“Come hither,” she cooed seductively. “At once, my sweet bird,” he whistled back, and the wind carried his promise to her waiting ears.

Okay, okay. Maybe this passionate exchange is not on par with Romeo and Juliet, but the return of the bobwhite quail to west Tennessee is just as dramatic a love story to wildlife biologists, bird enthusiasts, hunters and nature lovers.

If you grew up in rural west Tennessee in the 1950s and 1960s, you remember the bobwhite quail's catchy call to a mate waiting expectantly in the wings. With a little imagination applied, it sounded like “bob… white, bob… white.”

Or you may remember walking through a field of native grass when suddenly a covey of quail exploded in front of you and birds shot off in seemingly every direction at once. It would take your heart at least a minute to recover.

You might not have noticed that sometime in the 1970s, the distinctive call of the bobwhite quail began to disappear from the soundscape.

“In the '50s and '60s, west Tennessee had broomsedge, native grass areas, idle land, smaller farm fields and lots of hedgerows,” explained Mike Hansbrough, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) biologist, based in Jackson, Tenn.

“Gradually, the habitat disappeared when we started farming fence row to fence row. Nesting cover in many areas was replaced with non-native fescue, which is usually cut during prime nesting times. It's not good habitat for quail.”

Nest predation also took a turn for the worst.

“Mid-size mammals like raccoons began to thrive, which makes it much more difficult for hens. Where there are no big areas to nest successfully, they got hammered by raccoons, possums and skunks.”

In the late 1990s, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) saw an opportunity to stop the decline. The agency formed a cooperative agreement between USDA and NRCS to enhance land enrolled in USDA programs for wildlife.

The cooperators knew that programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) could be used with the planting of native grass covers to bring back the quail and other wildlife.

Hansbrough was hired from Quail Unlimited to head up the NRCS effort in west Tennessee, as part of the new Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. TWRA also cost-shared Hansbrough's salary for four years.

This cooperative effort recently resulted in an 11-county area in west Tennessee being designated as a wildlife priority area, which has given area landowners a leg up on CRP sign-up eligibility.

Hansbrough, who happens to be a champion caller, began by developing a quail index, simply a count of the number of males who answered the call of a female ready for mating. He knew he had his work cut out for him when most of his calls in 2000 were met with silence.

He enlisted the aid of NRCS district conservationists in the wildlife priority area to help spread the word about the project and how it could benefit both landowners and wildlife.

The key was to bring back the quail's natural habitat, a “build it and they will come” approach, according to Hansbrough.

“Bobwhite quail are a grassland, shrub species,” Hansbrough said. “They have to have open idle grasslands, something that is not being mowed that they can nest in. They also have to have a shrub component that provides security cover like hedgerows, honeysuckle thickets, briars.”

The initiative offered two primary options to landowner and farmers. They could sign up block fields under a 10-year CRP contract, if eligible, where an entire field is sowed down in native grasses that support quail and other wildlife. Another option included CRP continuous buffer practices such as filter strips planted in native grasses. Other programs are also available to offset costs.

Native grasses are “generally a mix of big bluestem, Indiangrass, little bluestem, switchgrass and beneficial broadleaf plants like partridge pea or some other type of legume to add some diversity to the stand,” Hansbrough said. “There is not a lot of food value there. They don't eat the grass or the grass seeds.

“These native grasses provide an excellent structural nesting cover for not only quail, but wild turkeys. Bobwhite quail are kind of like an indicator species. Behind it are rabbits, turkeys and songbirds.”

Buffer strips must be wide enough to discourage predators, according to Hansbrough. “A 10-foot wide hedgerow or nesting corridor is in itself is a predator trap. Every predator will run that strip and the quail and wild turkeys are going to get hammered. Research has shown that if you have at least a 50-foot buffer, predators are not very efficient at finding quail. Most of our buffers are greater than 75 feet.”

TWRA also provided funding for each participating Soil Conservation District in west Tennessee to acquire $15,000 drills for planting the native grasses this spring. Special drills are required because native grass seed is too fluffy and lightweight for the planters found on most farms.

Another working partner includes local Quail Unlimited chapters that help spread the news about the native grasses, and also offered some monetary incentives.

One of the first west Tennessee farmers to participate in the recovery effort was Gene Permenter, a cotton producer in Crockett County who worked closely with Hansbrough and Wray Pulliam, the county district conservationist.

Permenter's application to place a 100-acre cotton farm into block CRP was planted in 2000. He went in behind the old cotton stubble and sprayed the field with Plateau to kills thistles, crabgrass and johnsongrass. The product is friendly to native grasses. He then drilled in a cover of native grasses.

Four years later, Permenter sowed lespedeza strips into the native grass as a food source. “Every field has a strip in it. I used a 21-foot disk with the wings folded up. I did a light disking and ran a Do-al. It was kind of rough, but it did reseed itself this spring.

“We've gotten more revenue putting the land in CRP than in cotton, especially when we average in those dry years like 1999,” Permenter said. “This land is marginal to begin with. We don't have to grow cotton everywhere in Crockett.”

Teddy Hazelhurst, a ginner and farmer who leases out cotton ground in Madison County, says his April 2003 seeding of a 120-foot native grass buffer strip between one 88-acre field and a tree-lined creek is a win-win situation for everyone involved.

“The part of the field where the buffer strip had been was sandy, shady and not as productive as the rest of the field. Farmers today are looking for good productive land, and often they plant soybeans on the marginal land just to please the landowner. So we're seeing a lot of this non-productive land go into this program.”

In 2003, cotton stalks were cut and the strip was burned down with Roundup in early April.

“In early April, we drilled the seed. In June, we made a 6-ounce application of Plateau.”

According to Brad Denton, Madison County NRCS district conservationist, Madison County rental rates had been lower than the average for the last couple of years. “We finally got our rates up, and that first year, we signed 650 acres to riparian buffers and filter strips.”

Two west Tennessee counties, Haywood and Fayette, are also seeing lots of activity with each planting 4,000 acres in native grasses this spring. The entire 11-county wildlife priority area in west Tennessee is expected to exceed 44,000 acres in 2004. Hansbrough's eventual goal is to expand to about 100,000 acres.

Based on a 75-foot average width, landowners have put in over 361 miles of native grass in west Tennessee since 2001. And the quail index that alarmed Hansbrough so much four years ago today indicates a 232 percent increase in quail population.

“Now when I do my survey, I hear so many quail calling I have trouble keeping up with the individual numbers. One some stops, I was hearing a bobwhite call every five seconds throughout the summer.

“We have stopped the decline and now have documented results that we are increasing quail populations. Landowners are saying that they are seeing more quail. I think it's having a landscape effect.”

To learn more about wildlife habitat improvement in USDA programs, contact a USDA service center in your area or call Mike Hansbrough, 731-668-0700, Ext. 3.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com