes and shrubs and prompting new growth and greater availability of seeds and insects for the quail.

“We’re requesting that the U.S. Forest Service make controlled burns more frequently than in the past on much smaller blocks of timber on the Boggy Hollow WMA,” said Bill.

DCNR will also begin a regime to reduce the amount of invasive species of plants to encourage native grasses to regenerate faster.

“We’ll be planting some partridge peas and other types of grains and grasses to provide more food for quail,” said Bill. “But the biggest factor that we know will help restore wild quail to Boggy Hollow WMA will be changing the fire regimes from large area burns to small area burns. A conservative figure is one covey of quail living on every 40 acres of this WMA. Potentially, we may have more than one covey of quail per 40 acres. 

“Quail hunting on Boggy Hollow WMA only will be open two days a week, and the bag limit per person will be reduced from six birds per person per day, the statewide limit, to four birds per person per day. Another advantage that quail hunters will have is that during the two days per week when quail hunting is permitted, no other type of hunting will be allowed in the area.”

Quail Hunter Numbers

A question many hunters have wondered is how many quail hunters still pursue hunting wild birds.

“On other WMAs where we’re beginning to see an increased number of quail, we’re also experiencing an increased number of quail hunters and bird dogs,” said Bill.

Quail hunters will go where they have a reasonable opportunity of finding several coveys of quail. Much like the movie, “Field of Dreams,” where a farmer built a baseball field in what was a cornfield with the belief, “If you build it, people will come,” DCNR has seen evidence that if they build quail numbers on selected WMAs throughout the state, the quail hunters and their dogs will show up.

“If there are areas where quail hunters can turn loose their bird dogs and have a reasonable expectation of finding several coveys per day, we know there’s a large population of hunters who will love to hunt wild quail,” said Bill.

Improving Habitat On WMAs

Other state WMAs are improving habitat for quail. We spoke with Judd Easterwood, the supervising biologist for WFF’s District 1, which includes many of the northwestern counties in the state.

“We’re focusing on field-border projects to create early succession grasses and forbs that are beneficial to all small game but primarily quail in 14 northwestern counties,” said Judd. “Some of the WMAs in our district have large agricultural fields. Farmers actually come into the WMAs and plant crops like corn, soybeans, wheat and grain sorghum. When the crop matures, the farmer can harvest three-quarters of the crop. They leave one-quarter of the crop standing in the field for wildlife as payment for using the land. These crops also provide cover for wildlife.”

Judd said that Seven Mile Island WMA is implementing the field-border project program. Swan Creek WMA and Mallard Fox WMA home the majority of crop fields. These WMAs are primarily waterfowl and small-game WMAs.

“We’ve tried to implement the field-border project program for the last two years, and we’ve had some glitches,” Judd said. “We haven’t been able to effectively determine the value of the program for quail at this point. 

“We’ve also instituted an aggressive prescribed fire program on Freedom Hills and Lauderdale WMAs and burn as often as possible at Swan Creek and Mallard Fox WMAs. We’re trying to create a patchwork of specific burns where possible on these WMAs to have new, young plant growth beginning to sprout throughout the WMAs. This type of burning regime is extremely beneficial for quail.

“I believe that Freedom Hills WMA definitely has seen an increase in quail populations due to this new burning program being implemented. We believe that our field-border strips and agricultural practices on the waterfowl and small-game areas definitely will benefit quail populations.” 

Judd also mentioned that state WMAs, where appropriate, are doing all they can to increase quail habitat and quail numbers.

“If we could get some of the private landowners to start implementing some of these programs, I believe the quail restoration initiative would grow much quicker,” said Judd.  

Growing Wild Quail Numbers

“In the last three years, we’ve started doing quail surveys on several WMAs to try and determine the number of wild quail on these areas,” said Mark Sasser. “We are especially surveying the WMAs that have some quail habitat. We’ve seen positive quail response where we’re doing forest restoration with longleaf and shortleaf pines at Barbour County and Freedom Hills WMAs. We feel like we’ve seen some positive quail response on some of the north Alabama waterfowl and small-game areas where we have contract farming. Leaving the field edges fallow to increase habitat for quail has been positive, too. We’re trying to leave 50-foot buffers around all the WMAs’ fields to allow native grasses and forbs to provide more habitat for quail.

