Farming and fowl can go together

You know Erle West Barham. At least most people who farm or hunt in the Mid-South know of him. He's best known as, well, “that quail guy.”

Barham farms about 5,500 acres of cotton, rice, corn and soybeans in Leflore and Carroll counties in Mississippi's eastern Delta, close to where the Delta meets the hills.

He comes from a long line of farmers. He can tell you from memory the ancestry as far back as the late 1800s that have farmed in Mississippi or northeast Louisiana. The lineage goes beyond that, but he might have to rely on notes to give you all those names.

Barham's parents, Edwards and Bennie Faye Barham, are still active in the family land in Oak Ridge, La. In the mid 1980s, however, Erle West migrated north to assume management of the family's Mississippi Ingleside Plantation. The term “migrated” is ironically accurate in describing Barham.

This brings us back to Barham's claim to fame as the quail man. Barham studies, appreciates and does all he can to enhance the habitat and survival rate of native birds, both game and songbirds. However, it was the silence of the native bobwhite quail that first got his attention. Despite farming and living in an area once rich and prolific in quail, Barham realized not long after moving to Mississippi that spotting or hearing quail was a rare event. It was also about the time he realized farming needed to be more than just a way to make a living.

“It wasn't long after I got here that I became reflective on my past and this farm's past,” he says. “I had a desire for the farm to offer something more than just a way to make a living.

“I know my interest and devotion to wildlife comes from my grandfather, Erle M. “Ninety” Barham, who was a great conservationist. There is a refuge on the family farm in Louisiana named after him,” says Barham, “and my grandfather was instrumental in the establishment of the Tensas Wildlife Refuge near Delhi, La.”

Erle West's father has a master's degree in ornithology and had a presidential appointment in the early 1970s to serve on a conservation initiative.

“Farming runs in the family, but so does a natural love for and desire to preserve our natural species of wildlife. I find it rewarding the farm is able to produce, but especially rewarding that it can provide recreation and enjoyment. It offers me an opportunity to be on the farm and have an active interest in something in addition to production agriculture. I watch the development of the birds and find as much pleasure from that as I do from watching a crop grow and mature.

“My interest has not changed. I just can't let go of this need to provide for quail. Quail, as well as the doves and many native songbirds, are part of our history,” he adds.

Barham can identify many of the birds he spots on his farm. He is actively involved in increasing the populations of songbirds, ducks and other birds and works closely with the South Leflore Songbird and Quail Restoration project.

Erle West also enjoys teaching his children, Laten and Nathan, and his wife, Trudy, about the sights and sounds of the birds.

“We have a number of sparrows — of note the grasshopper sparrow — which were virtually unheard of prior to Delta Wildlife's involvement in the program. We also have warblers and finches.

“But, there is just something magical about the bobwhite quail,” he says.

Where we went wrong

Bobwhite quail populations reached peak numbers in the mid- to late-1940s in Mississippi and were high through the early 1970s. Over the last 30 years, however, the quail population dropped by more than 70 percent to historically low levels. The decline is attributable to predators, diseases, parasites, pesticides and other factors. While all of these may affect quail, the most significant cause of population decline is the loss of quality habitat.

A direct cause-and-effect relationship exists between changes in land use and this population decline. Ideal habitat consists of a balanced mixture of bare ground, native clump grasses, annual weeds, woody cover and seeds and insects for food. Imported pasture grasses, clean farming, and reforestation to dense tree stands are some of the land-use changes that negatively impacted quail populations.

However, as Barham and other landowners are discovering, quail can be managed successfully throughout the Southeast as long as food and cover are available. They are particularly adapted to areas where habitat is diverse such as where small fields are farmed and divided by brushy fence rows and grown-up ditch banks.

Population numbers decline with large, clean-field agriculture or intensive types of farming. Quail live exclusively on the ground. They are ground-nesting birds, and they depend on a safe habitat. They will travel a good distance to find a suitable habitat.

Bobwhite quail are known to feed heavily just before dark, and the majority of the adult bird's diet consists of vegetable matter. However, just the opposite is true for young newly-hatched birds, which require a diet high in protein-rich insects. Therefore, a variation in habitats is necessary.

Choice natural quail foods include seeds of common ragweed, giant ragweed, wooly croton, partridge pea, common lespedeza, smart weed, beggar lice, foxtail, johnsongrass and panic grass. In addition, they eat berries and mast such as mulberries, blackberries, wax myrtle, persimmons, grapes, muscadines, huckleberries, dogwood berries, acorns and pine seeds.

A low quail population can be increased to a good population by providing adequate food and cover. Normally, these are provided by managing and increasing the natural quail food plants and by planting food patches of kobe lespedeza, partridge peas, bi-color lespedeza, field peas, brown top millet and sorghum.

When he started down this path, Barham's first goal was to educate himself on every aspect of the life span of bobwhite quail. He sought assistance from organizations such as Quail Unlimited, Delta Wildlife, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks and Mississippi State University.

