Due to loss of habitat, times are hard for bobwhites. But some of our public lands in southern Florida still offer viable quail hunts! (November 2008)
Each season, Florida's 48,000 quail hunters still harvest an estimated 200,000 bobwhites throughout the state.
Photo by John N. Felsher.
Quail hunters across the Southeast have faced tough times, with bird populations declining as quickly as habitat vanishes. Rather than thick forests, Northern bobwhite quail prefer tall grass and open pine savannahs where they eat seeds, insects and green plants. Quail can't survive in monoculture croplands or pine plantations, but they thrive at the brushy edges of fields where they find plenty of clumps of grass, weeds and briers.
During the past 40 years, the wild quail population in the southeastern United States fell about four percent each year. Since the mid-1960s, this amounted to a total drop in population of about a 70 percent.
Hunters can no longer find wild quail in many places, so to supplement their hunting they release pen-raised birds.
Typically, those quail don't survive long enough to reproduce.
"Populations have been declining in much of North American since the early 1900s," said Wes Burger, a quail expert and professor of wildlife ecology. "Agricultural lands that once supported quail no longer can because of the intensification of agricultural practices from the mid-1900s through today."
During the 20th century, agricultural practices changed throughout the nation. Small family farms separated by hedgerows or other transitional areas disappeared as giant agricultural corporations bought up small plots and joined them together. To maximize profits, they plowed and planted every inch of available ground, leaving little cover for quail.
Florida's quail suffered through the same agricultural transition. But each year in the Sunshine State, more wild property turns into shopping malls, condos and housing developments to accommodate the booming human population. Sportsmen without their own property struggle to find a good place to let the dogs out.
Still, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission about 48,000 bird hunters bag about 200,000 birds each year.
"Florida has traditionally been a good state for quail hunting," said Charles L. McKelvy, the Florida Small Game Program coordinator.
"The population has been declining slightly, but it's still a good state to hunt quail in -- relative to other southern states. However, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find properties with moderate quail densities that are open to the public."
The ongoing drought might actually help Florida's quail. Drought makes ground more open and seeds easier to find. Dry conditions also lead to fires, and the regeneration of plants creates excellent habitat. Quail thrive in areas periodically renewed by forest fires or controlled burns.
With few people trapping furbearers, increasing numbers of predators also bite into quail numbers. The top quail predators are foxes, bobcats and raptors. Fire ants take a toll of nestlings across the South. Skunks and raccoons destroy nests and eat eggs.
Between 55 to 70 percent of all bobwhite nests get destroyed by predators and other factors. In about 25 percent of those cases, the adult bird also dies. Only about 50 percent of the chicks survive their first three weeks. Sometimes, a female must lay three clutches of eggs just to ensure that some survive.
Ironically, one much maligned predator really helps boost quail populations. Coyotes actually eat few quail, but they do kill many feral cats, one of the most vicious predators of small birds. Coyotes also chase foxes away from quail habitat.
With Florida quail facing so many difficulties, the odds look slim for a banner season in 2008-09. However, the state has some projects to increase or enhance wild quail habitat.
In December 2007, the FWC approved a new strategic plan to restore bobwhite populations. The plan includes establishing partnerships with landowners, other state and federal agencies and private groups to find, restore and protect suitable quail habitat across the state.
"Cooperative partnerships with Department of Environmental Protection and Division of Forestry have been formalized in conjunction with Tall Timbers Research Station through a project called the Uplands Ecosystem Restoration Project," McKelvy explained.
"This project's primary emphasis is to step up active land management including roller chopping, timber harvest and prescribed burning on lands that the state already owns. At present, 72,000 acres across the state are involved in this project."
Where quail find excellent habitat, they reproduce in good numbers, despite predators or other factors.
To enhance quail habitat, many landowners thin forests and plant shrubs. Sometimes, people plant native foods for quail, such as grains or legumes like partridge peas. With proper management in good habitat, quail numbers quickly rebound.
"Today, it takes intensive management to make and preserve quail habitat," Burger said. "Quail respond well to proper management. Coyotes actually eat few quail, but do kill many feral cats, one of the most vicious predators of small birds. Coyotes also chase foxes away from quail habitat.
"When people create the right environment on a sufficiently large scale, quail quickly find it and colonize it. Places intensively managed probably have more quail now than ever."
Once they do find good habitat, quail won't move very far from where they hatched. In high-quality habitat, they may use only six to seven acres in their lifetime. In poor habitat, they may have to use 100 to 300 acres. Sportsmen who jump quail one day should find them fairly close to that spot throughout the season.
Florida's quail season runs from Nov. 8, 2008, through March 1, 2009, though public hunting areas usually offer different seasons.
The 79,013-acre Fred C. Babcock-Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area, about five miles from Punta Gorda, offers some of the best quail habitat in the state. Established in 1941, Babcock-Webb WMA remains one of the last large undeveloped tracts of pine flatwoods in southwest Florida. Situated in the middle of developments, citrus groves and pastureland, the WMA sits close to the southern
edge of the bobwhite quail's natural range.
In the 1970s, the estimated quail population in the WMA hit about 34,000 birds, but declined in recent years. Since the 1990s, the annual harvest has averaged about 2,000 birds.
"I'd rate the Babcock-Webb WMA as the best in the state," McKelvy agreed. "Though densities are down as in most of the Southeast, management on this area targets bobwhites.
"Habitat conditions are well suited for working a brace of well-trained dogs. The habitat is comprised of dry prairie and south Florida flatwoods, including scattered south Florida slash pine, saw palmetto and various grasses, forbs and legumes.
"Depressional wetlands and marsh are also scattered across most of these landscapes."
The state offers quota permits for hunts on four zones of Babcock-Webb WMA. Sportsmen may also obtain daily "soft quota" permits to help even out hunting pressure.
Acquired by the state in the 1990s, the Triple N Ranch WMA contains 15,391 acres near Holopaw in Osceola County. The habitat consists mainly of pine and palmetto flatwoods with scattered wet and dry prairies. It also contains some cypress and oak hammocks and scrub.
Quail season generally runs from late November through mid-January.
Also near Holopaw, Bull Creek WMA contains 23,646 acres in Osceola County and allows quail hunting in late winter. East of Lake Kissimmee, Three Lakes WMA offers another 52,976 acres of public hunting in Osceola County.
In both WMAs, the habitat consists of mostly longleaf or slash pines and palmetto flatwoods, with cypress and mixed hardwoods scattered through wetter areas. Adjacent to Three Lakes WMA, the 8,859-acre Prairie Lakes Unit offers quail hunting through much of December.
The largest WMA in southwest Florida, Avon Park Air Force Range covers about 106,000 acres of Polk and Highlands counties. The military allows the public to use 82,000 acres for hunting. The habitat mostly consists of mixed pine, prairies, marshes, hammocks and scrub. Range authorities burn about 20,000 to 40,000 acres annually on two- or three-year cycles to enhance wildlife habitat.