Everyone has an opinion on what happened to the quail. Pesticides, fire ants and predators are the top three responses typically heard from old bird hunters. No doubt, these three factors probably played a part, but when you ask the biologists what is the main reason for the statewide population decline, you get another answer.

"Predator issues are quickly overcome through the establishment and management of quality quail habitat," said Trey Cooke, executive director of Delta Wildlife in Stoneville.

Rick Hamrick, small game biologist for the MDWFP, agreed.

"One of the main reasons for quail population declines is changes in agriculture," he said.

What Cooke and Hamrick are saying is that the primary reason for the decline in Mississippi's quail population is the loss of quality habitat.

"There has been a steady progression of changes that continue to work against quail," said Hamrick. "Much acreage that was once agricultural fields has been planted or allowed to grow back up to closed-canopy forest. Of the acreage that is left in crop production, it is much more intensively managed.

"As farming got progressively more industrialized and equipment got bigger, so did the fields. Hedgerows were eliminated to join several smaller fields into one large field. Fields became cleaner with the advent of Roundup-ready crops. Many crop field weeds were once food (either seed producers or substrate for insects that were eaten) and cover sources for quail.

"Insecticides also reduce insect food sources used by birds. In many cases, insecticides do not kill birds, but elimination of insects eliminates food.

"Chemical fertilizers greatly reduced the practice of fallowing fields to preserve fertility. These fallow fields were once important habitat areas for farm wildlife. Introduced pasture grasses, such as Bermuda grass, bahia grass and tall fescue, began to replace native hay or grazing meadows. These introduced grasses are not native to our area and have a sod-forming growth habitat compared to the bunch-forming growth habitat of our native grasses.

"Quail (especially chicks) are not able to effectively move or forage through these dense grasses. All of this is not to make farmers out to be bad guys; it is just the reality of modern times. Farmers have to make a living. People have to realize that things have indeed changed; change has happened so steadily over time that people often do not realize how much has really changed."

When asked what a landowner or land manager could do to boost or restore quail numbers, Delta Wildlife's Trey Cooke said they must be 100-percent committed to quality quail-habitat management if they are to succeed.

"Without the proper habitat, there is no quail restoration," he said. "Predator issues are quickly overcome through the establishment and management of quality quail habitat. If you are to succeed in quail management, you must succeed first in habitat management. Dedication, persistence and patience are common character traits shared by all those who have been successful in managing quail habitat, and subsequently, wild quail populations. Once optimum habitat conditions have been obtained, the work has just begun."

Cooke should know. As executive director of Delta Wildlife, he has seen hundreds of miles of buffer strips planted in the Delta region since the organization's buffer program began in 2002. In fact, the research done in part by Delta Wildlife paved the way for many of the conservation programs now offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency. Not just in Mississippi, but nationwide.

"In 2002 we started a quail and songbird restoration project based on science, research and landscape restoration," he said. "Results of that project were used to establish CP33 (quail and songbird buffer) and later CP38 (Quail S.A.F.E.) and CP21."

CP40, the newest CRP program offered exclusively for land coming out of catfish production, was also partly a product of the 2002 research. Delta Wildlife wanted landowners to have all options available to them on catfish ponds. As a result, there are thousands of acres of agricultural land that have been enrolled into conservation programs throughout the state. When one thinks of land enrolled in CRP, they usually think of pine and bottomland hardwood plantings. But native grass buffers are also a part of this equation, which is good news for quail numbers.

Delta Wildlife owns a native grass drill, which is a beefed-up version of your typical grain drill. Landowners and land managers can rent this drill to plant native grasses, legumes and forbs on their property. These plantings can be used for wildlife habitat and also for erosion control. Buffers along waterways, field drains, woodland edges and field borders are important for reducing soil erosion and sedimentation into local waterways.

"Roughly 90 percent of native warm-season grasses in the Delta were planted with this drill," said Cooke. "We planted 78 linear miles of buffer strips in 2002. These strips averaged 30 feet wide. We have averaged 300-400 acres each year since 2002, and planted nearly 600 acres in 2009."

Convincing farmers to plant 30-foot wide strips around the edges of their crop fields isn't always easy. However, Cooke explained that a 30-foot wide strip one-quarter mile long occupies less than an acre of land. And if you consider planting field edges next to wooded areas and other low-production acreage, you might even gain by planting these buffers.

Hamrick agrees with Cooke that bad habitat can be made good and good habitat made better with just a little effort.

"Small numbers of quail manage to hang on in pockets of suitable habitat throughout Mississippi," he said. "The bright side of this is if habitat is made more favorable, they can quickly exploit new habitat. To have huntable populations again, we need to manage habitat on larger scales to grow these island populations. South Mississippi, in particular, seems to be seeing some local bumps in populations. This is probably due to pine plantation thinnings on a fairly substantial scale during the last couple of years."

When I asked Hamrick what could be done to boost quail numbers through habitat changes, he offered advice for various habitat types:

 

Forest lands: A lot of upland forest (pine, mixed pine-hardwood or upland hardwood) throughout Mississippi is not managed to provide very good quail habitat. Typically, trees are growing too dense to allow much sunlight to reach the ground, and prescribed fire is not used to maintain grassy ground cover and low shrubby cover.

