As kids, we drove through the farm fields of Kent County with our old man, heading out to Remington Farms to look at geese and ducks on ponds, watching deer coming out at dusk, stopping along Brice’s Mill Road when we saw a red fox loping across a rise in the landscape.
With the engine cut off on the side of the road, windows rolled down, ears focused, we would listen and hear the distinctive whistles of bobwhite quail gathering in their coveys. Butts in and faces out, they would circle up in tight ground roosts for their night’s rest, shoulder to shoulder, conserving heat. The next day, the only evidence of their roost would be the remaining small white pile of guano deposited at the very center of their tightly choreographed survival routine.
Those bobwhite calls were an accepted element of the rural Eastern Shore soundscape. Were, because now, finding a covey of wild-bred bobwhites on the Delmarva Peninsula is a nearly impossible rarity.
Chalk it up to loss of habitat resulting from development, removal of hedgerows due to conglomeration of farms and more intensive agricultural practices, and predation for eggs and meat by foxes, possums, raccoons and snakes.
Hunters were among the predators at one time. That was decades ago when there were enough birds to hunt. For sustainability, most hunters were careful to take only four or five birds out of a covey of 15 or 20 quail. Even getting those four or five quail is no easy task. When flushed from dense cover, coveys explode into the air and fly like the wind in all directions. Only well-practiced shots bag more than a few quail.
Because of conservation-minded individuals and organizations, there are glimmers of hope that the tide leading to loss of sustainable habitat for bobwhite quail may be turning.
More on that, but first let’s shift geographical gears.
A few weeks back, a small group of us drove 18-hours westward, out of the tidewater Chesapeake region, over the quietly majestic Appalachians, across the mighty Mississippi, and onto the vast plains of the midwest – generally – and into central Iowa specifically.
The goal: hunt pheasants and quail over trained bird dogs: setters and pointers. There, terracing for conservation as well as natural draws and little creeks that drain the rolling land provide plenty of tall-grassed and scrub-treed habitat for those game birds. Corn and soybean fields adjacent to the draws provide an irresistible combination of food and cover for successful quail and pheasant propagation.
Delmarva, by the way, has never sustained populations of pheasants. The lack of limestone on this big sandy spit of ours appears to be the missing ingredient.
Not so there in Iowa. We found plenty of quail and pheasant to keep the dogs and us busy.
At the end of one hunt, I found myself in the middle of a large patch of milkweed. The cracked and dried pods revealed shiny and silky white filaments. Caught by wind and breezes, those filaments spread the little brown seeds attached to them. Nature’s way of cultivating more and more stands of milkweed.
The farmer who directed us to good hunting spots said the milkweed stands were part of a government-sponsored conservation program designed to provide more habitat for monarch butterflies. Their caterpillar stage feeds only on milkweed leaves.
It’s nice to keep the monarchs alive by cultivating patches throughout the United States to sustain them on their long flights back and forth to their Mecca in Mexico. But in addition to the monarchs providing natural beauty to our lives, they also are among the many pollinators so critical to plant life. Spreads of milkweed and neighboring grasses also provide habitat for many other pollinators and larger creatures on up the food chain.
Whether the Delmarva Peninsula will ever see a return of sustainable populations of wild, bobwhite quail like those we saw in Iowa depends in large part on the efforts of conservation groups working to preserve open space, and programs like the Natural Lands initiative being promoted by Washington College in Chestertown. That program encourages farmers and other landowners to adopt land management practices aimed at reversing the loss of habitat.
On thousands of acres along the Queen Anne’s County side of the upper Chester River, the college and its students have followed the lead of a private landowner in creation of meadowy habitats specifically designed to encourage the return of quail populations. At the same time, associated benefits include providing natural habitat for butterflies and bees and other pollinators.
It’s all connected and part of the responsibility we all share as stewards of this incredibly bountiful and beautiful global garden entrusted to us by nature.
Dennis Forney has been a publisher, journalist and columnist on the Delmarva Peninsula since 1972. He writes from his home on Grace Creek in Bozman.