In the quail heyday, as Rick Butterfield recalls from his younger years, hunters would be able to bag their limits with relatively little issue. They didn’t worry about the quail having suitable habitat. The birds were bountiful.
For a while now, dwindling quail populations have been a concern across the country. Their disappearance has been attributed to loss of habitat that provides vital protection from predation for the small ground-nesting species. But thanks to the concerted efforts of farmers, landowners and conservationists, Missouri Department of Conservation surveys show quail numbers are on the rise statewide.
“Quail numbers peaked in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s, when agriculture was much less efficient than it is now,” MDC Private Lands Conservationist Rich Crowe said.
Back then, the patchwork of small farm fields with a broad array of annual crops, forages, weed patches and shrubs created ideal conditions for bobwhites. The landscape is much different today.
The Butterfields are part of the movement to reverse that trend. Rick, his son, Chris, and brother, Rodney, collectively raise 800 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat along with cattle on their Century Farm in Linn County, Mo. They’re working with the MDC on quail improvement plans in the midst of their crop and cattle production and now have more than 500 acres of habitat established in various patches on their respective farms.
“For about 20 years, it seems like the quail disappeared,” Rick said. “We’re beginning to see that change.”
As Rick and Rodney were growing up on their family farm, they said weeds were more prevalent, and there were a lot more marginal areas along fence rows and field corners where brush grew. MDC studies show that quail need different habitat types at different points in their life cycle, so having a mix of cover is important.
“A lot more grain was wasted during harvest, too, in that time,” Rodney added. That grain provided food for quail and other wildlife that happened to live in those fields.
However, as technology advanced and the tough economic times of the 1980s hit, Rick and Rodney said farmers of their father’s generation were trying, understandably so, to make the most of their land.
“Farmers got to the point where they were farming fence row to fence row,” Rick said. “And that didn’t leave much for wildlife.”
Federal programs helped agriculture evolve from that mindset, and the Butterfields have, too. They have enrolled some of their more marginal ground into the CP38 program, also known as Conservation Reserve Program SAFE (State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement). Additionally, the Butterfields were among the first in the state to enroll their farm into the Missouri Outdoor Recreational Access Program (MRAP), which provides opportunities for public hunting, fishing and sightseeing in Missouri.
“We’ve always been firm believers in protecting both the wildlife and the farm from soil erosion,” Rick said. “This CP38 program did both.”
Furthermore, Rick said, they thought it would be beneficial to leave a conservation legacy for their children and grand- children.
“I have a granddaughter, Christy Jean, who wants to be a hunter eventually,” he said. “She wants to duck hunt, and I’m sure she’ll want to quail hunt, so we also did it for the future.”
Previously, portions of the farm had been seeded with fescue and then planted in trees, mainly pecan and walnut, to help control erosion on their gradually sloping acreage. To use the land for row crops again would have required terracing.
“Honestly, it’s not the best land,” Rick said. “It has some clay in it, and it needed some lime. It would have taken more money to get it back in production, and it’s just more suited for wildlife.”
The trees became a valuable resource for wildlife habitat. The Butterfields built brush piles and, along the fence lines, did some edge feathering, which is the process of cutting trees and leaving them in place. Feathering produces a more gradual transition from wooded areas to open ground and provides quail with some protection from would-be predators.
They planted the rest of the fields in native grasses and wildflowers with seed purchased from MFA Agri Services in Brookfield. The mix of plants keeps their upland soils in place, he explained, while providing necessary habitat for quail and beautifying the landscape.
“I wish you could see it in the summer,” Rick said. “It’s just a field of wildflowers of every color—whites, yellows, reds, purples. It’s really something.”
Other farmers and landowners in the area have followed suit. Rich estimates there were nearly 40 new contracts resulting in almost 2,000 acres enrolled during the last sign-up for the CP38 program in Linn County alone. The contract also calls for continued management practices such as disking, prescribed burning or herbicide treatments to keep the prairie healthy.
“It’s a good option for farmers who do have areas of more marginal ground on their property like the Butterfields do,” Rich said.
Striking a balance
The beauty of the prairie isn’t lost on John Dolan. He helps manage the 480-acre Century Farm of his mother, Ellen, in Trenton, Mo. He and his father, Gary, enjoy hunting and have worked to balance wildlife habitat with their agricultural operations.
After decades of abundant quail populations, numbers have declined drastically on the Dolan farm, Gary said, recalling a long-ago day when he flushed 12 coveys in a 2-mile fence row.
“I began quail hunting when I was 8 years old, and I guess that’s always been on my mind,” he said. “More importantly, though, we just want to know they’re there. That’s part of the reason we live out here. We like the wildlife.”
On his own farm west of Spickard, Mo., in the hills overlooking river bottoms, John is working to restore his upland prairie to its former glory. Looking out over the broad expanse dotted with 150-year-old oak trees, John points out the crossroads where Native American tribes convened. The routes they would have taken crisscross his land.
