Co-ops for quail?
CAN LANDOWNER CO-OPS TURN THE TIDE BACK IN FAVOR OF THE BOBWHITE QUAIL?
PHOTO: JUSTIN RECTENWALD
"Coupling the energy, time, knowledge, and resources of neighboring landowners-with the collective acreages they bring to the table - is the single most effective strategy to halt the decline of bobwhite quail."
FRANK LONCARICH / LAND & LEGACY CONSULTANT / MISSOURI
By: Frank Loncarich, Land & Legacy Consultant / Missouri
Landowner cooperatives for species like white-tailed deer make all kinds of sense. Whitetails roam large areas, often crossing several landowner boundaries during their normal seasonal movements. Adjoining property owners can band together to promote common goals such as better herd health or improved age structure while having an impact on the local population that benefits all landowners involved.
But what about landowner co-ops for improving local bobwhite quail populations? On the surface, this doesn’t sound intuitive. After all, we all know bobwhites are fairly immobile during their short lives and most of a covey’s needs probably can be met by a single, small landowner. Right? Recent research, however, has shed additional light on bobwhite ecology, particularly habitat and space requirements, and reveals that bobwhites are more landscape dependent than we’ve previously thought. In fact, I argue that landowner co-ops must be a vital part of the conservation strategy for saving bobwhite populations across the country.
In my training as a bobwhite biologist and hunter, I was often taught that a covey of birds is hatched, raised, and dies on the same 40 acres. That meant that management for bobwhites should be done on a small-scale basis, mimicking small farming practices, and that it didn’t matter what your neighbor did, as long as you managed your property adequately you’d always have birds. So, state game and fish agencies managed their properties and prescribed management for private landowners based on that model. These recommendations were made largely based on anecdotal observations in a time of high quail numbers and large areas of intact habitat.
Times, though, have changed. Since the 1980’s, over 80% of the continental bobwhite quail population has been lost while some eastern states have lost over 90% of their birds. And the decline continues, on the order of 1%-3% annually over much of the country. The overwhelming reason for this decline is habitat loss. Huge swaths of bobwhite habitat have been lost to the conversion of grasslands to crop, the introduction of millions of acres of exotic cool and warm-season “improved” pasture, large-scale tree and shrub encroachment into native grasslands, former woodlands and savannas developing into closed-canopy forests, and severe overgrazing of western rangelands. The situation has gotten so bad that, in many places, the bobwhite hunting culture has disappeared, replaced by hunters that have no experience with a bird that was so common just a generation before.
This tragic loss of bobwhites has not gone unnoticed. A range of state agencies and academic institutions have focused resources on better understanding the ecology of habitat management of bobwhites in today’s world. The results of some of these studies are telling a different story in terms of the space needs of bobwhite quail. For example, results from a recent large-scale study of radio-collared bobwhite in Missouri showed that the home ranges for adult birds during the summer were well over 200 acres and birds dispersed sometimes up to 3 miles from winter locations to summer nesting locations. When I was working as a quail technician in Kansas, I had two banded quail that were harvested by hunters, in separate directions, over 8 miles from where they were banded. These results tell us that bobwhites are much more mobile than we previously thought and means that managers concerned about quail need to be thinking on a much larger scale.
"Research and population modeling done by renowned quail academics suggest that anywhere from 1600 to 5000 acres is needed to sustain a viable population of bobwhites, a population that can persist for decades. That’s sure greater than 40 acres!"
So, what is that scale? How big should we be thinking if we want to make a real difference in local bird numbers. Research and population modeling done by renowned quail academics suggest that anywhere from 1600 to 5000 acres is needed to sustain a viable population of bobwhites, a population that can persist for decades. That’s sure greater than 40 acres!
Given today’s land ownership patterns, very few individual landowners then have enough ground to effectively manage an abundant population of bobwhites on their own. Quail populations across the country are often fragmented with small numbers of birds occupying increasingly smaller habitat blocks. The only way to keep these coveys from blinking out is to ensure that large blocks of habitat are established to connect disparate populations. That means that neighboring landowners must join, using proven quail management techniques, to turn the tide back in favor of bobwhites. Nesting and brood-rearing habitat in the form of diverse native grass and forb plantings must be the first focus of any cooperative effort. Nest success and brood survival is often the most limiting factor when it comes to driving population change. This habitat is most effective in large chunks rather than small, isolated parcels. Co-ops can be an effective way for property managers to identify where nesting habitat plantings will do the most good and resources needed to establish habitat can be shared to the benefit of all members. Establishing functional, formal cooperatives with a leadership structure is a sound approach.
Does a co-op approach to bobwhite management work? Indeed, it does. The Missouri Department of Conservation has established formal landowner cooperatives for bobwhites across much of the state. These efforts have produced good success, measured not only by the habitat they’ve put on the ground but also birds in the bag during the hunting season. But, even without these examples one only needs to look at where bobwhite populations are thriving to see the power of neighbors managing in a like-manner on a large scale. The quail plantation belt of south Georgia and north Florida is one such example. Hundreds of thousands of acres in the famed Red Hills region are managed specifically for bobwhite by a variety of property owners, creating some of the most robust and sustainable populations in the world. Similarly, though mostly not intentionally, vast acreages in the southern plains from Kansas through Texas hold excellent bird numbers in good rain years. The key there is that landowners have preserved landscapes of native pastures that provide the right mix of habitat to support large numbers of quail. While these examples are not formal co-ops, they do demonstrate the absolute necessity of large, intact landscapes for the future of the bobwhite.
"FEW GAME SPECIES HAVE STRUGGLED MORE IN RECENT DECADES THAN THE BOBWHITE QUAIL."
Few game species have struggled more in the recent decades than the bobwhite quail. It is a genuine tragedy. However, we know more about the habitat needs of quail than ever before and we truly understand the importance of landscape-scale conservation. However, no individual or state agency has enough resources or land to make changes on the scale necessary. To make the changes so sorely needed, landowners must work together with common goals over large areas to connect and expand populations. This is where formal landowner co-ops can be so powerful. Coupling the energy, time, knowledge, and resources of neighboring landowners with the collective acreages they bring to the table is the single most effective strategy to halt the decline of bobwhite quail.
About the Author
Frank Loncarich, Wildlife Biologist & Land & Legacy Consultant
Frank Loncarich was raised in southwest Missouri, growing up in a family of avid bird hunters. He has spent the last 20 years managing and researching upland game birds, primarily greater prairie chickens and bobwhite quail. Recently he has been excited to lead the large scale quail research project in Missouri. His true passion is upland game birds, but he also enjoys turkey hunting, fishing, and trapping.