“The Dutch Bend Tract of Lowndes County WMA, with about 500 acres of agriculture, is planted in soybeans. We’re leaving the field edges on those crop fields to grow up to provide food and brood habitat for quail.” 

DCNR is making a concerted effort to plant more longleaf pines on WMAs, because a longleaf pine forest along with a burning regime can produce much more food and habitat for quail.

“One of the advantages of replanting historic longleaf pines on the WMAs that the DCNR owns is that we can start a burning regime much earlier after planting than we can if we plant that same area with loblolly pines,” said Mark. “The longleaf pine also allows much more sunlight to hit the ground than a loblolly pine planting does and increases the plant composition needed for quail habitat.”   

More On Restocking Quail

“You can’t restock wild quail with pen-raised quail,” said Mark. “Pen-raised quail will reproduce, but they’re terrible parents. All the research we have that Tall Timbers Research Station (a nonprofit nongovernmental agency with a mission to learn more about prescribed burning and increasing quail and quail habitat) has produced in the last 20 years relating to bobwhite quail tends to indicate that the only way to restock quail populations is by translocating (catching, transporting and releasing) wild quail from a well-established wild quail population into an area that needs to be restocked and releasing those wild quail.” 

Wild quail have certain instincts and habits for survival and brood rearing that pen-raised quail don’t have. When Alabama restocked deer and turkeys throughout the state, wild turkeys and deer that were born and raised in the wild were used.

“Tall Timbers Research Station has several projects underway right now that have reintroduced wild quail for restocking,” Mark said. “One of the places where this research is being conducted is in Alabama. The hope is to have two more wild quail restocking programs in the next two years. These quail were captured from some large plantations in south Georgia that had extremely high wild quail densities and were willing to donate some of their wild quail stock for reintroduction into areas where wild quail are almost nonexistent.”

This form of restocking is a very complicated process.

“The DCNR in the state where these wild quail are restocked has to permit quail from one state to be used for restocking in another state,” said Mark. “We also must have a willing landowner, who will work with the research station and his local DCNR for this type of restocking to happen. Currently, one of the requirements for translocating wild quail from one state and introducing those birds into another location, possibly in another state, is that the landowner must have at least 2,000 acres with prime quail habitat to even be considered for one of these test projects. Without owning or being able to control at least 2,000 acres, a landowner can’t sustain a wild quail population.”

To learn more about the translocation research being done by Tall Timbers Research Station, go to www.talltimbers.org. Click on the game bird section of the website to find more information about quail translocation projects currently being conducted and a tremendous amount of information about managing land for quail.

Alabama’s Future

“Over the entire landscape of Alabama, the future for quail and quail hunting doesn’t appear to be very good, because quail management is expensive, instead of being a by-product of small patch farming and timber practices like it once was,” said Mark. “Many of the old agricultural fields where the quail once were found are now pastures for cattle. But there are some pockets of private lands where the landowner is beginning to manage the land for quail. The DCNR is attempting to increase quail numbers and quail habitat on some of our WMAs. Over time, our hope is that more landowners will start managing their properties to benefit quail and other wildlife.”

Actually a ray of hope for more quail and better quail management is the increased emphasis by state hunters on deer hunting and turkey hunting.

“If landowners are improving their properties for deer and turkey hunting, they’re also improving their properties for quail habitat,” said Mark. “In recent years, more landowners are seeing that healthy, huntable populations of deer and turkeys represent a cash crop for them. So, the state has more green fields and open areas in Alabama forests than ever before—habitat that quail need to increase their numbers, too.”

The price of fur dropping tremendously over the last 20 to 30 years has meant a large increase of predators on ground-nesting birds like quail and turkeys. Some hunting clubs have hired professional trappers to remove these predators.

“Coons and possums are two of the major nest predators that are causing populations of quail to decrease statewide, and these same two predators also have a negative impact on turkey populations,” said Mark.

Outdoorsmen have learned so much over the last 20 years about what’s causing the decline of quail throughout the South. We’re also learning more about how to restore quail habitat and quail populations. To sum up what needs to be done to bring the bobwhite quail back to historic numbers in Alabama, education is the most important. The more we all learn about quail, quail habitat and the practices to increase the number of bobwhites on the Alabama landscape, then the sooner the dream of a sky full of speckled birds will be realized by Alabama quail hunters.
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