by Wally Northway
Wayne Ranson grew up in the Mississippi Delta with a passion for the outdoors. Quail hunting ranked among his favorite pastimes, and he once raised and trained pointers and could literally quail hunt from his home if he wanted.
But, that is just all a warm memory now.
“They’re almost all gone,” said Ranson, a retired timber executive, referring to the northern bobwhite quail. “It is sad — very sad.”
Once a staple of Mississippi’s countryside, the birds’ onomatopoetic “bob-bob-WHITE” call is relatively rare today as the quail’s numbers have plummeted here in the Magnolia State and elsewhere in the U.S. Researchers have numerous identified factors for the decline in quail coveys, the most significant being habitat loss.
John Woods, vice president in charge of economic development and training at Hinds Community College’s Eagle Ridge Conference Center, is an avid outdoorsman, frequent wildlife columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal and is well plugged into the state’s hunting industry. When it comes to quail, however, Woods has no answers.
“If somebody asked me right now where they could go next season for some good quail hunting, I’d have to call around to the WMAs (wildlife management areas) because I have not a clue,” Woods said. He said a couple of decades ago, he owned some land in Holmes County that had a couple of covey of quail on it, but he hasn’t seen a bird in years.
The northern bobwhite is Mississippi’s only native quail species. It is a non-migratory, ground-dwelling bird whose range stretches from the Caribbean and Mexico north to the Great Lakes, and from the Eastern Seaboard as far west as New Mexico and Colorado with a small pocket in the Pacific Northwest.
The bobwhite, a bird of open, weedy fields, actually benefitted from early American settlers’ cultivation of the land. They have long been a favorite of hunters, offering a challenging target as they erupt with a whir of wings from ground cover as well as providing a tasty dish.
But, their numbers began dropping in the 1800s, with a drastic decline beginning in the South in the mid-1940s. While such factors as hard winters can threaten bobwhite numbers, the principal challenge to the birds is habitat loss.
As land-use practices changed, the northern bobwhite went into serious decline. According to the conservation-mined organization Quail Forever, bobwhite numbers have plummeted 65 percent over the past 20 years alone. The Cornell University Lab of Ornithology has them listed as “near threatened.”
However, while the northern bobwhite population has thinned drastically, they are not extinct, and there is some good news.
In 1995, the Southeast Quail Study Group (now the National Bobwhite Technical Committee) was formed, and was charged with developing a recovery plan. This, in turn, led in 1998 to the establishment of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, which set the ambitious goal of returning the northern bobwhite population to what it was in the 1980s.
Research has shown that techniques such as the use of prescribed fires help create the grassland/weedy habitat bobwhites need to thrive, and through the efforts of wildlife agencies and others landowners have received information and support in adopting new land usage practices.
There is some optimism, including here in Mississippi, that these efforts are paying off.
According to figures from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP), the number of calling birds identified has risen across the state since 2009. The number of birds heard in South Mississippi more than tripled from 2009 to 2012 while nearly doubling in North Mississippi over the same time frame. The number of birds has increased every year in all three regions since 2009 with the exception of dip in numbers in Central Mississippi in 2011.
While hunting opportunities are limited, there are still places such as the Burnt Oak Lodge at Crawford that loudly and proudly claims to hold wild bobwhites.
Woods pointed out that the wild turkey was once threatened, and has rebounded in a big way here in Mississippi, and hunters are returning to the Delta for ducks, an industry that once flourish but has been declining over recent years. Why not quail, too, he asks, though he concedes it will take time.
“It won’t happen in my lifetime, but I am hopeful,” said Woods, adding that he recently heard his first bobwhite call in years. “It would just be a shame if we lost our quail.”
The MDWFP’s website offers information on bobwhite numbers, conservation/land use practices, hunting (Mississippi had an eight-bird bag limit last year) and more, including a Small Game Hunter Survey that researchers say is a valuable tool for quail management. For more information please visit home.mdwfp.com/quail, or call (601) 432-2199.
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