Sainte Genevieve and Saint Francois counties are not the first places in Missouri that come to mind when talking about quail country. Most of the terrain is rugged wooded hills, and the type of open land related to quail habitat is limited to relatively small, narrow bottomland and ridgetop fields scattered across the forested landscape. It is not a landscape typically associated with abundant quail populations. But talk to anyone more than 40 years old who hunts, and they will tell you how good the quail hunting used to be.
So where have the quail gone? Talks with landowners and hunters bring up the usual suspects—predators. But we have proof that in spite of whatever influence predators may have, if you create the right habitat, quail will thrive, even in this less-than-perfect landscape. It can happen on private land, even on small acreages, and there are programs that can help.
Bringing Back Buffers
Ashley Williams manages three parcels of land in these counties, and he has successfully restored quail on each. One of them is a 400-acre family farm in southern Ste. Genevieve County along Saline Creek.
The landscape breaks sharply from narrow bottomland fields to steep, wooded hillsides with only 81 acres of fields. The farm has been in his family for more than 100 years, and he gladly recalls stories of hunts when multiple coveys would be flushed in a day. But the farm was different then; it was made up of multiple small fields with brushy/weedy hedgerows and drainages between them, other odd areas that weren’t regularly cropped, some hillside pasture and open woodlands.
When Williams took over as the manager of the land, the small fields had been merged into one 70-acre field that was all in crops. There was one 11-acre hillside pasture, and the wooded areas had filled in with maple and cedar. The few odd areas remaining on the farm were in fescue. The only sign of quail was one meager covey that migrated between the farm and the neighbors’ lands on each side. Williams’ interest in restoring the hunting he enjoyed in years past sent him to the Missouri Department of Conservation for advice.
Larry Heggeman, private land conservationist, laid out a plan to restore the edges of the fields to quail habitat. During the planning, a new program called CP33, the Quail Buffer Practice, became available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This program fit perfectly for the Williams farm, and in the spring of 2005, Williams was busy planting the edges of the field to a mix of native grasses, little bluestem and sideoats grama, and wildflowers. Small blocks of trees were cut along the field edges to create brushy cover, a practice known as edge feathering. Nineteen acres of cropland were retired to these quail buffers, including some areas along the creek that probably never should have been farmed, and 5 acres of the hillside pasture were treated similarly, using MDC cost-share because they didn’t qualify for CP33.
The first summer after planting seemed disappointing. A serious drought hindered the germination of the native grasses. Weeds grew prolifically, but precious little native grass could be found. Williams was concerned that the planting had been a failure. Then he noticed that the covey of quail responded anyway. They could now be found regularly on the Williams farm scurrying around in those weeds.
MDC staff urged him to be patient, the planting would take hold in time. Most of us are used to planting crops, lawn grasses or gardens, and we see what we plant in a relatively short time. Native grasses and wildflowers can take 2-3 years to become established, especially if conditions are rough.
By the end of the second summer, the native grasses were common but still scattered and spaced among the weeds. However, more of those “weeds” could now be identified as the wildflowers included in the planting. More important, the quail were increasing! At least two coveys were found regularly. The planting progressed, and the response of the quail encouraged Williams to do some more edge feathering.
Currently, four coveys of quail are thriving at the Williams farm. The native grass has thickened to the point that it is now ready for management activities to maintain the open structure that quail like best. For Williams, that will be burning one-third of the buffer each year, but disking is another option.
Quail hunting has returned, and the farm is a favorite destination during the hunting season for family and friends. Williams reports that the coveys can always be found in or near one of the brushy areas, so he plans to install more in the future. “Sometimes we just let the quail fly, we’re so glad to see them again,” he says.
As a huge bonus, rabbits run from every one of the brush piles, and rabbit hunting actually exceeds quail hunting as a regular activity. Williams feels a great sense of accomplishment knowing that his efforts paid off and he has achieved his goal of restoring small game habitat to his farm.
From a financial perspective, Williams reports that farm income is higher with the CRP payments than with farming alone, and his farm has not missed the retired acres. The edges were low in productivity, which is typical, and they did not yield well compared to the inputs required, such as seed, fertilizer, planting, herbicide, and fuel costs. His only regret is that he doesn’t have more edges to enroll.
Williams hopes to start work soon on some of the wooded areas to remove cedars and maples, and restore some of the glade and woodlandsavannah communities that will help even more quail flourish in the uplands. And, of course, there will definitely be more edge feathering.
Experience Means Success
A similar plan was laid out by Roger Frazier, private land conservationist, for another of Williams’ properties, a farm in St. Francois County. Consisting of 130 acres at the very edge of Farmington’s city limits and adjacent urban developments, the farm has gone from no quail to two coveys.
Williams’ other Ste. Genevieve property of only 30 acres (in a rural housing subdivision of 20-acre lots with some adjacent pastures) now also harbors a resident covey of quail. This one he handled largely on his own. With just a small amount of assistance from MDC, he applied the same practices he learned from the other farms.
Using the knowledge he gained by working on his land, Williams is now an active member of his local Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, and he helps other landowners improve quail habitat on their property.
Due to owning land in two counties, and staffing changes that occurred within MDC, Williams has worked with three different MDC private land conservationists, along with the equally helpful USDA staff in both county offices.
Williams advises other landowners who miss hearing bobwhite on their land to get advice from a professional, and to have patience with the process. “It works, whether it’s in a program or not, and these people know what they’re talking about. Give the quail a chance, and they will come.”
Others who have seen the results of Williams’ work have taken his advice and headed to their nearest USDA office to ask about the CRP buffer program. There are several buffer practices besides the CP33, and all can be modified to create suitable quail habitat if you emphasize that interest when talking to your planner. A new program called CP38 allows enrollment of entire fields.
If your fields do not qualify for CRP, remember— it is the habitat that brings the quail, not the program. If your real goal is to return quail to your property, then practices and habitat improvements are what matters. Conservation staff can assist you in planning that habitat, and like Williams says, the quail will come.