Restored habitat brings fields of dreams to Sperryville

By Justin Folks

“Field of Dreams” is a fantastic movie, and one of my all-time favorites. Perhaps the most memorable line from the movie comes from “the voice” that speaks to Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, throughout the film: “If you build it, he will come.” We find out toward the end of the movie that the “it” the voice refers to is a baseball field and the “he” is John Kinsella, Ray’s father who passed away years ago.

Fletcher cut back his cattle operation, then converted this section of marginal pastureland to quail habitat. The wooded riparian buffer strip provides woody escape cover between this field and the field border and crop ground on the other side. This is how you arrange quail cover.Justin Folks
Fletcher cut back his cattle operation, then converted this section of marginal pastureland to quail habitat. The wooded riparian buffer strip provides woody escape cover between this field and the field border and crop ground on the other side. This is how you arrange quail cover.

After being jeered by everyone for plowing under his corn and constructing a full-sized diamond, the ghost of Ray’s father eventually emerges from the surrounding corn (where “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and other greats of the time also appeared beforehand) and they have a game of catch. Obviously, not a work of nonfiction.

Our Quail Team hears a similar voice. It is a fact that the underlying cause of the plight of the bobwhite is habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. By adhering to the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy, we aim to stitch together patches of quail habitat and recover this once-familiar Prince of Gamebirds to sustainable population levels. Do we expect these ghostly birds to just appear out of the woods like “Shoeless” Joe Jackson? Is our approach as far-fetched as Ray Kinsella’s? I submit that it is not.

Bill Fletcher, a resident of Rappahannock County, has been working with the Virginia Quail Team for the last three years to create quail habitat on his property. Bobwhites have not been observed there in five years or so, but Fletcher aimed to change that. He has completed two large habitat projects in which he has converted marginal cropland, hay land, and pasture to suitable quail cover. While establishing quail cover may be hard work, the hardest part is perhaps the waiting game afterward. Will they come, or won’t they?

One of the most beautiful things about “quail habitat” is that the plant community and vegetation structure necessary for quail provides food, cover, and shelter for many other wildlife species — songbirds, rabbits, pollinating insects, deer and turkeys to name a few. There aren’t many who appreciate these “fringe benefits” more than the folks with Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL) out of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who have been conducting research on maximizing wildlife benefit while maintaining sustainable agriculture.

Amy Johnson, one of VWL’s principal investigators, has been conducting summer and winter bird surveys at Fletcher’s property for the past couple of years. Without spitting out a bunch of data, I can tell you that the number of bird species and total number of birds using the “quail habitat” areas compared to the adjacent fescue fields and crop fields is staggering, especially in winter. There are immediate benefits to “quail work,” even if quail may not appear for some time.

When we began working together, Mr. Fletcher told us that he had seen or heard a few bobwhites here and there up until about five years ago, when the area experienced an unusually harsh winter (snow depths in some areas were recorded at around 50 inches!). After the spring thaw, the birds didn’t return — that is, not until after Amy informed me recently that while conducting a bird survey at the property last month, she flushed three bobwhite quail! Lo and behold — we built it, and they came! I’m sure these are the first of many bobwhites to return to Fletcher’s property. He really has done some amazing work.

Would they have come back without the work? It’s possible, but I doubt they would have thrived. Bobwhites can handle marginal habitat conditions so long as weather conditions are favorable; if the weather gets bad … bye-bye, bobwhites.

The slow deterioration of bobwhite habitat on a landscape scale over the last 60 years (not just in Virginia, but across the U.S.) has caused a steady decline in bobwhite populations. Slow changes are hard to see with the naked eye, and it isn’t until after an extremely dry summer or one brutal winter until we notice a change — the bobwhites are gone. This is what I refer to as the “Vanishing Bob Phenomenon.”

Many landowners I meet with tell me that they had quail on their properties until about 30 years ago, and then “they just vanished” (and this is usually followed by some poor excuse about there being too many hawks or coyotes). About 30 years ago, there was a really bad ice storm that impacted much of Virginia, but was especially hard on quail west of the Blue Ridge. In small pockets of marginal habitat where quail were still hanging on after 40 years or so of habitat loss, that harsh winter was the nail in the coffin. The hawks did not just suddenly declare war on quail.

Quality habitat, in adequate supply, enables quail to quickly rebound after severe weather events. Quail have the innate ability to increase local population size by up to 300 percent in a single year if habitat and weather conditions are optimal. Fletcher’s property was marginal for bobwhites before we started our habitat work, and this is supported by the fact that quail weren’t there for five years following that severe winter. After some field borders and fescue conversions, we’ve been able to attract birds back to his place. I’m excited to see how things will look next year after those quail have had a chance to use Fletcher’s outstanding cover to create nests, raise broods, and form coveys (and oh, by the way: he plans on creating even more quail habitat this year).

Your results, however, may vary. Some landowners have had quail show up within a year of management. For others, it may take longer. The important thing is to remember to enjoy the fringe benefits — what we’re doing is about so much more than just quail. You know, Ray Kinsella didn’t even know why he was chalking a batter’s box as he was doing it, but he felt there would be a big reward someday. Ray enjoyed hanging out with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the other players before his father appeared. It’s time we all have a little bit of that Ray Kinsella faith. Build your own “fields of dreams,” and we’ll all be rewarded one day by the return of the majestic bobwhite. In the meantime … “Shoeless” Joe is a pretty cool guy.

Justin Folks (justin.folks@va.usda.gov) is a private lands biologist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service who also works with the Virginia Quail Recovery Initiative. This article originally appeared on the bringbackbobwhites.org blog.

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