Partridges in the Piney Woods

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent


Anyone who visits the piney woods in the spring will be sure to hear the plaintive “Bob Bob White” call sooner or later. The Northern Bobwhite is a bird that clearly states its name in its call. But, did you know that the great painter and naturalist John James Audubon referred to them in his diary, over and over, as partridges?

The bobwhite is a small, oval bird with a short tail that somewhat resembles a chicken. It weighs a few ounces. Colors are brown, buff, rufous, white, black and gray. Males are distinguished from females with a white throat and a brown stripe bordered by black. Overall plumage is rufous with gray mottling on the wings and gray scallops. The flanks show white, scalloped stripes. The whitish underparts have black scalloping. Females are duller and have buff throats and the brows do not have a black border.

Most are familiar with the Bob, Bob White call but there are nuances including a plaintiff call used when a covey is dispersed and trying to reassemble. And, speaking of coveys, quail come together into groups of 10-30 birds after breeding in mid-late spring and early summer. These coveys have attracted hunters through the ages.

Birders look forward to “ticking/recording” their first Northern Bobwhite each year. Years ago this would have happened soon after the first of the year. Not so now. Wildlife experts note that Northern Bobwhite’s populations have declined by around 60 percent. This staggering decline has had dramatic socio-economic implications for a sport where generations of hunters have taken to fields and forests around Thanksgiving to hunt quail.

Quail have short wings and don’t fly so much as flutter several hundred yards before hitting the ground and running from danger. They typically freeze and depend on camouflage to avoid danger. This allows pointers—dogs—to find and point coveys and then individual birds after the covey flushes. There is big money involved in quail hunting—training of dogs, field trials of pointers, lodging for hunters, actual hunts, maintaining hunting areas and so forth.

The decline in the populations of Northern Bobwhite—over 22 subspecies within the natural range—has led to the organization of a 25-state National Bobwhite Technical Committee and a National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI). According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, National Farm Policy is critical to quail conservation. Many Farm Bill issues involving quail are considered annually in Washington, DC. The Wildlife Society maintains a website with up-to-date Farm Bill issues. Other Northern Bobwhite information can be obtained from the NBCI website www.bringbackbobwhites.org

What happened to the Northern Bobwhite? Habitat change surely accounts for most of the decline in the species’ populations. Clean farming, pine forest monoculture, introduced fire ants, and exotic grasses among other factors are cited as explanations for the problem. Quail forage on the ground and must have cover but they need cover provided by native grasses through which they can easily move. Exotic grasses generate dense, impenetrable walls.

Why not stock pen-raised Northern Bobwhites? Well, states once did just that but soon found that almost all pen raised quail died within 3 days of release. Yes, pen-raised quail can be and are hunted by well-heeled hunters but this is no solution to quail restoration. The answer is re-creating the habitat that wild birds require to survive and effectively reproduce.

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Hickory Hill Drive
Boyce, Louisiana 71409
318 793-5529
piku1@suddenlink.net

Back