CATAWBA, Va. (AP) — For 60 years, Wysor Smith Jr. has listened for the mating call of the bobwhite quail, as a hunter and now as a conservationist.
But over the decades since the 1970s, as farms have wooded over or sprouted crops of houses and businesses, the "bob-WHITE" call has faded and in places disappeared.
Through state and federal programs, however, Smith and his family are restoring quail-friendly native grasslands on their 550-acre Craig County farm. He only wishes he'd done it sooner.
"I wish we'd have started this program 40 years ago, when we still had some quail," Smith said.
Today, Smith's family is doing selective logging of trees that have grown up since the 1950s, and re-establishing native grasses on about 80 acres in hopes of luring wild quail back to the land.
Up to 75 percent of the cost of seed and other expenses could be reimbursed under a federal program aimed at bringing back declining wildlife, including the bobwhite.
According to Smith, even though the work is still under way after starting about eight years ago, it may be showing results.
"I think we've got a covey," he said.
By that, he means a group of up to two dozen quail that overwinter together in the shelter of shrubs growing among tall perennial grasses.
Over the past three years or so about 2,500 acres across the state — about 500 of them in the New River Valley — have begun to be managed for quail habitat, said Andy Rosenberger, private lands biologist for Southwest Virginia.
Virginia is one of the more than 20 states to sign onto the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, a large-scale effort to form federal, state, local and nonprofit partnerships to bring back the quail.
Last year federal spending on quail habitat in the commonwealth was about $200,000, and the state game department spent about $160,000, Rosenberger said.
Rosenberger is one of a handful of private lands biologists working across the commonwealth to develop conservation plans for landowners and farmers interested in the program.
While restoring quail habitat and quail hunting in Virginia could have significant economic impact, it does more.
"Quail's just the poster child," Rosenberger said.
Restoring grassland habitat is also good for songbirds such as grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, yellow-breasted chats, and game species such as wild turkey and whitetail deer.
The return of native grasslands also helps pollinators such as butterflies, bumblebees and introduced species such as honey bees, all of which are in worldwide decline for some of the same reasons as quail — the loss of acres of open land filled with native perennial plants.
Native grasses such as big bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass are also good for cattle and other grazing livestock production. Not only does planting them improve water quality and reduce agricultural runoff, it provides drought-tolerant forage for livestock that doesn't require fertilizer, Rosenberger said.
Rosenberger got his start in grassland restoration at Virginia Tech's Catawba Sustainability Center, a 377-acre tract that used to belong to the Catawba Hospital.
Through a Tech College of Natural Resources research project looking at grassland restoration's effects on water quality, Rosenberger helped reseed 40 acres at the center in native perennial grasses.
Then about two years ago he took a job as private lands biologist headquartered in Christiansburg, a position jointly funded by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Now he works with landowners to restore grasslands on their properties and achieve their conservation goals.
Since taking the job, Rosenberger said, he has worked with more than 70 individuals across Southwest Virginia who want to restore quail and other native species to their land. Some of them qualify for quail incentive reimbursement.
A list of properties enrolled in the program was not available. Rosenberger said the landowners' identities are protected by confidentiality agreements.
Even landowners who don't qualify for reimbursement get help in developing a conservation plan for their land, Rosenberger said.
Most of his time is spent on quail, however.
Quail populations are hard to estimate, but harvest tallies tell a grim story of decline. According to DGIF numbers, in the 1970s hunters harvested more than a million quail a year. Since 2000, that number has fallen to fewer than 70,000.
That's a far fall for Virginia's legacy game bird.
Quail populations increased beginning with European colonization, as white settlers cleared vast tracts of land for farming. By the end of the Civil War, bird populations were booming, and the gentleman's sport of quail hunting was one of the commonwealth's most popular pastimes.
But by the 1980s, quail were in serious decline. Today it's estimated that the population falls by about 4 percent a year in many parts of the state. But conservation efforts are helping, and the quail populations are rebounding in the eastern portions of Virginia.
"People remember hearing the call of the quail, and they want to hear it again," Rosenberger said.
The state goal is to get back to 1980s levels, and every little bit helps. Even one or two acres can shelter small groups of birds, Rosenberger said.
On a warm day last month, Wysor Smith Jr. squired Rosenberger and others around his property to see his efforts. His geriatric bird dog, 13-year-old Jenny, snuffled through the broomsedge and big bluestem grasses growing among widely scattered white oaks.
Every now and then, Jenny scented a penned quail let loose on the property to entertain the group. Then she dropped low to the ground, wagged her tail and bent her right leg, silently pointing her master to the bird hidden in the grass.
"She's wondering why nobody's shot that bird yet," Smith said, chuckling.
This was not a hunting trip, but a walk through a lifetime of memories.
Smith recalled his first quail hunt when was no more than 6 years old, walking through tall grass meadows with his grandfather.
"I was the bag boy," Smith said.
Later on, he moved up in status enough to carry a Red Ryder BB gun, even if it was empty of lead balls. Eventually, Smith carried his own birds back to the kitchen, where his mother liked to fry them.
Smith said he's already passed along his old hunting jacket to his grandson. But he wants to pass along the quail, too.
He's seen the birds coming back in eastern counties, where he goes to hunt.
But, Smith said, "I'm just hoping they come west."
To learn more about restoring grassland habitat in Southwest Virginia, contact Rosenberger at 381-4221, ext. 128, or Andrew.Rosenberger(at)va.usda.gov.
Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com