CRESTVIEW — Bill Barnhill recalls the days when a robust quail population brought hunters to Florida’s panhandle for national field trials.

Since then, the species has declined an estimated 85 percent in America. So when he recently hosted a quail habitat workshop, 100 people crowded into his hunting lodge eight miles northwest of Crestview to learn how to bring back the Northern Bobwhite Quail.

The reason for the decline is lost habitat. In the 1940s, coveys thrived on small farms with lots of crop field edges, hedgerows, fencerows and windbreaks.

But small fields gave way to industrial farms with large expansive fields and development consumed open native grasslands. After decades of fire suppression, undergrowth was choking out quail forage, nesting cover and protection.

Quail need forage, nesting cover and brood-rearing habitat according to wildlife biologists. Juvenile birds consume insects while adults primarily eat a vast variety of seeds augmented with plants, fruits and berries.

Quail are weak scratchers and require bare ground to pick up seeds, and chicks need overhead cover to protect them while they forage.

A mixture of bunch grasses, broadleaf plants, low woody brush, and enough bare ground to move around easily are primary components of good habitat. They provide high-protein seeds, insects, overhead coverage, warmth and protection. Plots a quarter-mile in proximity can support one bird per acre, but most populations are well below this density.

Forest owners can develop quail habitat as they manage their timber stands, especially longleaf pine. Longleaf can be burned at an early age and its canopy structure permits more sunlight to the ground. Farmers and ranchers can plant native trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs along fencerows. Prescribed burning, disking and livestock grazing maintain vegetation density and promote bobwhite food plant growth.

Fifteen years ago Barnhill, a fourth-generation forest owner, started planting grasses and forbs and burning his 1,500 acres of loblolly and slash pine to create quail habitat.

Last year, he planted 110 acres in longleaf pine forest, adding to the 165 acres he planted the year before, all with technical and financial assistance from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service through the  Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Working Lands for Wildlife Initiative. 

Barnhill and his father have worked with the agency more than 40 years to install conservation practices on the property.

“This has helped build the habitat, but we will need to transplant some birds to get the population to where it should be,” he said.