Making a Comeback

When Bill Sanford was a boy on Arrowpoint Farm in Madison County, at the confluence of the Robinson and the Rapidan Rivers, the fields were full of bobwhite quail. He could go out after school, he says, and find three coveys of birds in a field before he had to go inside to do his homework.

Sanford’s growing-up abounds in quail stories. One time, when he was in the fourth grade, he went out with his English setter, looking for the birds. The dog paused, circling a spot—and then changed her course, bolted for the riverbank, and treed a cat. “As I was walking to her, I walked through the middle of a covey of birds,” Sanford says. “And when the birds got up, she turned her head and she looked at me like, ‘Well, you fool! I as much as told you the birds were there, but I had more important business to deal with over here.’”

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Bill Sanford established this meadow of warm-season  grasses as a habitat for bobwhite quail on Arrowpoint Farm in Madison.

When Sanford came back to Arrowpoint to live with his wife, Lindy, there were plenty of quail, still. But at some point—after a series of hard winters in the late 1980’s, he thinks—the quail disappeared. It wasn’t just at Arrowpoint. Over the last few decades, according to the Northern Bobwhite Quail Initiative, the population of these birds has dropped by more than 65% throughout their range—in part because of loss of habitat, due to more intensive farming practices and the prevalence of fescue in place of native grasses.

Sanford wanted to bring the birds back, so he decided to thin out a tract of woods. His idea was to cut the trees selectively, open up the understory, and let cover grow up for the birds. He bought quail from out of state, and introduced them to his preserve. But it failed. None of the quail on his land survived.

When a friend of his who has a quail preserve in Georgia came to visit, Sanford asked for his advice. He was doing it wrong, his friend said—quail and trees don’t go together. Quail prefer a mix of open habitat, including fields with native warm-season grasses and shrub thickets to provide nesting spots, nutritious seeds, and cover from predators. So, Sanford went on to clear about 90 acres of the roughly 200 that he was cultivating as a quail preserve, and planted them in native grasses. To maintain these meadows, he burns them on a three year rotation. The rest of his preserve he keeps in cropland and forests, and the whole thing is criss-crossed with streams. This mix of terrain creates an abundance of edges between habitats. “The bobwhite quail is an edge kind of bird,” he says. “They like one kind of cover to feed and nest and another kind of cover to escape into.”

This time, instead of importing birds, Sanford set up speakers to play recorded quail calls. The recordings worked—intriguing wild birds who found his preserve and settled in. Now, Sanford says, he counts six coveys of birds living on his land—a robust population, close to his target of one covey per thirty acres.

The preserve attracts all kinds of creatures, beyond quail. On a sunny winter day, songbirds were flitting by the hundreds among the high grass-heads. There are also turkeys, eagles, hawks, foxes, rabbits, deer, a bear and a cub, and a bobcat with her kittens, Sanford says. Some of those animals are predators for bobwhites, but the species find ways to co-exist. “I have proven to myself,” Sanford says, “that if you provide habitat, the quail will make it.”

What’s your habitat?

Quail came back to Arrowpoint, but arriving at that success took a long process of trial and error. Not everybody has that kind of perseverance—and not everybody has 200 acres available for quail. But people can restore wildlife habitat on all kinds of properties, and there are plenty of resources available to inform, and even fund, the process.

A great place to start is the expanded habitat section of the Piedmont Environmental Council’s website: The site provides helpful information for all kinds of habitat projects—including landscaping with native plants, establishing wildlife corridors along waterways, managing a pond or wetland, starting a native grass meadow, removing invasive species, planting for pollinators, making a bird-friendly back yard, or putting in a rain garden or a frog pond.

The site also provides a searchable database of sources of funds for land management projects that improve the environment. For example, for their quail preserve, the Sanfords used cost-share funding from the federal Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program—one of 82 funding sources in the database.

A further step would be to invite PEC’s new Sustainable Habitat Program Manager, James Barnes, to come out to your place and discuss the potential for building habitat. That’s what Dick and Randy Ruffin did, along with adjoining landowners in the woodsy neighborhood of 10-15 acre lots where they live in Culpeper County, near Amissville.

The Ruffins moved here several years ago after retiring from careers with a D.C.-based nonprofit. They have a 15-acre piece of land—mostly wooded, with a small cleared field, a spring-fed pond surrounded by trees, and a creek. They’ve started raising a garden and some apple trees, and they plan to add chickens and shitake logs. They also see looking out for habitat as part of learning to live in the country.

“We moved to the country and we want to… be respectful of the environment and take care of it,” he says.

She says, “I think anyone who reads the papers today and listens to the news knows that our environment generally is under tremendous pressure and threat, and that we need to live more in harmony with it.”

This responsibility that can also be a delight—like noticing the bluebirds that bob across their yard. “It’s just such a joy to me to watch the birds,” she says. “I think one thing that happens when you move from a city environment to one with more nature is that you suddenly become much more aware of nature.”

While they’ve always tried to live sustainably, she says, “We have a lot to learn.”

“As a city guy, I came out here and I was like, I gotta clean up this land—suburban style,” Dick Ruffin says. For instance, he would clear out dead wood from the forest. But, as Barnes points out, decomposing logs and snags—the tall broken trunks of dead trees—essentially serve as restaurants and motels for dozens of species, including woodpeckers, some warblers, and flying squirrels.  One outcome of his meeting with Barnes is that Ruffin is now planning on “leaving it more as it is and doing a bit to increase cover.”

The Ruffins organized neighbors from four properties that add up to about sixty acres, and, during Barnes’s visit, they walked over the land, learning more about the forests and how to improve habitat there.

Rather than clearing out saplings around the base of mature trees, for example, Ruffin now plans to let them grow, so the natural succession can run its course. And he’ll do less mowing around the edge of his pond, which will provide more cover and food for swamp sparrows, wood frogs, and small mammals.

He says, “Here, we’re just trying to manage these properties in a way that keeps the natural habitat in as good a shape as possible—and creates a little better habitat for some of the critters.”