Northern bobwhites and other quail once flourished across much of the North American landscape. Their whistled calls echoed in diverse cover ranging from rolling grasslands to brushy draws and Southern forests. Coveys of these diminutive, hard-flying upland gamebirds once drew legions of hunters into the field. At their peak, quail provided world-class shotgunning opportunities enjoyed by millions of sportsmen.
Unfortunately, habitat loss and other factors such as the increased use of agricultural pesticides led to huge declines in quail numbers. Bobwhite populations, for example, plunged 85 percent nationwide between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, with declines topping 90 percent in some regions.
Fortunately, quail respond quickly to habitat improvements—particularly when coupled with favorable weather. Thanks to projects supported by groups like Federal Ammunition conservation partner Quail Forever, these downward spirals are reversing as quail numbers are again on the upswing.
“In many states, 2016 marked a turning point for quail, with bobwhite numbers increasing incrementally due to favorable weather patterns and their effects on habitat,” says Quail Forever public relations manager Jared Wiklund. “Several states, including Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Iowa, witnessed the highest quail populations since the late 1980s.”
The boom triggered a surge in harvest figures in some states. Kansas hunters bagged around 520,000 quail in 2016—up from 2015. “Hunter success was relatively high, though hunter numbers remain below average,” says Jeff Prendergast, small game specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
“In recent years north-central, south-central and southwest Kansas have generally had the best quail indices,” Prendergast continues. “However, all regions are currently above their long-term average according to our spring whistle survey.”
The news is similar in Texas. “Last year was one of the best bobwhite years ever recorded,” says Robert Perez, upland gamebird program leader with Texas Parks and Wildlife. “There were quail everywhere, especially on the rolling plains. Hunters had a heyday.”
Scorching summer heat and drought can devastate Lone Star quail, but Perez reports the weather so far has been easy on the flock. “There are still a lot of birds out there,” he reports. “Some places got rain and some didn’t. That will have an effect. But there were excellent populations to start with coming out of winter and into spring, so it promises to be another great year for bobwhites in Texas.”
The prognosis is likewise bright in Iowa. “Last year, our quail roadside counts were the highest since 1989,” says Todd Bogenschutz, upland game biologist/Farm Bill coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “I think we could see them go up this year, depending on the hatch. I never thought I’d see that.”
Bogenschutz credits a mild winter for boosting quail numbers heading into breeding season. “Snowfall was normal or below normal for most of the state,” he says. “That was good for quail survival. We are somewhat on the northern edge of bobwhite range, but with the mild winters we have been having, quail are doing fine in Iowa. Overall, we came into nesting season in good shape, with decent numbers of birds on the ground.”
Hunters pursuing other types of quail elsewhere in the country have reason for optimism as well. For example, Arizona hunters enjoyed an above-average season for Mearns or Montezuma quail in 2016, and weather conditions since the hunt ended have been favorable for survival.
“We didn’t have any events last winter that would produce mortality, and Mearns have thus far been receiving summer moisture,” says Wade Zarlingo, small game program manager with the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.
And, while the state’s Gambel’s quail yielded a below-average harvest in 2016, Zarlingo notes that this year’s call counts were 25 percent above the long-term average.
“That’s good news,” he says. “Weather has so far been conducive to good nesting. We’ve had lots of reports of large broods in urban areas, specifically the Phoenix area and around Tucson.”
Sustaining The Rally
Keeping quail on the comeback trail is no easy matter. Weather is fickle, and can cause bird numbers to fluctuate on an annual basis.
Habitat, on the other hand, drives long-term trends. Prime habitat can soften the impact of poor weather conditions and help quail make the most of fair weather. On the flip side, marginal habitat magnifies the ill-effects of hard winters, cold spring rains, and summertime drought.
“The amount of quality habitat available throughout the season really determines long-term populations,” says Wiklund. “Even though 2016 was a boom year for quail, the loss of quality habitat still continues to be a major issue in many states.
“Although favorable weather can help quail in the near-term, great habitat projects and a well-thought-out strategy to restore native quail species is what’s needed to make a difference for this iconic bird,” he adds. “Through the partnerships forged by Quail Forever, the hunting and conservation community is making huge strides to restore quail populations, along with a lost generation of upland hunters.”
With a decade of land stewardship under its belt, Quail Forever is the country’s largest organization dedicated to the conservation of quail.
“Stemming from the same branch as its affiliate organization Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever performs in the same manner,” Wiklund says. “Local chapters are operated by volunteers, who maintain 100 percent control of funds they raise. This unique chapter model is the driving force behind the successes of more than 15,000 members nationwide. Through the efforts of 166 chapters in 30 states, volunteers have raised and spent more than $5.1 million on conservation projects to support the quail comeback since 2005.”