The good news is upland forests have the potential to be managed for quail habitat, but there have to be conscientious efforts to create and maintain that habitat. Wildlife and timber management objectives must be evaluated to determine if compromise can be reached between different objectives. There is not much that can be done to manage for quail in bottomland hardwood forests. We see good quail response in the first 5 or 10 years of planting hardwoods in the Delta, but it is lost after that. To maintain bird habitat, some open ground will have to be maintained in grasses and scattered shrub cover on reasonable scale.

 

Crop lands: In crop fields, establishing 30-foot-wide or wider native grass habitat buffers along field edges provides a flexible way to create quail habitat while still producing a crop in the field interior. Some landowners find they have smaller or unproductive fields that they no longer wish to produce a crop on. Maintaining these fields as an old field (allow to grow up in natural grass cover, and winter disk or burn every 2-3 years) provides potential quail habitat. If the field is eligible for Conservation Reserve Program practice CP38 - Quail Habitat, landowners can receive rental payments and incentives.

In our Delta region that is in general such a wide-open agricultural landscape, adding some grass cover to the landscape can produce some quick results. Also, we think because the Delta is largely such an open landscape, the predator context is much different than it is in the adjacent Coastal Plain. Thus, birds may not be as susceptible to as complex an array of predators in the Delta as they are in the Coastal Plain.

However, that will likely start to change in areas where more forest cover is replaced in the Delta. This is not an argument for or against predator control; it is just a theory on why populations seem to respond favorably to less intensive habitat management in the Delta compared to the Coastal Plain.

 

Grazing lands: A practice that is getting a little more attention now is native warm-season grasses (such as indiangrass, big bluestem and switchgrass) for livestock forage (hay or pasture). These grasses are native to our area, and they provide good cattle forage, require less fertilizer, tend to be more drought hardy than introduced grasses such as fescue and Bermuda, and they generally provide better wildlife habitat.

However, these grasses must be managed more carefully than introduced grasses as they are more sensitive to overgrazing or clipping too low. Although forage stands of native grasses are not optimal for quail, they can be better alternatives for habitat than introduced grasses. Establishing a few hay fields or grazing paddocks in native grasses may provide opportunities to incorporate wildlife habitat management in a working livestock operation.

 

Regardless of what kind of system you are in, the name of the game is maximizing habitat potential. Try to create habitat throughout your farm or forest land. If you have neighbors who can manage habitat on their land, the more potential a local quail population has to grow and persist.

"Milo or grain sorghum, Egyptian wheat and similar grains along with corn are really good warm-season grain crops," Hamrick responded when I asked him which food plots he preferred for quail. "Cowpeas also make good food and cover patches, but it may be tough to establish cowpeas where deer numbers are high.

"If you can grow cowpeas, it would be a good addition to summer grain crops like sorghum or corn. Leave these summer crops standing through winter to maintain cover. Winter annuals like wheat or oats and clovers planted for deer plots can be good nesting and brood-rearing areas if left undisturbed through the summer. Weed control may be helpful early on in establishing some food plantings, but do not get too hung up on weed control once you get a good crop established. A weedy food plot is actually not a bad thing for quail - it usually just means more food and cover."

While food plots are excellent sources of nutrition for brood rearing and winter survival, don't overlook natural food sources. More times than not, it is easier to manipulate and maintain natural food sources than it is food plots. Through prescribed fire, strip disking and natural succession, natural food sources can thrive on your farm with very little input compared to what it takes to maintain food plots.

According to Hamrick, ragweed, wooly croton (goat weed), native lespedezas, beggar weed and acorns are very valuable native food sources. Partridge pea, wild sunflower, vetch, crabgrass, panicgrass, foxtail, honeysuckle, holly, huckleberry, native plums, blueberry, blackberry and other species provide either food or shelter for bobwhites.

By strip disking and/or prescribed fire every 2-3 years, native species that are beneficial to quail can be encouraged to grow while keeping thick vegetation and brush from dominating the landscape.

As with any wildlife species, quail need food, water and cover, and they need them arranged so that they don't have to travel far to find each. I've heard it said that if a quail can't find food, water and cover within just a few acres, he won't survive. This is where the "patchwork" concept of habitat management comes into play. If you'd like to see how the professionals do it, visit Hell Creek WMA in Tippah County or Charles Ray Nix WMA in Panola County. If you'd like help on your own property, you can contact the MDWFP Small Game Program or Private Lands Habitat Program.

"The MDWFP provides technical assistance to landowners interested in managing for quail," said Hamrick. "We provide habitat management advice to landowners at no charge. We also try to match any available conservation programs with landowner objectives to help offset management costs.

"Biologist from the Small Game Program or Private Lands Habitat Program can provide quail habitat management advice."

Visit the quail web page at home.mdwfp.com/quail for more information, including biologist contacts and links to various publications on quail management, or contact Hamrick at 662-320-9375 or rickh@mdwfp.state.ms.us.

If you're serious about bringing back the bobwhites, then get help from the good folks at the MDWFP or conservation organizations like Delta Wildlife and Quail Unlimited. With a little effort on a large scale, maybe one day we can anticipate the opening day of quail season in the Delta just as we do deer and duck seasons.