By Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer

A recent column about the decline of quail in Tennessee and across the Southeast drew a dissenting response from the National Bobwhite Conservation Institute.

I wrote that the situation is dismal and mysterious. An Institute spokesman disagreed in part, saying that while it is indeed “dismal,” it is not “mysterious.”

The Institute contends that the decline of quail over the past four or five decades can be explained by loss of habitat.

I – and quail experts such as Lebanon’s Bill Bryson – agree that’s probably part of the general problem. Many rural fields that once provided prime quail cover and food are now residential developments, golf courses and shopping malls.

Submitted photo
There are differing theories about why quail have declined in many areas.

However, not all are. There are still lots of farms and Wildlife Management Areas on which the quail habitat has remained unchanged – or even improved – over the years. More and more farmers are cooperating with wildlife managers to produce better quail habitat, and some WMAs are cultivated specifically to produce quail.

Yet the quail have made little, if any, comeback in most locales.

Even in areas with suitable habitat, quail hunters aren’t finding many birds. Fields that used to hold several coveys now have only one or two. Or none. When you travel through the countryside in the spring, you rarely hear the merry bob-bob-white whistles that once were common.

To me, that makes the situation mysterious.

The quail institute’s response is similar to the initial response to the state’s vanishing-turkey mystery.

A decade ago I told one of the TWRA’s turkey experts the birds were vanishing on a farm I hunt on in Giles County. At one time there were flocks of several dozen birds on the farm. One fall I counted over 100 birds in a single flock.

Suddenly in the span of two years, those numbers dwindled down to a dozen or so turkeys – and eventually none.

When I told the turkey expert about the situation, he dismissed it. He said the turkeys were still there, I simply wasn’t seeing them.

I knew that wasn’t the case. There were no droppings or feathers around former roosts, no scratchings in the leaves, no dusting areas, no tracks around ponds, no distant gobbles and yelps. The turkeys had vanished.

The farmer who lives there said the same thing. He used to watch flocks of turkeys feeding all around his house, and almost overnight they disappeared.

The situation was the same on adjacent farms. In past years when I would drive through the area there would always be flocks of turkeys in the fields. They disappeared at the same time as the birds on the farm I hunt on.

Finally, a couple of years after I reported the occurrence, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency acknowledged there was a problem. Something had happened to the turkeys in Giles and surrounding counties. Since then the problem – and the mystery – has spread across the state, and the Agency is scurrying to find the cause.

This is not a criticism of the National Bobwhite Conservation Institute, which, like other quail-restoration organizations is committed to a goal I totally support: to save the quail.

But don’t tell me there is no mystery, that’s it’s a simple a matter of lost habitat. Even in prime habitat, few if any quail have returned.

Who are we supposed to believe – the experts or our own eyes?