The unmistakable calls of the Northern Bobwhite once rang out all across the United States, from the Great Plains to the eastern seaboard. Less than a decade later, the once familiar call of the Northern Bobwhite had become almost unknown; the call was heard seldom in the same places where it had once been common. The Northern Bobwhite population has experienced a steep decline in the last decade. Indeed, the decline is still occurring. Most states have now begun conservation projects to slow, and hopefully someday stop, the decline of the Northern Bobwhite population.
The earliest population decline of the Northern Bobwhite in the Midwest dates back to the mid 1800’s1. Population declines in the southern portion of the United States occurred later. These early declines were the result of several harsh winters after a series of relative mild winters2. However, quail populations recovered to healthy levels. The most recent, as well as most significant, decline in quail population occurred over nearly four and a half decades, beginning in 1966 and ending around 20103. The drastic decline in bobwhite population peaked at a loss of eighty-two percent of the Northern Bobwhites in North America4. The Northern Bobwhite is currently listed as a near-threatened species5.
The main cause of the drastic decline in Bobwhite population is habitat destruction. Northern Bobwhites prefer large, unbroken tracts of open grassland with hedgerows to provide cover from predators. This habitat is becoming less available due to modern farming techniques. The herbicides and pesticides used on fields destroy both the plants that produce food as well as cover for Bobwhites, and kill the insects upon which Bobwhites rely on during the breeding season. One of the best conservation efforts to maintain prime grassland habitat is prescribed burns6. In conducting a prescribed burn, an entire tract of grassland is burnt completely. The grass and weeds that grew in the area will quickly grow again, but the trees and bushes that were encroaching on the grassland will be removed permanently. Prescribed burns are recommended once every one to five years.
The effort to conserve the Northern Bobwhite population has been gaining momentum since it began, just a short time after the initial decline in 1966. Many organizations have been formed in an effort to control the population decline of the Northern Bobwhite, and many of them are leading the charge in quail conservation. One of the most recent efforts in Northern Bobwhite conservation occurred in Highland County, Ohio, where a ten-thousand acre tract of land was formed in cooperation with forty-two land owners to maintain prime habitat for Northern Bobwhites7.
Despite the numerous conservation efforts, the population of Northern Bobwhites is still declining8. The decline has slowed with conservation efforts, but it will take much more work to reverse to current trend in Bobwhite population. However, we are on the right track to reversing the current decline. With luck and much more hard work, a the future will support a large, healthy population of Northern Bobwhite and their calls will once again be a common sound ringing out from a large open prairie.
1 Quail News (Special Edition), Fred S. Guthrie
2 Quail News (Special Edition), Fred S. Guthrie
*Photo by Matt Tillett via Wikimedia Commons; source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mattyfioner/5942730473/