Because it’s a sporting bird, no species has been studied more than the Northern Bobwhite. Once ubiquitous across the southeast United States, the bird’s population is in decline. But researchers say the quail is willing to repopulate when prairie habitat is re-established. In that regard, ranchers and other land managers help this bird when they adopt modern cattle grazing and grassland management practices.
This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.
This time we’re talking about the Northern Bobwhite. Because it’s a game bird, the Northern Bobwhite is one of the most intensively studied species in the world. This bird has suffered a dramatic depopulation. Some 82 percent fewer in number now, than in 1966. Jon Hayes of Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture, at La Grange Texas, is one of those who’s concerned about the future for the bird.
“They’re absolutely an iconic bird of the southeast and there are entire economies in certain areas, in certain times of the year, were built around quail hunters. That’s why there’s been such a concern over seeing those population declines.”
Hayes says the bird’s numbers are dwindling because the quail is sensitive to numerous threats.
“Folks joke around that quail are just running around looking for a place to die, because so many things eat them. They can have so many different conditions, both biotic and abiotic, out there that cause increased mortality. Whether it’s predators, fire ants, loss of habitat, increased pesticide/herbicide use… there’s all sorts of different compounding factors that likely have some impact on those populations. But overwhelmingly what we see is that populations of those birds, in any given area, are tied directly to the availability of habitat out there.”
What is its habitat? Northern Bobwhites live in overgrown fields, open pine forests, shrubby areas and grasslands. Researchers used to believe Northern Bobwhites were monogamous. Turns out males and females can take multiple mates in a breeding season, produce two or three broods a year, and raise up to 25 chicks. Jon Hayes says habitat is the biggest factor in reproduction rates.
“That means that when the habitat is not there, when we diminish their ability to produce those young, we can have a real significant impact. But the positive is, when we put that habitat out there… if we build it, they often come. They have the ability to go from very low numbers, in just a couple seasons of good growing conditions and good habitat, to really respond and have populations bloom again.”
And that’s a very gratifying thing to see.
“We always try to let landowner know that there is a silver lining out there. The same things that make this bird a challenging bird to work with are the things that make it also have a lot of opportunity for restoration.”
That landowner component is important. In the western Great Plains, more than 95 percent of the land is privately owned, and about 85 percent is agricultural land. Arvind Panjabi, of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, says it’s the people — the landowners and managers who control that private land — who often are able to have the greatest impact on grassland birds by their attention to habitat.
“We all have a different role to play in that solution. It is definitely something that we can have an impact on if we work together. We’re thankful for the many partners that we have out there on the landscape who are doing good things for birds — and who want to do good things for birds.”
Hayes reminds us — as is so often the case across bird species in their habitat needs — it’s about good land management for cattle on grass. “So, we see people destocking and recognizing that what’s good for the cow is often what’s good for the land and what’s good for the critters out there. I think we’ve seen quite a bit of that as well.”
Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains is made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures. Our thanks to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, in Ithaca New York, for the featured bird songs.
Original broadcast: June 2015