The amount of habitat affected is impressive. To date, Quail Forever volunteers have impacted 636,153 acres of early successional habitat by implementing 8,547 habitat projects in their local communities.
Additionally, the group’s Farm Bill Biologist Partnership trains an army of biologists adept at assisting landowners in finding the right federal, state and local programs to meet their personal habitat and land use goals. “These efforts have impacted 8.17 million acres for wildlife habitat conservation nationwide,” says Wiklund. “Including technical assistance for more than 174,000 farmers, ranchers and landowners.”
Quail Forever recently partnered with the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, which Wiklund explains is, “The first unified, range-wide strategy and initiative of 25 state wildlife agencies, whose main goal is to achieve widespread restoration of native grassland habitats, wild quail and other grassland wildlife.”
Along with numerous conservation group and research institution partners, the NBCI provides landscape-scale, habitat-based strategic plans for habitat restoration and population recovery. “It also offers conservation leadership at national and regional levels, plus the leveraging capacity to magnify resources available at state and local levels for native grassland habitat management,” says Wiklund.
“The NBCI has made bobwhite restoration a nationally recognized conservation priority and will continue to offer services that enable states and partners to maximize bobwhite conservation in their communities,” he adds. “Quail Forever recently signed a memorandum of understanding with NBCI, agreeing to offer our chapter and financial resources wherever possible to make quail habitat projects a realization in priority areas.”
Florida/Georgia Quail Coalition
In the Deep South, the Florida/Georgia Quail Coalition works to enhance and conserve northern bobwhite habitat, and to promote and support youth shooting sports programs and education.
“A memorandum of agreement signed in 2014 consists of four partners,” says Wiklund. “The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division, Quail Forever and Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy.”
Money raised by the coalition is spent on frequent, small-scale prescribed burning, oak tree removal, roller-chopping dense palmettos and hardwood thickets, and thinning rows of planted pine trees—all of which benefits quail.
“In its first year as a coalition, fourteen chapters donated over $56,000 for habitat projects on six public wildlife areas and nearly $18,000 for youth shooting sports, reaching more than 2,200 youngsters,” Wiklund notes. “It has since expanded even more.”
For its part, Quail Forever provides one shared full-time employee and one part-time staff member. The organization is also charged with providing funding to establish, manage and monitor quail populations and habitat on public and private lands in Florida and Georgia, and to work with the coalition to increase youth hunting opportunities on some of these lands once adequate bird populations and habitat have been restored.
Arguably America’s greatest conservation accomplishment, the Conservation Reserve Program continues to be the most expansive voluntary conservation program directly benefiting wildlife in the United States.
CRP has been crucial to conserving soil, water and wildlife habitat since 1985. Approaching its second decade, the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) practice is one of the nation’s most efficient programs offering landowners the opportunity to conserve upland habitat for pheasants, quail and other upland wildlife.
“The SAFE program allows states to design CRP practices that maintain hallmark soil and water conservation benefits while targeting specific wildlife species,” says Wiklund. “Due to extended upland habitat loss, many states design their programs to specifically benefit pheasants and quail.
“With the 2018 Farm Bill on the horizon, a substantial increase in acres to the CRP and SAFE programs are indispensable to the future quality of our nations wildlife, habitat, and legacy,” he continues. “Quail Forever will be working closely with state legislators to define areas in the country where SAFE acres can best be utilized for early-successional quail habitat.”
Responsible for nearly 250 million acres of public lands, the Bureau of Land Management is the major player on the habitat front—and Quail Forever recently forged a partnership with the agency to ensure that upland game birds get a fair shake in policies affecting these lands.
“In an agreement signed last fall, the BLM and Quail Forever pledged to work jointly on managing wildlife habitat on public lands, many of which are in crucial quail states in the western United States,” says Wiklund.
“The memorandum of understanding allows for conservation partnerships among governmental and private organizations to flourish. Local Quail Forever chapters will work closely with BLM on a wide range of projects improving wildlife habitat conditions for all to enjoy.”
Supporting The Cause
Federal Ammunition has long supported Quail Forever’s efforts. The company became the group’s official ammunition sponsor back in 2009, and is the presenter of the annual Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic, organized by Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.
“Quail Forever members are some of the most passionate conservationists you’ll ever meet, and we’re proud to be a part of such a great effort,” says Ryan Bronson, director of conservation and public policy for Federal Ammunition.
Additionally, Federal Ammunition is the Official Ammunition of Quail Forever.
Collectively, the efforts of hunters, conservation organizations, manufacturers and government agencies are not only fueling the quail comeback, but helping ensure that this welcome renaissance continues for years to come.