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The Covert Next Door: A Bobwhite Quail Story

It was a warm spring late afternoon several years ago, much like it finally is now as I write this article. My wife and I were walking our dog and young children around our rather suburban neighborhood outside of Annapolis. We had just turned the last corner onto our road when I heard a distinguishing avian call coming from behind a neighbors house that I didn’t ever expect. I dismissed the call as just more mockingbird nonsense. After taking no more than three steps, I immediately saw walking down this driveway the perpetrator of this call, a covey of Northern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus). That seemed impossible to me since populations of these quail have been in decline for decades due to loss of habitat, especially in highly developed central Maryland. There they were, however, standing and making me question everything I thought I knew…about Northern bobwhite quail. As fate would have it, I did not have my camera flip phone with me, but I had legs, a stout heart and a lofty sense of purpose. I raced back to the house to grab my phone and hoped on the sprint back that my herd of avian unicorns had not dissipated into the split level facades of my neighborhood. To my relief the covey was still intact and now chilling under suburban shrubbery. I managed to take a few pictures and even captured a fuzzy video before a neighborhood cat, as is typical when left outdoors, attacked and dispersed the encounter. I had what I needed though; proof that a near extirpated species in this part of Maryland was making a go of it in the suburbs of Annapolis. 

Northern Bobwhite Quail. (Photo courtesy Linda Chittum, Macaulay Library)

Obviously, the question remained as to why the covey was strolling through my neighborhood. Northern bobwhite quail’s habitat preference, which has a range of about 40 acres, includes a combination of forest edges, open grassland, cultivated fields and, most importantly, early successional forest (or young forest). Bobwhite quail are ground nesters and rely on the brushy cover of early successional woody vegetation for both protection from predators and wintry weather. Adjacent to my neighborhood, and unbeknownst to me at the time, there was a fallow agricultural field that was in the early stage of succession.                  

Populations of Northern bobwhite quail and other bird species that rely on early successional habitat like American woodcock and golden winged warblers have been in decline for decades because early successional habitat has, well, been in decline for decades too. Disturbances like fire, tornadoes/hurricanes, drought, pathogens and human agricultural and silvicultural activities have always created openings in our forests, and our forests have always regenerated and re-initiated their path towards a climax community. In turn, wildlife take advantage of these temporary disruptions in succession to fulfill their habitat requirements. Early successional forests provide wildlife a mixture of grasses, forbs, shrubs and young trees that provide an abundance of food and complex horizontal structure. Prime early successional habitats from just just a decade ago likely are no longer in that seral stage and, thereby, no longer as useful to the wildlife species that rely on them. Land development and conversion in our rural regions has dramatically reduced the opportunity for forest regeneration, too. Modern agricultural practices have increased the amount of land on farms that are under regular cultivation and in managed pasture, which has left less fallow land that, in the past, would have entered the initial successional stage.      

Silviculture practices implemented to harvest timber are practical, effective and sometimes controversial methods for regenerating our forests and creating wildlife habitat. Clear-cut harvesting has undoubtedly been a misunderstood, misrepresented and sometimes misused  practice over the last few decades. In its clearest description the US Forest Service states that a clearcut is a silvicultural system that removes the entire stand of trees in a single harvesting operation from an area that is about two acres or greater; and at least two tree heights in width, and is designed to manage the area as an even-aged stand.1 Most silvicultural systems were developed as methods to maximize sustainable timber production at a time when our forested resources were recklessly removed from our landscape. Now, these same systems are being used to accomplish and balance a variety of natural resource goals. Clear-cut harvesting is a tool used to achieve a desired stand structure, like an even-aged forest. Like any tool, however, it can be misused and have lasting ecological and economic damage. However, when implemented as a prescriptive recommendation from a well crafted Forest Stewardship Plan that considers future forest health and when conducted under the supervision of an experienced licensed or certified professional forester, a clear-cut harvest may be the most effective method to create this essential early successional habitat. 

Clear-cut harvesting obviously brings the forest back to an early successional stage, but the regeneration of the forest is more advanced than if it were a fallow field. Regeneration of a hardwood forest after a clear-cut relies on vigorous coppicing (stump sprouting), root suckering from well established root systems, and the germination of seeds dormant in the soil by the abundance of sunlight. It should be noted that this is also the optimal opportunity for invasive plants to establish and proliferate (but that is less likely to be an issue if implementing a sustainable Forest Stewardship Plan).

Clear-cut harvests are implemented by a variety of conservation and natural resources organizations and agencies and private landowners to create early successional habitat structure for several bird species of concern including ruffed grouse2, golden winged warbler3, and American woodcock4. It is also used to regenerate specific forest types, like oak-hickory, or to help restore forest diversity and vigor after decades of destructive harvest practices, such as high grading or diameter limit cutting. Both high grading and diameter limit cuts are selective harvest strategies that remove only the highest value trees from forest stands without regard for the health, diversity and structure of the future forest.            

A variety of other silvicultural harvest practices are used to develop essential habitat structure missing in our maturing forests. Patch cuts or group selection harvest techniques have provided habitat for the threatened cerulean warblers (Dendroica cerula) that require mature forests with gaps in the canopy. Hooded warbler (Setophaga citrine) and Kentucky warbler (Oporornis formosus) have benefited from shelterwood harvests, which are similar to clear-cuts but retain clusters or “islands” of mature trees.5 However, some species of mature forests like the ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) and scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) tend to respond negatively to any timber harvests.6 There is plenty of research available about the effects of harvest practices on bird habitat and are referenced below.  

Our forests have and will forever be shaped by disturbances, both natural and man-made, and are always changing – whether or not we intervene. Managing our forests with sound silvicultural practices under the guidance of an informed and long term plan helps ensure that we meet our ecological and economic goals. That we keep healthy forests growing that provide clean air and water, wood products, carbon storage and wildlife habitat into the next millenia.    

 I really wish I could end this article with an uplifting conclusion about my personal covey of Northern bobwhite quail. The early successional habitat next to my neighborhood was sold that same spring, cleared and converted to a new neighborhood, thus ending my novel ornithological discovery and likely the naming rights for a new subspecies (Colinus virginianus highfieldus).

  1. USDA Forest Service. December 2016. What is a Silvicultural System? https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd530429.pdf
  2. https://ruffedgrousesociety.org/
  3. http://amjv.org/
  4. https://youngforest.org/
  5. Perry, R.W. and R.E. Thill. 2013. Long-term responses of disturbance-associated birds after different timber harvests. Forest Ecology and Management 307:274-283. https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/ja/2013/ja_2013_perry_003.pdf
  6. Perry, R.W., J.M.A Jenkins, R.E. Thill, and F.R. Thompson III. 2018. Long-term effects of different forest regeneration methods on mature forest birds. Forest Ecology and Management 408:183-194. https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/ja/2018/ja_2018_perry_001.pdf
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Craig Highfield Director of Chesapeake Forests Program, Maryland Office

Craig is the Director of our Chesapeake Forests Program, where he manages a variety of projects that improve existing forests, create new ones, and educate residents and decision-makers about the benefits of forests in the Chesapeake watershed.

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