Lamenting the loss of the bobwhite
“Booooooobbbbb-WHITE! … Booooooobbbbb-WHITE! …”
I was just a kid when I first heard that sweet whistling call of a northern bobwhite quail, out at my grandmother’s place in North Olmsted, west of Cleveland.
In the early ’60s, it was still quiet truck-farm country, ex-urban, not swallowed up as today by ugly citified schlock and sprawl, with all its paving and garish, glaring lighting. And the quail thrived there in that old-fashioned agriculture of mixed fields, fencerows, orchards, gardens, and brushy woodlots.
Bobwhites loved it. They would toddle down to the edge of Grandma’s big garden in the evenings, the “boys” in the crowd calling and the small coveys scooting around, searching for insects to munch and seeds to glean.
Fast-forward 10, 15 years. I am a young man, had my own country place in western Sandusky County. In the evening, it was not uncommon to hear bobwhites signaling one another. The farmland even then was mostly mixed smaller fields, lots of fencerows. My bowhunting buddy, Jim Krotzer, and I not uncommonly would watch a flock of the plucky little quail skittering along a fencerow, weaving and hopping along old strands of rusty barbed wire underneath our treestands.
Then came the successive, monster, late-January blizzards of 1977 and 1978. They devastated and decimated the fleet flocks of little gamebirds. Around the same time, agriculture went full-bore industrial. Square-mile fields were stripped of every stitch of fencerow, brush and tree, eliminating quail habitat, one bulldozer at a time, all in the name of efficiency.
The birds never have returned to most of Ohio; for decades, remnant populations were confined mostly to more temperate Ohio River counties. Statewide, quail numbers have fallen by almost 70 percent since 2002 alone, according to the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
At one time, when I was a little less enlightened, I even tried buying and stocking quail in my own creekbottom, which still harbored good habitat. I was just feeding predators pen-raised meals that had no natural survival instincts. It was as futile as trying to stock pen-raised, ring-necked pheasants. It may feel good, make you think that you are doing something, but, well…
Habitat is the key if quail will ever recover. It is right out of the “build-it-and-they-will-come” mantra of Kevin Costner’s famous movie, “Field of Dreams.” Winter is a good time to start planning fields of dreams for coveys of quail (lots of other wild creatures will like it, too).
The state wildlife division can provide more background on the bird online at wildohio.gov, and Quail Forever, the habitat-development equivalent for bobwhites that Pheasants Forever is for ringnecks, also can help. Visit https://www.quailforever.org/.
When we lost those cheerful, sweet calls and the sight of coveys skedaddling along brushrows, we lost something special. It would be nice to have them back. The loss has been ours, and many of us do not even realize it.