Photo by Dave Jenkins
Bobwhites in Illinois – Can Population Declines Be Reversed?
The northern bobwhite is widely distributed across the United States. It ranges from the Atlantic Coast to the Rocky Mountains and from southern Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico. However, quail have experienced dramatic declines in abundance throughout their range. Illinois is no exception. Hunter effort and harvest data illustrate this population decline. In 1956, 188,000 hunters harvested slightly more than 2.5 million quail. In the 2021-2022 season, 5,431 hunters harvested 28,637 birds, a 98 percent reduction in harvest. Biologists have long recognized that changes in land use have resulted in severe reduction in most of the plant communities that provide living space for bobwhites.
This was not always the case. With statehood in 1818, the land that became Illinois was traversed by surveyors from the United States General Land office. They found large blocks of forest and prairie with floodplain forests and prairie marshes. About two-thirds of the state was covered by tallgrass prairie and one-third by forest. Neither of these communities were optimal for bobwhite. From the accounts of early settlers, bobwhites were restricted to patches of open woodland on high, dry sites with an understory of native grasses, forbs and scattered shrubs known as barrens. Modern ecologists refer to these areas as savannas. In addition, bobwhites were found at the interface between forest and prairie where frequent fires were common.
The actions of pioneer farmers were positive for bobwhite. The clearing of small patches of forest for cultivation rapidly increased suitable habitat for quail. The crops planted, corn, oats and wheat, along with the annual weeds associated with agriculture, increased plant foods and insect populations for broods. Land clearing continued as soil fertility quickly declined in fields without fertilization. After several years, fields were abandoned and new fields were cleared. Abandoned fields quickly developed a cover of annual weeds and grasses, creating ideal nest cover and brood foraging habitat for quail.
Settlers gravitated to forests because they thought timber soils were more fertile than prairie soils and they needed wood for homes, barns and fencing. In addition, prairie soils were not cultivated because their plows were unable to break the prairie sod. After the steel moldboard plow was invented in 1837, pioneer farmers began to establish small fields of corn, oats and wheat. By breaking up large prairie tracts with small fields of grain, farmers created additional living space for bobwhite. These fields were often bordered by plantings of osage orange or naturally established hazelnut, plum and dogwood.
Authorities believe that Illinois bobwhites probably reached peak abundance about the time of the Civil War (1860-1865). It is important to note that the activities of pioneer farmers greatly increased the distribution and abundance of bobwhites.
Over the next century, agricultural productivity continued to increase through the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, improved seed varieties and mechanization. However, most farms retained fairly small fields (20 to 40 acres) often bordered by wooded fencerows. At this stage, most farms were diversified and still producing livestock, thus requiring hayfields and pastures. Crop rotations were still used to maintain soil fertility and control weeds. Typical rotations included corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, legumes and idle fields. By the end of the 1960s, total agricultural production surpassed domestic demand especially for feed grains.
In the 1970s, farm productivity continued to increase. Farms became larger and began to specialize. In Illinois, farms were growing continuous row crops, usually corn and soybeans. Livestock production became industrialized with production of meat and dairy largely limited to confinement buildings or feedlots, reducing the acreage of small grains, hay and pasture. Where hay was produced, intensively managed alfalfa replaced clover and lespedeza, species harvested less often and later in the summer. Most remaining pastures were converted from bluegrass or prairie remnants to tall fescue, a coarse, dense grass with no value to bobwhites. Finally, increasing size of farm machinery necessitated removal of shrubby field borders essential for movement and dispersal of bobwhites. Use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides eliminated the need for crop rotations and reduced weed seeds and insects, essential foods for bobwhite chicks.
Increases in productivity produced an abundant food supply but also led to frequent periods of low prices for farm operators. Farm organizations and agricultural policymakers realized the export market was the key to maintaining farm profitability. Currently, 20 percent of American farm production is exported around the world and 40 percent of the corn grown in the United States is converted to ethanol. Though increasing productivity has significantly reduced bobwhite habitat, an opportunity has been created to consider alternative uses of less productive land on Illinois farms.
In addition to reports of declining hunter harvest, numerous studies and surveys have documented the reduction in bobwhite abundance. The North American Breeding Bird Survey conducted by the United States Geological Survey reported a 57 percent decline in bobwhites observed on Illinois routes from 1966 to 2006. In a unique study, researchers from the Illinois Natural History Survey recorded avian observations on three transects in northern, central and southern Illinois. Transects were run in the summer months for the first time in 1907. These surveys were repeated in 1956, and for the third time in 2007. Changes in land use were also recorded. Transects passed through grassland (idle, grazed, hayed and linear); forest, shrub, savanna and linear and cropland (corn, wheat, alfalfa, oats and idle).
