By Chris Niskanen
Thurman Tucker is driving through Houston County in the southeastern corner of Minnesota. He is having a hard time keeping his eyes off the surrounding landscape, though it's not a very pretty sight.
Recent rains have washed away remnants of a late-season snowstorm, laying bare miles of the springtime dregs of muddy corn stubble, matted grasses, trash in road ditches, and leafless hardwood forests.
Tucker, a retired grocery store manager who lives in Minneapolis, is here to look for the northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), a quail at the northern tip of its native range here in southeastern Minnesota. However, little of the land he sees resembles bobwhite habitat.
Sitting in the passenger seat, I watch the passing ditches and fencerows out the window, trying to imagine a covey of quail rising into the air. We pass miles of barren fields and forests until a hillside -- nondescript, to my untrained eyes -- finally buoys Tucker's spirits.
"Now there's a nice spot for some bobwhite," he says, slowing down. "There's some grass on the hillside and some brush along the edges of the woods. The bobwhite is a bird of the edges -- edges of fields, edges of streams, edges of woods. They love the brush."
Tucker, who is Minnesota's leading voice for bobwhite quail today, moved here from Tennessee in 1965. He has been prowling these southeastern roads in search of bobwhites since the early 1970s. But his search has not been easy -- loss of the bobwhite's habitat of native grasses and brush has made it a rare bird in Minnesota.
Minnesota has fewer than 1,000 wild bobwhites left, descendents of birds that were once widespread in southern Minnesota. Upland bird hunters once enjoyed the challenge of hunting the quail, with its mottled brown, cryptic coloring and its explosive flush to elude predators. But the quail hunting season closed in 1958 because populations dropped below sustainable hunting levels.
For most of the past 50 years, quail have been found only in the state's southeastern corner where traces of suitable habitat remain. There birders might look for the well-camouflaged bobwhite and listen for the breeding male's memorable namesake call bob, bob, bob-white.
Since the 1970s Tucker has been diligently promoting efforts to bring the birds back.
"Believe me, restoring the bobwhite quail will be a big challenge," he says.
Jerry Mauss of Caledonia vividly remembers hunting the last day of the 1958 bobwhite season. "I was in the 8th grade," he says. "I shot two quail that I flushed from under a cedar tree.
"I remember we had record snows that winter," continues Mauss, who still sees bobwhites on his farm near the Iowa border. "I remember I used to take five-gallon pails of corn to a covey up the hill behind the farm."
Bobwhite quail in Minnesota share similarities with the Ford Model A -- both had their heydays in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Back then, Tucker says, there were a half million bobwhite quail in the state, with coveys from the Iowa border as far north as Pine City.
In 1927 Minnesota hunters harvested 13,000 bobwhite quail, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Minnesota had a regulated hunting season from 1858 to 1932. After 1932 hunting was only allowed in the southeast.
In the early 1990s, Tucker could find just 25 coveys (a typical covey in the fall can hold 10 to 20 birds) in southeastern Minnesota, based on interviews with farmers and visits to places with the best bobwhite habitat.
In the past two years, Tucker hasn't seen a bobwhite.
Wildlife biologists -- and longtime residents like Mauss -- agree on why southeastern Minnesota is no longer hospitable to quail.
According to DNR farmland wildlife program leader Bill Penning, forests have matured during the past 70 years, leaving fewer openings and brush edges. What's more, small farm fields and pastures have given way to larger fields of corn and soybeans without the hedgerows and grass strips where quail nest. New generations of pesticides and herbicides have eliminated native plants that once provided quail habitat.
"The land has really changed since I was a kid," says Mauss, a logger, farmer, and member of Quail Forever.
Created by the St. Paul-based Pheasants Forever conservation organization in 2005, Quail Forever has 83 chapters in 25 states. Tucker is founder and chair of its Minnesota chapter, the nation's northernmost chapter. More than 160 people showed up for the chapter's first fund-raising banquet in March. Many attendees were hunters; others were birders who remember bobwhites fondly.
Minnesota lies on the very northern edge of the birds' range. Consecutive winters of deep snow can devastate populations.
"They are very sensitive to snow depths," says Penning. "That's what happened (last spring) when big snowstorms wiped out quail in Missouri and Ohio."
Even without snowstorms, the bobwhite quail picture nationwide is bleak because of habitat loss. During the past 25 years, bobwhite quail populations have declined 60 to 80 percent in most of the 35 states where the species is native, according to Quail Forever. Nationwide, populations dropped from 59 million birds in 1980 to 20 million in 1999.
The best hope for habitat conservation so far is a new U.S. Department of Agriculture program called CP-33, or the Northern Bobwhite Quail Habitat Initiative. Created in 2004, CP-33 pays farmers to idle farmland and restore native grasses, forbs, and shrubs, such as little bluestem, partridge-pea, and wild plum. The program has funding for 250,000 acres nationwide, including 500 acres in Minnesota. By last spring the USDA-Minnesota Natural Resources Conservation Service had signed up about 200 acres in Houston and Fillmore counties.
Tucker would like to see a hunting season, with licenses allocated on a lottery basis, reopened by 2014. Penning thinks that is an overly optimistic goal, given the large landscape changes needed to bring back the birds to harvestable levels. The DNR doesn't survey the birds, nor does it have a quail management plan because populations have dropped to such low levels that the agency doesn't consider them a priority and little modern research has been done on northern quail management.
"Thurman has been personally monitoring quail for many years," says Penning. "Thurman's numbers are not statistically valid because they were not collected within a sampling design for which statistics can be applied. Having said that, Thurman's numbers are essentially the only data that we have."
Tucker's single-minded devotion to quail inspires others. "This guy is so dedicated to quail," says Pete Feils, a Houston County landowner who has seen bobwhites on his property. "He's one of the most passionate gentlemen for conservation I've ever met. He's never given up."
Tucker and others in Quail Forever hope to use the chapter and its funds to promote the CP-33 program and to help landowners restore quail habitat by creating native grass buffers along field edges and brushy areas. Tucker's wife, Pat, bakes a carrot cake for every landowner who signs up for the CP-33 program.
Tucker makes the 320-mile-roundtrip drive to Quail Forever headquarters in Caledonia almost every week. When someone calls to report a quail covey -- as Mauss did in the spring of 2007 -- Tucker tries to pay a visit to confirm the sighting and promote habitat conservation.
"The big thing is perseverance," he says.