ThunderCroft's Quail Restoration Initiative
Understanding the unusually intricate behaviors and requirements of quail sheds some insight into why populations of these gentle social foraging birds have sadly reached a critically low level in the Eastern United States. Due to their unique relationship with the environment, quail are of particular interest to the conservation measures at ThunderCroft. Their success as a species in southwestern Virginia correlates directly with the development of human civilizations in a way that almost seems counterintuitive to our understanding of ecology. For most plants and animals, the continual development of human societies has more often than not had detrimental effects on vast numbers of plant and animal species that results from pollution, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss. For quail, it is the very essence of habitat destruction and recovery that has provided this unique species of bird the ideal foraging and nesting niches necessary to proliferate. A quick century long recap of the history of Southwestern Virginia reveals the secret to their success and ultimately, to their potential failure in our region.
Roughy 100 years ago, the mountainous regions of Southwestern Virginia were prime logging areas for the timber industry. Destructive "clear cutting" techniques leveled nearly all available virgin timber and essentially reset the clock of successional recovery. As with most natural forest habitats that experience a major disturbance, the plant and animal life attempted to recover; however, forests often take a hundred years or more to gradually recover. In the first ten years or so, a clear cut forest may experience the emergence of weeds and annual grasses which eventually give way to perennial grasses and broad leafed plants. After a decade or so, tree and shrub seeds will have established themselves into saplings which easily out compete the weeds and delicate annuals which give way to a slowly emerging natural reforestation. Throughout the early years of this successional pattern, the low lying vegetation and open ground, provide ideal nesting and foraging areas for numerous species of birds and mammals. Here in Virginia, the post civil war decades parallelled this "early successional habitat." Subsistence farming was a way of survival as families struggled to carve out a living in small scale agricultural practices. Many roadsides and fields lay destroyed and fallow and the post civil war economy made recovery very slow. For Virginia's Bobwhite Quail, the story was quite different. The recovering forest land and adjacent agricultural fields provided optimal combination of foraging and nesting habitat and the quail population rose dramatically until modern farming practices evolved.
A complex series of farming practices took hold after the 1960s that brought on the use of vast amounts and varieties of herbicides and pesticides to control pests and unwanted plant growth. Fence rows that once provided prime habitat for quail and rabbits to proliferate were eliminated so that farmers could put crops up the edge of fences. Improved harvest equipment left very little feed behind to support wildlife. The practice of fall plowing eliminated fields that once provided some feeding opportunities for wildlife and a variety of predators reeked havoc on exposed game through the loss of cover for hiding. However, for quail and many other creatures, the widespread switch from native grasses to fescue grass posed one of the bigger issues for the reduction of quail and a variety of other wildlife populations. Fescue was preferred by farmers for its hardiness and productivity. It grows densely and stays greener longer over a year than any other crop. However, it is now understood that fescue isn't the productive crop that it once was thought to be. Cattle do not gain weight at nearly the same rate on fescue as they do on other grasses. This is due primarily because of a fungus that is within most fescue crops. Because of the density of the growth, quail chicks can't navigate through it and fescue also provides very little habitat to hide from predators. Birds in general do not do well in fescue fields. It is a poor source of nutrition for wildlife in general and, actually, somewhat toxic for horses. Wildlife biologists now describe fescue fields as virtual deserts for wildlife.
ThunderCroft has adopted a variety of techniques to enhance wildlife habitat and quail habitat in particular. Twenty three different species of native grasses, wildflowers and forbs have been planted over ThunderCroft. Include in the plantings are Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Switchgrass, Indian Grass and Virginia Wild Rye. These grass plantings have resulted in an amazing transformation of habitat and for wildlife cover in particular. The addition of wildflowers and forbs have greatly increased food sources for a wide variety of creatures. The increase in bird-life diversity and numbers has been particularly noticeable.
Virginia Quail Recovery Initiative