To covet a covey

Can restoration and wildlife management bring back the bobwhite quail?
Thursday, November 4, 2010

This region is home to a variety of native species that are both important naturally and historically occurring species, and also important game species. White-tailed deer, gray squirrel, and wild turkey are just a few of the more commonly encountered ones that fall into this category. For a number of these, certainly for the turkey and deer, they are around today to be hunted largely as a result of restoration efforts and proper wildlife management. Another species that is also in that same category, native to the area and with a hunting heritage, is the bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus).

Bobwhite quail were once very common in this area. This species likes to utilize early successional growth areas, particularly native grass prairies. One reason for this is their need for cover. In native grass prairies, grasses tend to grow in clumps, and juvenile quail can utilize these clumps of grasses for cover, and in that way they are protected from hawks and other aerial predators.

They are heavily preyed upon by a number of species, including hawks, owls, foxes, possums, and coyotes. In addition, the invasive fire ants have been known to attack baby hatchlings while they emerge from the egg. Quail are a beautiful bird, with their speckled feathers serving as excellent camouflage from this plethora of predators they face.

Bobwhite quail form coveys, or groups of birds up to about 30, but only outside of the breeding season.  They can have as many as three hatchings of young, which are precocial – which means that they are ready to leave the nest soon after birth. If you’ve ever been walking through the woods and stumbled upon a covey, you know that they’ll wait there until the last minute and suddenly erupt into flight, with a noise that startles me every time.

Unfortunately, the number of bobwhite quail has drastically reduced recently in a large portion of their range, due largely to the loss of ideal habitat and overhunting pressures. As recently as 2004, bobwhite quail were elevated to a near threatened status on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) red list of endangered and at risk species. Restoration efforts for this species, including the federal  Farm Bill programs that promote creation of these early successional areas, and landowners who manage well for the species are doing a lot to assist in their return and reestablishment in this area. This just goes to show that proper management and restoration of habitat are two key elements to retaining the species and the sport.

-- Crystal Cockman

For more information about quail and habitat restoration, see Quail Unlimited or contact Wes Coltrane, Regional Director of Quail Unlimited's Mid-Atlantic region. 

This article first appeared in the Montgomery Herald, and is reprinted here by permission.