Bob-white! Bob-white! The call of the bobwhite quail used to be heard loud and often, especially in the rural parts of the state, but it's becoming scarcer as the birds' numbers dwindle.
The population of the northern bobwhite quail has declined 65 percent in the last 20 years throughout its territory in the southeastern United States, according to some estimates.
Rex Roberg, Arkansas Extension wildlife management program associate, is on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's quail restoration committee, a group that encourages the development of quail-friendly habitat.
“There are no statewide statistics available on the bobwhite quail population,” Roberg says, “but the committee intends to create a system for counting the birds sometime in the near future.”
Becky McPeake, Arkansas Extension wildlife specialist, says some people believe fire ants are to blame for the declining number of birds. The ants are attracted to moisture on cracked quail eggs and to the moisture on the chicks as the eggs hatch, and a fire ant attack on one egg can eventually decimate an entire nest.
“Fire ants may be to blame for some bobwhite deaths,” McPeake says, “but a more likely reason for the overall drop in population is the disappearance of suitable quail habitat.”
The use of pesticides and herbicides have allowed farmers to rid their pastures of insects and the kinds of weeds, brush and tall, clumpy grasses that quails depend on for survival.
Farms are now larger than they were 50 years ago, with smaller farms becoming less and less economically feasible. Farmers often plant from fence row to fence row. More space around fence rows, field borders, ditches and roadsides — once left mostly unmanicured — is used for growing crops.
Bobwhite quails need the now-scarce shrubby cover for protection, especially for nesting and in the first few weeks of life.
Fescue and bermuda, grasses widely used for cattle and other foraging animals, offer no protection for quail.
“Grasses that grow in thick mats block out native grasses and weeds that might benefit the birds,” says McPeake. “Chicks and adult birds alike need bare ground for feeding and for roaming; thick ground cover, like that provided by fescue and bermuda grasses, makes it tougher for them to travel and find food. Tall, clumpy grasses leave ground bare between plantings but also offer protection from predators for young quails as they move about.”
The Cooperative Extension Service can help landowners who want to alter or add agricultural practices that will support bobwhite quail populations.
For those with more than 40 acres of land, adding native grasses to their pastures, such as big bluestem, Indian grass and gamagrass, as well as allowing common weeds, including ragweed, to thrive will benefit quail and other wildlife.
Landowners are encouraged to create buffers along woody areas, allowing those native grasses to grow alongside shrubs that provide woody cover year-round, such as mayhaw and blackberry.
Brush piles created by thinning or harvesting timber can also be a suitable habitat for quail, so leaving those instead of burning them is a good environmental practice.
As a general rule, farmers can facilitate a climb in the quail population by limiting the use of pesticides and herbicides, because doing so means providing a more natural habitat and a more available food supply.