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Bobwhite’s call missing from forest’s morning symphony

The bobwhite population continued to fall despite research to increase its numbers.
The bobwhite population continued to fall despite research to increase its numbers. MCT

At this time of the year, daybreak usually finds me somewhere deep in the woods. That’s because turkey hunters need to be at their intended destination well before first light, since their quarry is most vocal during the first hour or so of the morning.

The perfect morning involves hearing multiple gobbles as night gives way to light and then adjusting strategy according to where the bird is.

Of course, far more often than not, things don’t go the way the hunter might wish.

Still, just being afield in spring means having a front row seat to a natural symphony of indescribable delight. One often reads about silent or foreboding woods, but such writers are simply revealing their ignorance. The approach and arrival of dawn, far from being quiet, brings an array of noise reminiscent of the Tower of Babel.

While it is still dark whippoorwills utter their repetitive notes, sometimes to the point where youwish they would shut up so you could hear a distant turkey.

About the time the whippoorwills finally call it quits for another night, barred owls offer their eerie eight-note call. If they start “laughing” someone who didn’t know better would readily be convinced that they belong in a forested insane asylum.

Then there are raucous, bossy crows greeting the day and reminding all within earshot just how irritating they can be, and like it or not, they’ll start “deviling” any hawk that dares to scream from on high.

All these harsh sounds save the whippoorwill can, and often do, induce a turkey to gobble.

Soon though, the loud and somewhat disturbing avian noises give way to enjoyable ones.

The cheery “pretty, pretty” of redbirds tells the turkey hunter it is timeto try a few soft tree yelps and perhaps a cluck or two. Mockingbirds imitate all sorts of sounds from other birds although none of them with total perfection. Thrushes give voice and suddenly the songbird chorus is in full spate.

Sadly, a traditional performer in this crescendo of sweet sounds is now missing – the cheery mating call of the male quail that gives it the name bobwhite. Sometimes rendered as two syllables, “bob white,” and at other moments as three, “bob, bob white,” is as distinctive and delightful as the repetitive refrain of a cardinal.

For all practical purposes, at least in the terrain I roam, that sound is gone. No longer will a casual stroll through fields bring the quail’s call to one’s ear, and long lost are the days when a youngster imitating the mating call of a bobwhite could draw a jealous male within sight simply by whistling.

Not even the most astute of wildlife biologists fully understand what has happened. It isn’t because the quail doesn’t try to do its part. Bobwhites are good parents, and prolific ones to boot. Sometimes a hen will nest two or even three times, and on occasion the male will sit on the nest. However, the saucy little game bird’s efforts at surviving, never mind thriving, face huge obstacles.

There are many factors responsible for the bobwhite’s decline: avastly increased number of raptors, now protected by federal law; the spread of coyotes; changing agricultural practices resulting in less suitable habitat; disappearance of small farms and the prime habitat they provided bobwhites; and widespread use fescue, a grass which is unsuitable for nesting and provides no cover for quail.

Worst of all are nest predators, and with the virtual demise of fur trapping, their numbers have skyrocketed.

Happily Mr. Bob does not yet belong to a world we have lost. Research at the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancyin Tallahassee, Fla. examines issues affecting quail. Quail Forever, a conservation organization, has a vibrant approach to being part of a bobwhite comeback.

The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Tenn., has researchers trying to develop strategies so there are more “huntable” populations of wild birds with the delightful sound “bob white” rides through the air on the breezes of spring.

Until I once more hear that sound with regularity, spring will be missing one of its most charming characteristics.

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