By Stanley D. Stewart, Wildlife Biologist

In the early 1970s Alabama had 100,000 quail hunters who harvested 2.5 million quail a season. Quail hunting was popular because bobwhites were relatively abundant across most of the state. They were not as abundant as in earlier decades. A slow erosion in numbers had been noticed since the 1940s. Standardized surveys were not begun until the mid 1960s. From that time until now, the breeding population of bobwhites across the state has plummeted more than 80 percent. Quail harvests are currently only five percent of what they were in 1970. Most quail hunters have given up because birds have become so scarce. Where have all the quail gone?

Alabama was largely agricultural. There were 250,000 farms in the state, and the average farm size was 60 acres. The crude farming methods of the day resulted in small fields, periodically fallow land, and weedy-brushy fencerows. The repetitive, crude disturbance permitted an abundance of the natural plants so favored by quail to exist as part of the system. Burning of the woods was a common and frequent practice that maintained quail habitat. Wildlife surveys at that time estimated 17 million of Alabama’s 33 million acres was good quail habitat.

Alabama has fewer than 50,000 farms today. The average farm is 190 acres, much of which is intensively cropped land with little space for quail. More importantly, much of the former crude farm land has been converted to other uses. Patch farms interspersed with open, frequently burned forests have been replaced with forests largely unsuitable for quail – currently 23 million acres. Improved pasture that relies on introduced forage grasses has eliminated 5 million acres of land as quail habitat and urban development – currently about 2 million acres – permanently removes wildlife habitat.

Many contend that nothing has changed on the land over all these years. But, the numbers tell a different story. The loss of quail is a symptom of changed land cover. More specifically and alarmingly, the gradual disappearance of quail is just one symbol of a land-use philosophy that increasingly eliminates natural diversity and native plants for artificial systems. The questions are how far will we go in replacing the wild things with the artificial, and what kind of world will that be?