Friday, February 1, 2008

The beautiful vanishing bobwhite

Mark Taylor has a piece today in the Roanoke Times about a new state initiative to save habitat for Colinus virginianus, the bobwhite quail.

This little bird has always been dear to my heart, from my childhood in Texas when I'd sit on my granddad's front porch in the evening and watch a bobwhite mama lead her young ones across the yard, til right now, when I have a hard time finding any at all.

When I moved to Floyd County back in the '70s, I saw and heard bobwhite all the time without any effort. A stretch of Woods Gap Road between the town of Floyd and the Blue Ridge Parkway had prime bobwhite habitat on both sides of the road. It was hard to drive down that road in the spring and NOT hear a bobwhite calling. Clyde Kessler tells me that the bird was once, if not dirt-common, at least plentiful in Floyd and Patrick and Franklin Counties.

But for every four birds that existed in Virginia four decades ago, today there's only one.

Why have bobwhite numbers collapsed? It's the old story: vanishing habitat. The quail require early successional growth, brushy areas that are interspersed with fallow fields and small stands of pine and hardwoods. To someone intent on maximizing income from land, such habitat looks like a mess. Nowadays, less and less land is allowed to remain in such an "unproductive" state. Instead, it's likely to be either pasture, farmland or developed for housing.

There are groups devoted to saving the bobwhite quail, such as Quail Forever and Quail Unlimited, which has a central Virginia chapter here. Both are organized mainly by and for hunters.

At any rate, a focus group has recommended to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries that a "Bobwhite Quail Action Plan" be developed, and DGIF agrees. Let's hope it bears fruit.

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