Common birds showing up in smaller numbers across state

Scientists concerned about loss of habitat

COLUMBIA -- One of the most recognizable voices in the South Carolina forest, the Northern bobwhite quail, seldom is heard these days.

The population of the squat, brown birds with the distinctive "BOB-white" calls is down 96 percent in the state in the past 40 years, according to a study by the Audubon Society. It's the most startling of dozens of once-common species showing up in smaller numbers in South Carolina.

"People who have been bird-watching for 20-30 years notice the difference," said Ann Shahid, coordinator of Important Bird Areas for the S.C. Audubon Society. "They're not seeing them, not hearing them. One I used to hear all the time was the wood thrush. Now, when I hear them I get excited."

Wood thrush, while declining, didn't even make the list of the top six birds of note in South Carolina. In addition to Northern bobwhite, the list includes field sparrow, little blue heron, Eastern meadowlark, and red-winged blackbird.

"Most of these we don't expect will go extinct," said Greg Butcher, Audubon's national director of bird conservation.

The Northern bobwhite quail is the poster child of the study; its population dropping from 31 million 40 years ago to 5.5 million now. Like many of the species that are declining, the bobwhite is a specialist, relying on a special habitat.

Many of the declining S.C. species prefer to live on the grassy edges of farm fields. With fewer farms and larger fields in recent years, those edges are shrinking. Other factors in the declines include loss of wetlands, the rise of intensive pine plantations and the introduction of invasive species such as fire ants. Global warming is a factor.

But habitat is the key, according to those working in the field to restore quail populations. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources estimates a 60 percent loss of quail population in the state since 1966.

"The question isn't why," said Billy Dukes, small game project coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources. "We moved past that long ago. It's plain and simple -- loss of habitat."

Surveys indicate a stabilization of the quail population in some areas since 1999, in part because hunters have managed large tracts specifically to create quail habitat, Dukes said.

Concerned residents can contribute to the big-picture solution for quail and other declining species by advocating for legislation that encourages preservation of farms, grasslands and forests. On the more personal level, people can turn portions of their own back yards into bird habitat.

"You don't have to have a lot of land to make a difference," Butcher said. "Just take a corner of your back yard and devote it to native species ... that are good seed sources."

The Audubon "Common Birds in Decline" report is the result of a first analysis combining four decades of Audubon's annual Christmas Bird Count and the U.S. Geological Survey's annual summer breeding count. The threshold for "common birds" is a population of at least 500,000.