The rabbit fit into the palm of my hand. It was stunned when I took it from the soft mouth of my Labrador Retriever; it invited rescue. I can recall other wild things that I have rescued, some reluctantly. Snakes lead the list. But this tiny bunny was right out of a children’s storybook.
My wife took the bunny and put it into a 12 inch tall cardboard box with water and lettuce and inserted the box into a sink on a kitchen island. The island was approximately 36 inches above the floor. We were reasonably optimistic that we were giving the bunny a chance to grow up to be a rabbit.
The following morning the bunny was gone. He had climbed up the slick surface of the box and had jumped to the floor. We and most importantly our two dogs looked everywhere. We felt certain they would scent the bunny. No luck.
Four days later the bunny reappeared, animated the dogs and after a short chase I caught it and took it outside where it quickly disappeared in the tall grasses just off our lawn.
Rabbits face predators from all sides and above. They are a prime source of calories for foxes, raptors and their tiny offspring are hunted by snakes among other predators. A rabbit has to have wild senses and the agility to elude the hungry. So too, Quail.
Quail have almost disappeared from much of their native grounds they shared with us. For many they are an abstraction. Their habitat has largely disappeared under the blade of heavy equipment and the toxins of herbicides. When is the last time you heard a quail sing or were startled by a covey rise? And we shouldn’t forget that quail are part of the food chain and lunch on ticks.
Several years ago I looked into a shortcut—releasing pen-raised quail on my farm. The story of the rabbit accentuates the folly. A rabbit purchased at a pet shop would not have escaped the box or rebounded from the fall. Pen-raised quail do not have nature’s defense mechanisms to avoid death.
A glimmer of hope has developed in recent years. Both State governments and private organizations have begun efforts to revive the wild quail. They are learning what works and doesn’t and getting better and better at their mission. But, fighting chemicals, heavy equipment and the desire, by some, to leave no dollars on the table is not easy work.
In a sense this is one more battle between irrepressible forces and immovable objects. Yet, in this case the immovable object is, well huge—industrial strength. It is underwritten by bottom lines that leave nature out of the equation. Try to find quail on an Excel spreadsheet.
Quail are fortunate in one respect. They have important allies—pollinators. Pollinators—bees and butterflies principally–depend on many of the same plants that provide protection and food for the quail. On a strictly utilitarian level we can do without quail, but not pollinators. Nature gives us life, including a mix of plants, grasses, trees, shrubs and of course wildlife; they comprise a virtuous circle. When we declare war on the natural systems, we are declaring war on ourselves. We convert a virtuous circle to a perverse one. Adults need to understand the birds and bees.
This is not a new story; humans become preoccupied with wants only to lose what we need. We need buffer filters for clean water. We need pollinators. And the loss of quail is the loss of an important inheritance, forgotten over time. The quail sings a captivating tune and then it is gone.
When my wife and I bought a small row crop farm, we were attracted to its topography and a farm setting on the upper Miles River. We did, however, plant corridors of warm season grasses and developed a five acre wetland.
Quail have not appeared but we have an abundance of very interesting species that crop fields eliminate. Turkey, rabbits, woodcocks and even a Eurasian wading bird called a Ruff have shown up. When the Ruff flew in to wade around our wetland, cars piled up along our right-of-way as Birders from hundreds of miles away came to catch sight of this rare bird.
Our grasses also started a number of interesting conversations. Many could not fathom fields left unmowed; our property was not patterned after a golf course. It became easy, however, to change the conversation as my wife and I are beekeepers and that attracts a lot of questions.
I wish our weekly visuals could be easily shared. A woodcock at sunset is thrilling. A turkey flush as my Labrador and I were walking a pathway got our attention and when we take an evening walk in the fall we often see ducks landing against an orange sky. But, no sighting of quail.
I did one day hear the quail song. It must have been a mockingbird, but then where did the mocking bird pick up the tune? A bit of hope, a distant time remembered.
The distant time was my first hunt with my Dad. We shot a quail or two, but the memory is in the pointing dogs work and the covey flush. So yes, I am a dreamer.
But let me go back briefly to my first hunt. Quail have not been hunted out and I have no intention of hunting them again. Quail have fallen to indifference.
While some are working to bring the Bobwhite Quail back, even more are working to protect pollinators; without habitat that supports quail, they too will decline and then disappear. The thrills of nature are important, but the pollinators are crucial and that is where my native optimism is encouraged.
Wildlife habitat should be a part of every farm and large-scale commercial development. Studies show that farm edges and other marginal yield acres can be used for wildlife to economic advantage. And wildlife habitat should be in the equation as developers seek to convert large tracts of land. Federal and State programs exist to help private landowners reclaim any economic losses. In this respect, Missouri leads the way; it has 47 “private land conservationists” working with landowners on plans and funding alternatives.
Most farmers I know prize wildlife almost as much as their way of life. But many are caught in one of these endless cycles of economic scale and the debt that underwrites its growth. And there is certainly no end of industrial behemoths selling equipment, chemicals, and seeds and then buying the resulting harvest.
Yet, quail in many ways are the “canary in the coal mine”. A canary’s death told miners that the air was too polluted to go any further. As water cascades across parking lots, highways, and fertilized fields it gathers pollutants that wash directly into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries unless there is habitat that filters water. And buffer habitat is the home of pollinators, songbirds, small mammals and potentially quail. Distilled down it is simple: if quail return, our watershed will flourish and not at the expense of the farmer.
Reclaiming our inheritance— clean water, quail, rabbits, pollinators, is our burden.
Remember the rabbit whose wild genes saved him from my Labrador, a cardboard box and a three foot fall? Tall Timbers, an organization that you have likely not heard of is making a difference—it is translocating wild quail, 5,400 to date and is working with a variety of partners to share research and best habitat practices.
It works with both private and public partners that can devote enough acres of habitat to make translocation work. Projects in the Mid-Atlantic include working collaboratively with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. One study site is Chino Farms in Queen Anne’s County and other Maryland sites are referred to as “habitat cooperatives” comprised of both private and public lands.
And on the northern fringes of quail territory Tall Timbers is working with New Jersey Audubon at the Pine Island Cranberry property where they are in their third year of translocating quail.
Several weeks ago I talked to Tall Timbers Czar of quail restoration, Theron Terhune, Ph.D., Director Game Bird Program. I joked with him that he has the power that most Czars of this or that lack. Terhune assesses a potential translocation site and its habitat and management practices must measure up or it will not receive wild quail.
I would love to hear the quail song from my front porch. I dream about being startled again by the thunderous covey flush. Maybe my neighborhood will someday support quail but only if I act. Leaving a land ethic to others should not be an option.
Interviews for this essay included: Dan Small, Field Ecologist and Natural Lands Project Coordinator, Washington College; Christopher Williams, Professor of Wildlife Ecology, University of Delaware; Dave Hoover, Small Game Coordinator, Missouri Department of Conservation; Bob Long, Wild Turkey and Upland Game Bird Project, Department of Natural Resources, Maryland; Dr. Theron Terhune, Game Bird Program Director, Tall Timbers; Ned Gerber, Wildlife Habitat Ecologist, Jerry Harris and Bill DAlonzo, dedicated private landowners.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.