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Upland Gamebirds Coming Soon To A Farm Near You

Oct 10, 2018 04:22PM ● By Brian Saucedo

By Frederick Schultz

Outside city limits on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, hunting has been a rite of fall. About this time every year, shotgun-toting sportsmen and sportswomen dressed in khaki brush pants—often with the help of intrepid bird dogs—took to the rural fields across the region. 

Shunning, at least for a while, the sedentary wait in a blind for decoy-tricked ducks and geese to come to them, these hunters were on the move, trudging and kicking through hedgerows and woodland thickets in hopes of scaring up bob-white quail or maybe a ringneck pheasant or two. This was a popular pastime for a small-game hunter, who could bag his or her limit and still be home before dark. Even members of the old Baltimore Colts were known to test their skills at outsmarting the wily gamebirds. 

For most, the flutter of wings and the cackle the birds make when they take flight are a distant memory now. For a generation or more, those sounds have become rare and, in some locales, fallen silent altogether. And the hunters have been wondering why. The reasons seemed to depend on who was answering the question.

Part of the blame, environmentalists have agreed, lies with widespread overdevelopment, a lack of informed groundcover management, and the use of harmful pesticides in farming that apparently killed off the already depleted fowl or, at least, drove them farther into the wilds and away from all the congestion caused by the building boom. But help appears to be on the horizon. Efforts aimed to create new habitat for upland game birds in this region are currently underway.

A New Wave

This new wave, as it were, is not especially brand new, but signs that it is working are starting to show. With funding from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund, and, since 2017, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a carefully implemented reconstitution effort is, apparently, beginning to pay off.

A recent article written by Meagan Racey for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Nature’s Good Neighbors is titled, “Bringing Back the ‘Prince of Game Birds,’” referring, of course, to the reintroduction of the bob-white quail, named for its chirp of “bob-white, bob-white,” evidently by some over-imaginative soul needing something—anything—to call the elusive bird. 

About the Northern Bob-White

The Northern bob-white quail is an “umbrella” species in the case of introducing its habitat to land formerly used exclusively for agriculture. Whether it is installing new native grass and wildflower meadows or the subsequent management that ensues, many other species that require similar habitat will benefit. In addition, and particularly important in this region, Chesapeake Bay health will improve over time as new habitat is installed. 

Bob-whites are a culturally iconic species. Many people in their 50s and older have countless stories about how abundant quail were 30 to 40 years ago and how good the hunting was. Because of regional declines, hunting on the Eastern Shore has switched from upland game bird hunting to Canada Goose hunting. I think we are close to a turning point in trying to reverse the dramatic quail declines, both from an existing population point of view (if it gets too small it might become impossible to reverse the decline) and from a cultural point of view. As time goes on people will feel less and less connected to quail, and newer generations of farmers and landowners may be less willing to set aside land to benefit quail.

—Dan Small, Program Manager, Natural Lands Project, Washington College 

In telling the story of Bob Spiering, a retired Air Force mechanic who farms in the headwaters of Maryland’s Choptank River, the article cites a startling statistic: “The Department of Natural Resources estimates that the bob-white population has dropped more than 90 percent over the past 50 years.” But now, Spiering is seeing—and hearing (bob-white!)—results from his federally funded efforts at revitalizing his farm for wildlife. 

Another such initiative took root in 2015, when the Natural Lands Project—under the auspices of Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society and in partnership with ShoreRivers (formerly the Chester River Association)—began repurposing farmland. 

According to Project Coordinator Dan Small, an expert on quail who is working with local farmers, “one of our main objectives is to motivate landowners and farmers to make small changes on their properties by adding upland meadow habitat in the form of buffers or wetlands on marginal cropland to provide habitat for species in decline.” He says such habitats would also “perform a critical role by trapping and filtering excess sediment and nutrients from leaving the farm fields and entering our local waterways.”

Small credits his interest and expertise in creating animal habitat to his field work in regions of the United States where quail are still abundant. “One great source of information and insight has been Dr. Theron Terhune, the gamebird program director at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy outside Tallahassee, Florida, the preeminent northern bob-white research group in the country,” he says. Local projects include several properties on the Eastern Shore, with “Chino Farms [in Queen Anne’s County] being one of only a few here with a thriving quail population.” Small says that years of habitat creation and management have demonstrated that modern farming and quail can coexist. 

Working With—Not Against—Landowners

Small works with each landowner to create a habitat design that will not impact their farming priorities, then coordinates the planting of native warm-season grasses and wildflowers. He continues to monitor the plantings and advises on how the land should be managed “to keep the meadows in optimal condition for grassland birds and pollinators.” Overseeing the wetland-installation side of the project, he acknowledges, is “my colleague from ShoreRivers, Virgil Turner.”

The soil in many of this region’s low-lying areas consists of hydric clay (not conducive to high crop yield) that has “a high water-holding capacity,” Small points out. While it’s not prime farmland, these experts know it is “great for creating a two- to four-acre wetland that collects farm field runoff and filters it before leaving the fields.” 

