The whistled call, “Bob-White,” is seldom heard here anymore. But that may be about to change. Interested farmers and landowners in Virginia and West Virginia now have an opportunity to bring the cheerful little quail back to their original habitat.
As recently as the late 1990s, a few Bobwhites could still be heard, until intensive agriculture and “clean farming” destroyed most of their habitat. Bobwhites died out because they lacked the necessary food and cover provided by briar patches, native grasses, and weedy fields. Few folks today even know what a Bobwhite is.
But this past spring, 500 acres within the Tomblin Wildlife Management area in southwestern West Virginia were set aside as future Bobwhite quail habitat. The region’s many reclaimed surface mines have been planted with cover crops and warm-season grasses. Together with wild blackberry bushes and other native shrubs, that land will become ideal quail habitat by next spring, when wild Bobwhites in another state will be trapped and released into their new habitat.
In Clarke County, Virginia, wildlife professionals at the Virginia Quail Recovery Initiative (QRI) now work with private landowners to bring the little quail back. Founded in 2009, QRI is a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Virginia Tech’s Conservation Management Institute, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
QRI’s website offers habitat enhancement programs to participating landowners. Depending upon their circumstances, farmers may be eligible for such benefits as regular reimbursements for cropland taken out of production, grants for clearing and seeding fields, and tax relief from Clarke County for quail habitat management.
In for the Long Haul
QRI’s specially trained professionals guide landowners through a maze of options and opportunities. Justin Folks, regional program biologist, described his role: “Our job is to provide technical assistance to landowners who are interested in conserving natural resources … farmland, forestland, or wildlife habitat. Generally, this is how it works: a landowner [who] is interested in improving wildlife habitat contacts us, I perform a free site visit, and provide recommendations. I can also develop a habitat management plan, if the landowner desires. If the proposed wildlife work, landowner, and property all are eligible for financial assistance, we can assist with the signup and planning for various financial-assistance programs to help put the habitat on the ground.”
Phase one, clearing undesirable trees and shrubs, begins with help and advice from Justin Folks and Brent Barriteau, NRCS District Conservationist. Non-native woody growth must all be cut or dozed. Herbicides are applied in designated spots to kill unwanted annual and perennial growth. Phase two usually begins the following spring. Newly cleared areas are seeded with native warm season grasses and perennials preferred by Bobwhites.
One local landowner reported hearing wild Bobwhites even before the newly seeded fields started growing. Bobwhites don’t migrate or move around much, so scattered holdouts evidently remain on private land near the Virginia-West Virginia state line.
Bobwhites prefer woodland edges mixed with early successional grassland. This is also excellent habitat for a variety of other wildlife, including such birds as eastern meadowlarks, savanna and field sparrows, eastern towhees, brown thrashers, and yellow-breasted chats.
The newly planted grassland requires several years and careful management to mature into good quail habitat. Dedicated Virginia landowners are in for the long haul.
— Doug is an artist, writer, and naturalist living near Shepherdstown. He also contributed the artwork for this piece.