Homelessness in a land of plenty
Winter is late once again here along the Delaware Bay, but the last few years have taught us to beware. Our past two winters started off balmy — the bayshore fall weather extending far into early winter — then we were hammered by an abrupt shift to persistent sub-freezing nights and some of the deepest snowfalls on record. Kids loved it, but the wildlife of the Cohansey River Valley and Delaware Bayshore suffered. The cold snowy blanket that befell the area for almost two months highlighted the lovely rolling topography of our little piece of Bayshore, but it also locked away vital plant seeds and forage from wildlife. A harsh winter forces desperately-hungry wildlife to take chances, like risking predators in open fields windswept of snow or they must leave.
Quail are one of the species that can’t leave, unfortunately, it is not in their genes. They fly like chickens, are ill-equipped to scratch through the frozen snow like turkeys or reach high above the snows like deer. So the last two winters have pushed them to the edge of extinction in this area. Their only hope is well-managed habitat.
There was a time when the people of this area gave habitat freely to these species. Farmers left fields fallow, field edges were never abrupt but feathered by herbaceous vegetation into woodlands and marsh. Most fields were small with lovely hedgerows that served for nesting and cover, and when harvest time arrived farmers left grain — sometimes intentionally but mostly because machine harvesting was less efficient. Although it was not their intent, farmers essentially followed biologist prescriptions for quail management — keep field sizes small, edged with hedgerows and leave food after the harvest. To the delight of hunters and residents quail thrived.
Here in the Cohansey River valley, farmers have cultivated the fertile soils for nearly 400 years following old rules that were essentially the early form of sustainable agriculture and were entirely organic. They fostered healthy living soil that grew food with resources from the farm in an endless cycle driven by crops, beneficial insects, animals and the sun. But the world has changed for the Northern Bobwhite Quail. Farmers no longer allow fields to naturally restore themselves by lying fallow but instead press them into service every single year. The soil is not seen as a living matrix of nutrients, minerals, microorganisms, fungi, and invertebrates, but as a medium on which to grow genetically-modified crops with the help of a flood of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. In the never-ending crush to squeeze profit from the land, the landscape has been transformed.
Not long ago, you could drive through a southern NJ countryside and see lovely fields bordered with lush unplowed hedgerows and bushy roadsides. Now you will find beleaguered land plowed and sprayed to the edges of roads, forests, and marshes. The hedgerows, bushy field borders and roadsides — the keystones habitats of robust populations of quail and many other species — has been torn away to make bigger, more profitable fields. All this is bad for quail, but when winter winds and snow cover the area and all the crops are cut and sold, the land is as inhospitable as a house with no windows or food. Hawks and owls take their toll, but it is cold and hunger that has brought our quail to this unlikely demise.
It shouldn’t have gone this way. Global warming should have pushed the northern boundary of quail range past southern Jersey into northern Jersey or even New York. This may have been true, if only it weren’t for the wholesale loss of over-wintering habitats from intensive farming. Instead, the Northern Bobwhite Quail is on life support in NJ.
Climate change may be unstoppable, but habitat loss from modern agriculture is a self-inflicted wound on the land. The ethos of the south Jersey farmer has always been to keep a neat efficient farm, not unlike homeowners who like to keep a neat yard. But today’s farmer is part landowner part contractor, trying to making use of equipment on both owned and leased land if only to make the economics of large-scale agriculture work in essentially a small-scale farming landscape. All land is put to work and if it can’t be plowed then it is mowed. Quail are the rural homeless.
But hope is not lost. Quail can breed their way back from most catastrophes. The average female quail lays 1 or 2 nests of 12-16 eggs each year, and the yearly survival of unhunted populations can be as high as 50%. That means if conditions can be changed, a core population of, say, 10 pairs will be reduced to 5 by the next year but will have created 30 new breeding pairs. Before long you can have a brand new population if only people cared.