February 2013
Outdoor Life

Habitat Changes Affect Wildlife Populations

Quail photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


There was a time when bobwhite quail and many other wildlife species were more numerous than they are today. People who experienced or heard of those times often ask, "Why don’t we see coveys of quail like we used to?" Hunters are among those most interested in knowing the answer.

Alabama’s rural landscape in the early to mid-1900s looked very different from today’s rural landscape. The human population was much lower and small, single-family farms were common throughout the state. Most pine forests across Alabama were of mixed ages and relatively open as a result of more frequent burning and grazing by livestock. This habitat favored quail and they thrived in the fencerows, fallow fields and weedy croplands found on the smaller farms.

As time has advanced, larger farms have become much more common. These bigger farms make greater use of the available acreage by having fewer and cleaner fencerows. Fewer acres are left fallow than in years past. Herbicides have allowed farmers to create much cleaner crop fields, leaving very few native weeds and grasses on the tilled acreages. Stock laws require farmers to fence in their livestock and more acreage has been planted with improved pasture grasses. All of these practices have improved the farmers’ efficiency and productivity, but they have reduced the amount of quality habitat available to bobwhites and other species of wildlife in the state. Forestry practices have also dramatically changed and today intensively managed single-tree species forests are common.

Along with changes in farming and forest practices, there have been changes in the way land is used. It is not too difficult to remember when many of the current pine plantations and subdivisions were fields of soybeans, corn or some other crop. Many of these areas also were fallow fields. These crop lands and fallow areas were quite beneficial to many species of wildlife. The food sources provided by the crop fields and fallow areas are simply not there either in the quantity or quality they once were. Many former row crop farms have also been converted to cattle grazing operations using improved pasture grasses. These pasture grasses do not offer the food or cover once found with native grass-dominated fallow areas or pastures.

Over the past couple of decades, many landowners have started to implement practices to improve the habitats on their property for wildlife. Re-establishing longleaf pine stands, making more frequent use of prescribed burning, converting improved pastures back to native grass stands, expanding fallow areas around agricultural fields and other wildlife habitat management practices have helped transform many acres of marginal wildlife habitat into quality wildlife habitat that had been missing for decades. Those landowners are enjoying the results of their efforts by seeing more wildlife, including more quail. These efforts will not only improve wildlife populations but also improve enjoyment of wildlife viewing and hunting.

For additional information on land management practices to benefit wildlife contact any Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries District office.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through five divisions: Marine Police, Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. To learn more about ADCNR visit www.outdooralabama.com.

Justin Brock is a Wildlife Biologist with the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.