How much does such a conversion cost, and from where does the funding come? In 2015, the previously mentioned grant program allocated $700,000 to install 345 acres of upland meadows and 27 acres of wetlands in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. “We have had a really positive response from area landowners interested in making a balance on their properties between wildlife habitat and farming,” Small says. “Because of this interest, we have exceeded our initial goal and have now planted 375 acres of native grass meadows and installed 35 acres of wetlands.

Small adds: “Due to the success of the first few years of the project and growing interest from landowners on the shore, we were awarded an additional $500,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in 2017 to continue our work in Queen Anne’s County while expanding our efforts to work with landowners in Talbot County.” 

Small predicts that he also will be working with upper-shore landowners over the next three years to continue installing native upland grass and wildflower buffers to increase habitat not only for declining northern bob-whites, but also other grassland birds and insects. He urges any Queen Anne’s and Talbot landowners interested in converting marginal cropland into habitat that would benefit northern bob-whites to visit the website:

$450 an Acre

Converting such cropland into a vibrant meadow costs $450 per acre, which is fully covered by the grants, Small adds. “In addition to covering the costs of site preparation, seed, and installation, we also offer an incentive payment of $450 for each acre of habitat planted,” the quail expert explains. “The Natural Lands Project funding can be combined with other sources, creating a cost-effective way of converting marginal cropland with zero cost to the landowner, and the newly converted habitat often generates more money than the cropland.” 

One of the beneficiaries of converting farmland to game habitat has been Bob Ingersoll, Chestertown environmental supporter and owner of Silver Hill Saw Mill. He is also a farmer, whose most recent crop was hay. But now, he’s converted the waterfront farm to other purposes and already leases land for deer hunting, and he planted hedgerows for pheasant habitat in 2017. 

Ingersoll can list a number of things that made him decide to repurpose his farmland. “First, we were getting older and no longer wanted to keep producing hay, and we did not want to resort to row cropping corn and beans,” he says. “Second, we wanted a large area of land to be set aside for quail, turkey, song birds, small mammals, and other base inhabitants of the food chain. Third, we wanted to protect the long shoreline we have on the Chester River and the contained waters from sediments, herbicides, and pesticides. We have added bee hives as pollinators and are happy to give them a place where there are no pesticides for a very large area of land.” 

Asked whether his decision was economic, personal, or environmental, Ingersoll replied: “They are all rather tied together. We are lucky enough to be able to support it from the subsidy we got for the first three years, even though we are committed for 10 years of the program; the last seven years are not subsidized. We can do this, as we do all the maintenance, in-house. And we already have the needed equipment. It is a good environmental object lesson to be passing to our children and grandchildren, who were asked their opinions before we committed, and were all on board.” 

A Significantly Larger Population of Birds and Mammals

The conversion for the Ingersolls is working out “pretty much as expected, although we are working closely with Dan Small to work out solutions to invasive species like Canada thistle, Russian olive, and Johnson grass without using herbicides.” That, he says, can be a challenge. “In this, year three, the hedgerows we planted are doing well and should be good cover for the smaller birds and quail by year five. The farm supports a significantly larger population of birds and mammals since we converted, both by official count and anecdotal observation.” 

Ingersoll has high expectations for this project. “By year six, we hope to see ‘self-invited’ quail from other areas of the county. If this doesn’t happen, we will consider buying wild-raised quail to set free on the farm, and see what survives a one-year cycle. We are already happy with the rougher look of what we planted in warm-season grasses, flowers (pollinator mix), hedges, and wetlands, including another pond/wetland we installed for migratory game birds. The reward will be if enough coveys of quail establish themselves on this and adjacent properties in the program to have a viable population for years to come.” 

When the program plays out, Ingersoll would like to have met three main goals: quail reestablishment, water-quality improvement of the creek abutting his property, and reestablishment of a viable natural food chain, from insects to carnivores and herbivores. In addition, he predicts, “We are permitted to graze livestock on part of the land in the project, and we may try that later to see if it helps or hurts the natural lands involved. We have added facets to our farm that were not included in the original contract, including bee-keeping and an in-house anecdotal soil-quality study.” 

The Ingersolls were happy to see that the Chester River Association, teamed with ShoreRivers, had no trouble in signing up more program acres than needed to start the original program four years ago. To Bob, “enough farmers have acres that are borderline productive and wish to join in the program, and they are doing just that on a very acceptable scale.” 

He says that if quail can be reestablished on the Eastern Shore to a level that they can be hunted as doves are now, it will satisfy both farmers and land preservationists. “It will bring back a lost source of income and recreation to large and small farmers,” he asserts happily, “and it will help keep sediments out of the waterways that lead to the bay.” Such outcomes, he believes, “will improve the soils by taking those acres out of degrading crop rotation and letting them lie relatively fallow for a decade.”

Is this the start of a larger movement to make these conversions? Bob Ingersoll doubts that it’s a movement—yet. “But,” he believes, “it is a start.”