“The research shows you don't have to dramatically change the way you farm to entice quail and other birds to come and to stay,” says Barham. “With the quail restoration, it's been subtle things. You don't have to provide much habitat, but there are certain times of the year when that habitat is more crucial than others.”

Barham says some of the most important changes he made included allowing turn rows to grow and vegetate with natural weeds and grasses to provide food and shelter.

“If you leave about 10 feet of a barrier around your fields and just let the natural plants and weeds grow, you'll end up with a mixture of plant growth. That mosaic of plants is what provides the quail with brood-rearing habitat, nesting cover and a food source.

“Initially we found a big increase just by providing that habitat, but as our quail numbers went up, so did our sightings of predators — raccoon, skunks, opossums and even domestic cats. Everything likes to eat quail.

“Federal laws prohibit killing some of the predators, or their killing is limited to certain seasons. I have trappers legally trap some of them such as bobcats, coyotes, skunks, raccoon and opossums.

“However, even with the increase in predators, I do know with certainty that you have to mix production. The birds must have that mosaic of plants and weeds to provide everything they need.

“That doesn't mean you can't plant cotton every year. It means you should rotate some smaller fields; you should let the turn rows grow; and you will have to get used to seeing some weeds propagate that otherwise would be a natural nemesis to a farmer,” he explains.

Barham says two such weeds are the Pennsylvania smartweed and bluestem foxtail.

“You never want to see those in your fields, but they are very desirable for bird habitat,” says Barham, “and they need to be part of that mosaic.

“Most of us can't afford to rotate our crops every year, and none of us can let weeds grow all over the place, but we can do these things in strips. It doesn't take much land, if the habitat is right, to support a covey of birds. Researchers tell us it takes a strip about one-fourth mile long and 8 feet wide to support a covey of birds. Each covey will usually have 10 to 20 birds.

“My goal is one covey of quail per one-fourth mile of linear habitat. We don't have those numbers yet, but we are working toward them.

“We have a plan,” he says.

“Most of what we do is pretty subtle. We leave the end of the point rows and don't clip or spray next to the corn turn rows to leave plants that will provide a food source through the winter.

“We disk in the early spring, January or February, and we do it in strips so we have that mosaic of the different food sources. Corn is the food source for the quail. Something as simple as not disking after harvest and leaving what's left after the combine is a big help.”

Sunflowers are a major part of his program for quail, doves and ducks.

“I leave strips on several places on my land. They offer protection for the songbirds, are a high-protein food source and provide natural cover for the quail throughout the winter months. Some years I might have as many as 40 acres planted in sunflowers.

We can farm the cotton out to the end of the field, but we plant a few acres of wheat with the sunflowers to provide the diversity the birds need.

“We don't let the combine get close to the native plants (weeds), because it would be so easy to propagate some of those tough weeds back into the fields. Roundup Ready technology has gone a long way toward reducing Pennsylvania smartweed as a pest, but it's a tough plant to get rid of once it gets into the fields.

“I don't expect to ever market a quail hunt of native birds. The quail are my passion. They are for me to enjoy; not for me to make money on. I'm sure we have about 10 times the quail we had when I took over this land. We have at least five coveys in this area around Ingleside with between six and 12 birds per covey.”

He also has coveys on the rented land referred to as the McCarty Place.

“In the fall, quail covey up in family units. If I see them at a certain time of day, I make a mental note and try to be at that same spot at the same time on another day, just to watch for them. I do hunt quail, and I invite friends to hunt with me, but I don't have commercial hunts with my native quail.”

Through the years Barham hosted various field days to demonstrate the things he does to show that row crop farming and wildlife habitat, especially bird habitats, can easily go together.

“There are opportunities for all farmers to do these things; you don't have to be a 1,000-acre farmer to implement some of the proactive steps we are trying to encourage. A lot of what we are doing to attract and keep the wildlife is like following a stream. We are going wherever it goes. We are learning and trying new things as they come our way,” he says.

In recognition of his efforts and dedication, Erle West received a national conservation award in the 2001 from the Daughter's of the America Revolution. He also established a scholarship at MSU to be awarded each year to a student majoring in wildlife conservation.

Even though Barham protects his quail from commercial hunting, he does take advantage of the higher populations of other game birds to generate some income.

He leases some 600 acres of land with nine duck blinds to a chemical company and sometimes hosts commercial dove hunts.

“We hold some water in the winter for ducks, and we installed pipes for some controlled flood so we have the irrigation in case we don't get the water. The last two years were good for ducks.

“We manage the water and the food sources for the ducks, which is usually the residue from the corn fields.

“We farm ducks almost with the same mindset we use to farm a crop,” Barham says.

“We also have several sunflower fields and we have several dove hunts, both private and paid. The doves are a source of recreation and income. Rather than cut and mow the sunflowers, we just allow the doves to come in, and we are market the hunt, which is legal.”

Eva Ann Dorris is an ag journalist and from Pontotoc, Miss. She can be reached at 662-419-9176 or [email protected]. Debra L. Ferguson is a photo-journalist with Southern Images. She can be reached at 601-992-948 or [email protected].

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