In 1907, a total of 138 bobwhites were observed. In 1956, 57 bobwhites were reported and 14 quail were reported in 2007. In grassland, 89 bobwhites were observed in 1907; 28 bobwhite were observed in 1956 and none were recorded in 2007. In forest, 9 quail were observed in 1907; 24 quail were recorded in 1956 and 14 quail were observed in 2007. In cropland, 40 quail were recorded in 1907; 5 quail were reported in 1956 and none were observed in 2007. In the 20th century, observations of bobwhite on these transects declined by 97 percent.
Can Trends in Bobwhite Numbers be Changed?
It is possible to reverse the bobwhite trend if landowners and farm operators have a sincere interest in taking advantage of opportunities on their land. Bobwhite habitat requirements are well known but, in contrast to the past, habitat restoration requires special efforts.
Woodlands and woodland edges are of prime importance in facilitating bobwhite movements on the landscape. Shrubby forest edges, wooded ravines and brushy fencerows are essential to protect quail from weather and predators. Large tracts of woods are not required but woody habitat must be well interspersed with herbaceous nest cover, brood habitat and cropland. Existing woodlots should be thinned to reduce canopy closure to 50 percent or less to permit establishment of grasses, forbs and some native shrubs. Prescribed fire at three-year intervals will be necessary to maintain this savanna-like condition.
Grassland habitat suitable for nesting and brood foraging is the most critical need on modern farms for bobwhites. Bobwhites are a short-lived species, and they cannot maintain a population without successful reproduction year after year. Most farms have areas that can provide safe nest cover including field borders, roadsides, filter strips and contour buffers. Permanent pastures and fields enrolled the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) can also provide nest cover if planted to appropriate species and managed to reduce disturbance from April 1 to August 1 annually. These areas will also require periodic renovation with fire, disking or herbicide treatment, usually at three-year intervals. Nest cover and brood habitat should occupy the majority of the acres available for management. Thin stands of native grasses and forbs are preferred by bobwhites. Most grass stands are too thick and lack diversity or are mowed at the peak of the nesting season.
Old fields of CRP can be renovated by killing strips of sod 30 to 50 feet wide with spring or fall applications of Roundup and spring applications of Plateau. Spraying should be preceded by close mowing. Field borders, filterstrips and contour buffers should be planted to native grasses, such as little bluestem (2 pounds per acre) plus a mix of native forbs (1 pound per acre). Planting using a native grass drill should be done in April or May. Once established, stands should be burned at rate of one-third per year. Larger fields (>10 acres) should be divided into three equal parts by planting 30-foot-wide strips of lespedeza, clover or alfalfa to serve as firebreaks and brood foraging areas.
Cropland can also be improved. Waste grain is an important food source for quail. Any reduced tillage practice will benefit bobwhites; however, no-till farming provides the most benefit. Cover crops may provide enhanced brood foraging if burn downs are timed appropriately, Also leaving a few rows of standing corn adjacent to shrubby fencerows other protective cover greatly enhances winter habitat for bobwhites.
Sources of Assistance
Organizations including Quail Forever, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency will assist with planning habitat restoration and provide cost-sharing to establish habitat. The Farm Service Agency will provide cost-sharing and provide land rental payments for any parcels in enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Though we may not be able to restore bobwhite numbers statewide, positive responses have occurred in areas where several landowners have joined together to develop habitat on adjacent farms.
John Cole grew up in Bradley (Kankakee County). He graduated from SIU Carbondale with BA in 1968 then served two years in the U.S. Army as medical technologist at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. After graduating from SIU Carbondale with an MS in 1973 he began to work for the then Illinois Department of Conservation as District Wildlife Biologist, headquartered in Gibson City in east-central Illinois. In 1993, Cole became the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Ag and Grassland program manager in Springfield, working there until his retirement in 2008.
Walk, J. L., M. P. Ward, T. J. Benson, J. L. Deppe, S. A. Lischka, S. D. Bailey and J. D. Brawn. 2010. Illinois Birds a Century of Change. Illinois Natural History Survey Special Publication 31.
Roseberry, J. L. and J. Cole. 2006. The Bobwhite in Illinois, Its past present and future. Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Springfield.