Habitat is the Key!
If each of my grandfathers were alive today, they would both be more than 100 years old. Both passed away when I was a teenager. But I can still recall the wonderful stories they would tell the grandkids about their farming adventures when teams of horses and mules toiled in the fields.
1950s and 1960s
Before herbicides the weeds were so bad that my grandfather had to tie up the horses' tails to their back during harvest to keep them out of the cockleburs. Think how it felt to get slapped across the face by a horse’s tail full of cockleburs! The weeds were so bad they had to burn off the stubble and weedy growth each spring before they planted. I can recall clover seed fields being burned to remove the trash into the 1960s. Picture how the quail would have responded to such a landscape. Weeds galore and annual burning. No wonder that quail populations peaked in the 1950s and '60s!
The first tractors my grandfathers used were purchased in the late 1940s, and teams of horses and mules were phased out in the early 1950s. My grandfathers did not start using herbicides until the very late 1950s, and they were the first in their community to try the new chemicals. Their first herbicide sprayer was a 55-gallon drum with 30-foot spray booms.
Now fast forward to my teen years on those same farms that my grandfathers worked. I was hunting quail and pheasant in still weedy fencelines with pigweed, lambsquarter, hemp and sunflowers in the 1970s. Sunflowers could be seen across the tops of the corn, otherwise those fields were pretty clean…things had changed drastically in just 15 years. I had been taught that weeds were a bad deal for crops, but I also saw how wildlife depended on them for food during rough winters and flocked to weed patches during snow or ice storms. My father grew around seven different crops on these farms in addition to dairy, beef, hogs and poultry.
Fast forward again to today where the fencelines on those same farms are full of brome or fescue and no weeds. The cropfields are virtually weed free. The only crops grown now are corn and soybeans and there is no livestock. And we still hear people say that their farm has not changed in the last 50 years.
I share this with you not to complain about agriculture, but to illustrate that things have indeed changed over the last 50 years on the farm, especially from a quail’s-eye view. Quail numbers peaked in the '50s and '60s as agriculture began to fully implement technological changes unlike any ever seen. I don’t suggest that we go back to the methods of farming from the '40s and '50s.
However, if you want quail back you need to get the weeds back in the idle areas and fencelines. Plant field borders and other kinds of buffers to quail friendly plants. Don’t mow idle areas to make them look nice. These weedy areas provide broodrearing, winter protection and food and are a necessary part of the quail life cycle. Without them there will be no sustainable quail population.