The male Northern bobwhite quail’s (Colinus virginianus) distinctive mating call—which sounds like “bob-white” to the human ear—is something very few people get to hear anymore.
Cover photo by Chris Sutton
The prized gamebird’s whistle used to fill the air across 38 states and was a common herald of spring in rural Virginia. But today, modern clean-farming techniques, urban and suburban land usage, houses and strip malls have eliminated much of the habitat upland birds require in the Commonwealth. In many areas, these once plentiful birds have been reduced to isolated pockets and are rarely seen or heard.
Data from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) estimates the number of quail hunters here has dropped by 90 percent since 1966. In 1973, more than 1.2 million bobwhite quail were harvested in Virginia by 143,000 quail hunters. Last year’s annual figures totaled 12,000 harvested by 8,000 hunters.
Limited lumbering, controlled burns, herbicides and other habitat-creating measures are helping the situation. But the promise of restoring healthy quail and other upland bird habitats depends on the involvement of government, non-profits, private landowners and game preserves.
Virginia’s Quail Recovery Initiative (QRI) was started in 2009 to restore bobwhite quail populations to their native range. The partnership involves the VDGIF, the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
QRI’s mission is to educate the public on the importance of quality, early successional habitat for quail and other wildlife species. The QRI also provides technical assistance to landowners interested in creating or maintaining early healthy habitat on their properties; it also helps implement financial assistance programs aimed at benefitting wildlife.
Jimmy Hazel has been on many statewide boards and chaired several of them. These included the VDGIF, where he served for 10 years and chaired for three.
“The board-level decision to approve the Virginia Quail Initiative marked the first time in 20 or 30 years that the agency allocated serious resources to protect the bobwhite quail,” said Hazel. “For years, VDGIF did so much for the whitetail deer population. We felt it was time to address the declining quail population. Conservationists are on the ground, meeting and speaking with people in a broader conversation about habitat so landowners can make a difference.”
Seventeen years ago, Hazel and his wife purchased 300 acres in Greene County, Virginia. An avid sportsman who hunts and fishes, Hazel was drawn to the spot because of its close proximity to trout streams, including the Rapidan, Conway, and South Rivers. (The South River runs through his property.) Today they live in Charlottesville and spend a lot of time at South River Preserve.
“When I use the word ‘farm’ to describe my home, the first thing people want to know is what kind of livestock I have here,” he explained. “I don’t have any. I manage my property with a ‘maximum carrying capacity per acre for wildlife’ philosophy in mind. This entails eradicating invasive species, managing hardwoods, growing and appreciating warm-season grasses that some people might find unsightly. But to bobwhite quail and other wildlife, this type of habitat offers protection and food.”
According to Hazel, approximately 150 acres is now suitable habitat for bobwhite quail and other birds, including indigo buntings, gold finches and bluebirds. In fact, his property is part of a 10-year study by Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL), a program of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) located in Front Royal, Virginia. SCBI serves as an umbrella for the Smithsonian’s global effort to conserve species and train future generations of conservationists.
“The Virginia Working Landscapes study involves a number of properties in the Piedmont, including our farm,” said Hazel. “One of its observer teams recently came to the farm to count bird species, pollinators and native plants. The team counted 83 different bird species. I couldn’t believe it.”
Hazel credits Charlottesville-based Hilliard Estate & Land Management (HELM) with helping transform his property into a rich habitat for wildlife. The company manages the effort throughout the year, planting and cultivating warm-season grasses and native plants, burning fescue and other unwanted groundcover and managing hardwoods.
For example, Helm replaced locust and poplar trees with little bluestem grass, which provides overhead cover and food for quail and other small birds. The remaining hardwood trees offer habitat for bear, deer and turkey. Last year, HELM, together with the engineering firm Resource Environmental Solutions (RES), completed a river restoration project on the property that repaired the South River after extensive flood damage.
“Owning land comes with a tremendous responsibility, and there’s a whole science to it,” said HELM Founder Carter Hilliard. “My goal is to optimize every inch of the property to meet the owners’ needs. I also want to instill in them a sense of urgency to manage the property wisely with a focus on native grasses and removal of invasive species.”
HELM has been in business for 10 years and has a team of 20 full-time employees. The company has the know-how, equipment and vehicles to manage land in a sustainable and intelligent way. Hilliard acknowledges there has been a recent swing in the pendulum to “get back to the land.” He sees this with younger families who want to make a farm their own and enjoy many years of raising their children on the land.
Hilliard often begins the conversation with first-time landowners by asking them why they purchased the land and their objectives. It is not uncommon to hear that they have a love for the land but need some guidance on the right way to properly manage their farm. Hilliard helps landowners establish goals for maximizing use and enjoyment of their farms, while incorporating a good balance of wildlife habitat into these multifaceted properties.
“I realize the bobwhite quail populations are declining, but habitat management isn’t just about one species,” Hilliard added. “When you create a habitat that attracts quail, the landowner is also creating a welcoming environment for other species. The same grasses that offer knee-high cover for quail also make great bedding for deer. Habitat is not always neat and tidy. What people need to understand is these unkempt areas are necessary for browse, bedding and travel corridors. Jimmy Hazel understands this, and his philosophy and property are examples of what I believe in.”
Hilliard’s words reflect the beliefs of Quail Forever, a non-profit that is dedicated to conserving quail through habitat improvement, public awareness and land management.
“Quail is a good indicator species that reflects habitat health for other wildlife, said Quail Forever’s Tim Caughran, director of field operations. “We live in a hi-tech world that is not very suitable for quail. The more efficient we are at managing land and precision farming, the better chances we have at restoring quail populations in Virginia and elsewhere. Our organization wants farmers to understand that they can create good crop yields and healthy habitat for quail. If there’s a rough edge or section on the property, plant the right seasonal grasses for quail and more wildlife will follow. It might not be pretty, but it’s healthy for birdlife and animals.”
Last year, Quail Forever received a large grant to expand conservation efforts in the southeastern states. In the coming year, Caughran hopes to address quail recovery work that is needed in Virginia. The non-profit has already set up several chapters in the Commonwealth, with more opening soon.
“If we reach more landowners with the right message, we might be able to make people look at land differently with an eye for the right kind of beauty.”
Joe Shields is the editor of The Virginia Sportsman. He is a writer and marketing executive based in Charlottesville, Virginia. His writing and photography have appeared in The Virginia Sportsman and other publications. Whether fly fishing or surfing, he loves the outdoors and celebrates sporting life and culture in his narratives.