Declining populations of quail led Mississippi State University researchers to a grant to study the effectiveness of programs that restore habitat for this traditionally popular game bird.
Wildlife researchers hope to turn around the Northern bobwhite quail's population decline by recreating elements of historic land conditions. The potential exists for quail hunting to once again become an economically significant sport.
"There are very few quail hunters in Mississippi because of declining Northern bobwhite populations, but if there were quail around, it could be a very significant economic activity," said Ben West, a wildlife specialist with MSU's Extension Service. "The South has a pretty rich heritage of quail hunting, and many people are optimistic about its popularity returning."
That optimism is a result of several U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that reimburse landowners for some of the cost of land management practices that establish quail habitat. Examples of these programs include the Conservation Reserve Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Forest Land Enhancement Program.
USDA also recently announced funding of a national research project to evaluate the effectiveness of these conservation programs. The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service's Bobwhite Restoration Project is a cooperative effort between the USDA and MSU.
MSU's Forest and Wildlife Research Center is serving as the coordinating institution for the $1.5 million project. This was divided into 11 grants funding separate studies by researchers at seven universities, two state wildlife agencies and two non-governmental organizations.
"Changes in the way we use our land have caused populations of Northern bobwhite quail to decline an average of 3.8 percent each year for the last 30 years," said avian ecologist Wes Burger, an MSU Department of Wildlife and Fisheries professor and lead investigator of the research project. "Historically, quail were an accidental byproduct of the way we used the land. Today with our more intensive use of the land, we have to intentionally create and manage habitats in order to maintain populations."
Burger said quail depend on early successional plant communities -- weedy, grassy or shrubby plant communities that occur following some kind of disturbance, like fire or disking. This habitat has declined steadily in response to urbanization, increased grassland cultivation and a transitioning of once grassy fields into woods and forests.
The objective of the three-year Bobwhite Restoration Project is to support research and demonstration projects in multiple states throughout the quail range. Researchers will evaluate the effectiveness of practices subsidized under federal farm programs to enhance quail habitat and populations.
One significant area of study is in the effectiveness of grass buffers along agricultural field borders. President George W. Bush recently announced a Conservation Reserve Program initiative intended to create 250,000 acres of grass buffers. These buffers would serve as nesting and brood-rearing cover and are expected to increase national bobwhite quail numbers by 750,000 birds annually.
Burger said studies in Mississippi, North Carolina and Georgia have demonstrated that converting as little as 1 percent to 5 percent of land use to field borders in agricultural landscapes can increase bobwhite populations by 50 percent to 100 percent.
"Five of the 11 grants given under the Bobwhite Restoration Project evaluate various components or implementation of field borders and their benefits to quail and other agricultural wildlife," Burger said. "They are emphasized because field borders are a palatable practice to agricultural producers. This is the one practice with the greatest potential for implementing on a large scale across agricultural landscapes."
Steve Dinsmore, an assistant professor of wildlife and fisheries at MSU, received one of the grants and will evaluate the impact of native grass field border width on the abundance and nesting success of bobwhite quail and other grassland songbirds.
The 11 grants went to researchers in Mississippi, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. These states represent the natural range of the non-migratory Northern bobwhite quail, which also includes areas in eastern Colorado, north to Wisconsin, east to the Atlantic seaboard and south to the Gulf Coast.