The whistle of the bobwhite quail evokes fond memories of growing up in the south. Each spring, the whistle can be heard throughout the countryside, ‘bob-bob-white'. Male bobwhites are whistling in hopes of attracting females to the area. However, the whistle of the bobwhite is declining across the country.
It's not only the whistle of the bobwhite that is fading, but of many grassland birds including sparrows and robins. Their habitats are disappearing and these species of birds—the ones that depend on grasslands, grass shrub lands and pine grass lands—are in trouble.
"The reason they are in trouble is because we have converted virtually all of our native grasslands to agricultural use or to exotic forage grasses,” said Wes Burger, professor and avian biologist in MSU's Forest and Wildlife Research Center. "Across the entire continental U.S., these birds are in danger, they are in decline and they are the group of birds that are of greatest conservation concern.”
Burger, a Jeffersonville, Ind. Native, has been studying bobwhite quail ecology for 20 years. He is considered a national expert on the use of agricultural landscapes to increase habitat for bobwhite quail. His research began in Missouri, in the prairies and row crops that bobwhite call home.
"Most grasslands and prairie systems have been converted to agricultural production over the past few decades, leaving small populations of bobwhite remaining in the little idle corners and the strips of grass on the edge of crop land and pastures,” Burger said. "Loss of habitat for grassland birds is the primary factor that has limited their abundance and population trends.”
To address the loss of habitat and subsequent decline in grassland bird species including the bobwhite quail, Congress created the Conservation Reserve Program, a component of the 1985 Farm Bill. The Conservation Reserve Program, also known as CRP, provided an opportunity for farmers to enter into contracts with the Department of Agriculture to take highly erodible land out of production and receive annual payments for returning the land to permanent vegetative cover and for applying practices that lead to wildlife habitat development.
"Since the 1985 Farm Bill, practices that increase wildlife habitat have become a prominent component of Farm Bills—which are usually revised every five years,” Burger said. "Federal conservation programs are tools that we can use to create, in agricultural systems, habitats that birds are dependent on.”
Since 1989, Burger has been monitoring the success of CRP fields in increasing bobwhite quail and grassland birds. One project, an eight year venture, monitored changes in the vegetation of agricultural CRP lands.
"We realized that CRP fields are dynamic over time and that the changes in vegetative conditions, subsequently wildlife habitat value, would require the implementation of some planned management, a disturbance of these fields,” Burger said. "This long-term study also documented the magnitude of negative disturbances such as mowing. We were creating habitat and then destroying it right during the nesting season.”
Burger's research also evaluated the environmental benefits of federal farm practices. A series of studies in both Missouri and Mississippi evaluated the ways in which habitat quality changes in response to planned disturbance.
"The Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has the technical responsibility for conservation programs, was concerned about the effect on soil erosion of planned disturbances which included disking, prescribed fire and herbicide application,” Burger said. "With the help of wildlife and fisheries agencies throughout the country, we demonstrated that a planned disturbance had little effect on soil erosion.”
Because of this research and similar research going on elsewhere, the NRCS will now cost-share planned disturbances. Now, if landowners have CRP land and they are interested in enhancing the land from a wildlife standpoint, they can implement certain practices to enhance wildlife values and get money from the USDA that will offset the cost.
Burger's research has not only evaluated CRP lands for wildlife habitat but also identified practices that can easily be added to a production agriculture system.
"Agricultural producers are the stewards of some of America's most important natural resources and are often interested in enhancing wildlife habitat value if management practices can be implemented without compromising their agricultural production goals,” said Ed Hackett, wildlife biologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. "One practice is the use of field borders--a non-crop strip of vegetation anywhere from 20 to 150 feet around the outside edges of fields that has soil erosion and water quality benefits but primarily provides bobwhite habitat.”
Nationally, the field border practice was just approved by President Bush last summer under the continuous conservation reserve program. The program has a suite of practices that include grass buffer strips, contour strips, riparian buffers along streams and a new field border conservation practice called CP33: habitat buffers for upland wildlife.
Along with evaluating and identifying practices that benefit grassland birds, Burger is involved in the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, a national restoration plan for bobwhite. The initiative seeks to develop quantitative, habitat-oriented restoration of bobwhite quail populations. National goals are stepped down to bird conservation regions which are physiographic regions of relatively similar habitat types.
"Over the last two years, we have worked with state and federal agencies in three different bird conservation regions to identify suitable habitat for quail and grassland birds,” said Rick Hamrick, research associate in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "Through the use of land cover data and bird survey data, we have developed geospatial models that predict habitat quality across broad expanses of landscape.”
The Forest and Wildlife Research Center team have worked with agencies in the Southeast Coastal plain, the Mississippi Alluvial valley, and the Central Hardwood region which encompasses nine states in the Midwest. These three conservation regions are connected and cover approximately a third of the total bobwhite range.
The key to enhance habitat for grassland birds is to start with areas that have the likelihood of already supporting bobwhite and then do two things to enhance it: expand those areas but also connect those areas so that you have larger continuous patches of habitat.
"Bobwhite quail are a passion for me and they are an important species for sporting, hunting and economically,” Burger said. "I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the NRCS and state agencies on national initiatives that preserve this important species for future generations.”