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From the September/October 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
Loren Zaruba looked on in excitement—it was the wildlife identification section of the annual Youth Hunter Education Challenge. He and his wife, Ellen, had spent the last three months working with a handful of young competitors, so when the speaker played a familiar “bob-white” call, Loren beamed. But as the teenagers’ faces turned blank and unsure, he realized that question wasn’t easy anymore—hunter or not, none of the youngsters had seen or heard a bobwhite quail.
The northern bobwhite quail is the most extensively studied game bird on the planet, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. A North American native, their range stretches from the Atlantic Coast to Colorado and from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes—but they’ve struggled throughout that range due to habitat changes.
In Iowa, they’ve particularly struggled with changes in agriculture. Bobwhite quail are social, ground-dwelling birds that eat insects and seeds, flourishing in disturbed fields with shrubby cover. Before Iowa’s settlement, this habitat wasn’t terribly common—quail lived in patches of recently-burned prairies and oak savannas. As settlement progressed, farm fields became perfect bobwhite habitat thanks to ample row spacing, lack of pesticides and the occasional fire—leading to a booming state population.
But as farming expanded and modernized, the norm became tighter rows, more pesticides, insect-resistant crops and fire suppression—eliminating bobwhite habitat, food and causing widespread population crashes. Just between 1966 and 2014, the nationwide population is estimated to have declined by more than 85 percent, and Iowa’s population reached an all-time low in 2009.
As such, 25 states—including Iowa—are now part of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, which encourages states to develop more bobwhite habitat and consistently measure its use.
“Bobwhite quail are the primary upland game bird in southeastern states, which don’t have pheasants,” says wildlife biologist Todd Bogenschutz, “so their long-term decline really brought states together—it’s a national demonstration of the importance of good habitat.”
Bogenschutz says habitat can be especially rare in Iowa, where most bobwhite-suitable areas are privately owned.
“You don’t see quail north of the third tier of Iowa counties because we’re on the northern fringe of bobwhite habitat, so the increases in CRP strips and IHAP (Iowa Habitat and Access Program) sites in southern Iowa are great. We’ve also had four very mild winters in a row, which I think helps even more,” Bogenschutz says.
Thanks to modern habitat management, including the reintroduction of fire, the bobwhite population is finally increasing. Harvest numbers from 2015 surpassed 28,000 birds, a 65 percent increase over 2014, and 2015 summer roadside counts were the highest since 1994.
Bogenschutz noted quail generally like shorter, less dense cover than pheasants, but management for one species is not exclusive of the other. “You can definitely have both birds in the same area,” he says. “Both need a food plot and cover.” Bogenschutz says pheasants stick to dense cover like cattails, whereas bobwhites like more space between things and even some bare ground, especially for nesting. “Bobwhite chicks are about as big as a bumblebee when they hatch, so even navigating through a mowed lawn can be difficult for them,” he says.
Add density—bobwhites live in social coveys and each hen may have upwards of 10 chicks per brood—and it’s easy to see why quail appreciate some open air. Bogenschutz says raspberry thickets, dogwood patches and moderately grazed cow pastures are particularly popular with quail, even in winter and even if located at the edges of towns. “The best thing we can do for bobwhite quail is make a lot of good habitat and hope they use it,” he says.
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