“I’d love to see what this area looked like during that time,” John said, envisioning a future in which people can camp, hunt or just enjoy the view on the land. He also said establishing good wildlife habitat could be an additional income source for farmers who would be willing to lease ground for hunting.
“We have a lot of people who may have grown up on a farm or enjoyed the experience of hunting on their grandparents’ farm,” John said. “Well, maybe that land has been sold or changed hands, but they still want to raise their children to enjoy the benefits of going out on a quail or deer hunt. People are willing to pay for that. I’ve always enjoyed it and just took it for granted, but it’s also been something that’s been really important to me.”
John attributes the decline of quail in his area not only to loss of habitat but also predators and more frequent heavy rain events during nesting season. His positive outdoor experiences in his youth have prompted him to participate in wildlife conservation programs to help make a difference. John and Gary are working with Scott Roy, MDC private lands conservationist in Grundy, Mercer and Livingston counties, to put restoration plans in place for upland birds.
The Dolans discovered that neither bare ground nor entirely grassland CRP worked well for quail habitat. A combination of cropland skirted with brushy area was more ideal.
“A baby quail is only about half the size of your thumb,” Gary said. “You really need both bare ground and clumps of grass so those little babies are able to move through and brushy areas or brush piles that they can use for protection. I think that’s the key, the mixture of the two.”
Recipe for success
On both farms, the Dolans have implemented different parts of what John refers to as the “recipe”—MDC recommendations for establishing quail habitat. They planted native grasses and small food plots of milo and sunflowers coupled with edge feathering. They also left some of the existing plum and dogwood thickets standing. Gary advises leaving a row or two of milo, soybeans or corn standing if you know there are quail in the area.
“It will provide extra food for quail,” Gary said, “and deer, rabbits and turkey will benefit, too.”
The Dolans installed buffer strips in some of their fields through the CP38 program to help decrease erosion and improve the water quality of adjacent lakes and streams. They have future plans to utilize the CP33 Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds program for another part of the farm.
“For the last 20 years, everyone has been working very diligently to try to figure out what it takes to increase quail populations. Through that research, MDC has established a pretty good recipe,” John said. “If you follow it, you’ll see the benefit.”
Because more than 90 percent of land in Missouri is privately owned, those landowners are the key to improving habitat for quail, Scott said. Cost-share programs are available for farmers and landowners who have interest in making their property more wildlife-friendly.
“They may not be income-producing practices, but they can help you achieve your wildlife habitat goals,” he said. “The neat thing John and Gary have done is show that you can have an ag component, yet still have that wildlife component, too. You can manage for both and be successful at it.”
To coexist, farming operations and wildlife restoration need to strike a balance, John reiterated.
“What we’re trying to do is have a profitable intensive cropping system coincide with a really healthy wildlife structure,” he said.
Four years ago, John and Gary received recognition for their efforts. They won the Farmer Conservationist of the Year Award presented by the Missouri chapter of the Wildlife Society, a nationwide organization devoted to “sustaining wildlife populations and habitats through science-based management and conservation.”
MDC biologists have shown that habitat rehabilitation efforts can pay off. In other areas of Missouri, the MDC supports more than 14 landowner-led Quail Focus Areas on property that is intensively managed for bobwhites. This is part of a national effort to inventory habitat conditions and bird populations. To monitor progress, MDC biologists and landowners conduct regular on-site surveys in which they listen for bird songs and record what they hear. Those findings are compared to recordings on similar land not being managed for quail.
In these MDC focus areas, surveys show quail numbers are increasing. In 2004 and 2005, after MDC’s state quail plan was established, some populations increased more than 300 percent. Over the past five years, reported coveys in a Scott County focus area rose from 17 to 66. In a north central Missouri focus area, the number of coveys heard surged from 31 to 102 during that same time.
“There’s no debate,” said Tim Kavan, MDC private lands conservationist for Mississippi, New Madrid and Pemiscot counties, who works in one of the Quail Focus Areas. “Any type of installation of habitat, whether it be on a marginal area like a pivot corner, field buffer or even a whole field, has not only increased quail numbers, but it’s pretty evident in our turkey numbers as well.”
Though both the Butterfield and Dolan farms are outside the quail focus areas, they’re seeing numbers rebound, too.
“This year, every one of the milo plots had a covey of quail,” John said. After consideration, Gary said he could count at least seven coveys he knew of on the property.
Having some success doesn’t mean the work is complete when it comes to the rebuilding bobwhite populations. MDC estimates that very few quail live past their first year, but their ability to rapidly reproduce combined with the right management strategy makes it possible to bring their numbers back.
“Wildlife management is a dynamic process,” Scott said. “It’s not static. You don’t just put quail habitat in place and walk away. It’s something that continuously evolves because you have to always re-evaluate what’s going on.”