Effects of Sustainable and Conventional Agriculture on Farm Wildlife

Final Report for AS92-005

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1992: $0.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1993
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $130,100.00
ACE Funds: $130,000.00
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
John R. Anderson
North Carolina State University
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

Specific objectives for the project included:
1.) Compare the effects of sustainable versus conventional crop management on the use of crop fields by bobwhite quail and other wildlife species.
2.) Determine the value of planted and non-planted habitats, such as field borders and ditch banks, as year-round habitat for quail and other wildlife species.
3.) Quantify direct and indirect effects of selected pesticides on bobwhite quail and other wildlife species.
4.) Compare the economic costs and benefits of wildlife habitat in sustainable versus conventional cropping environments.
5.) Utilize case studies of cooperating growers and a survey of landowners’ attitudes on wildlife management to develop guidelines for persuading farmers and landowners’ to adopt sustainable practices beneficial to wildlife.
6.) Offer viable suggestions for enhancing wildlife resources occupying the agricultural landscape without sacrificing farm profitability.


Northern bobwhite quail numbers have been declining in the southern United States since the 1970s. Pesticides, predators, habitat modification and hunting have all been listed as factors contributing to decreased quail numbers. Accordingly, a multi-disciplinary SARE/ACE study was initiated in 1992 to determine if the implementation of sustainable agricultural crop production systems, with their emphases upon reduced pesticide use, could reverse the quail decline.


Materials and methods:

Efforts to elucidate the impact of farming operations on the bobwhite quail and other farm wildlife have involved a variety of innovative and unique techniques for measuring wildlife responses to agricultural activities. At the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR), the behavior of wild quail equipped with miniature radio-transmitters was monitored from March until October. The study area was divided into 4 blocks about 500 acres in size. Two of the blocks were “clean-farmed” and two featured 15-foot field borders alongside numerous drainage ditches. A total of 347 quail were captured during 1993 and 1994. One hundred seventeen quail were transmittered in 1994; 74 were female. Total telemetry locations for 1993-1994 exceeded 5,000. To corroborate telemetry data, ditches were walked and flush counts recorded.
To determine the amount of insects needed for normal growth and feathering, a series of growth rate trials with quail chicks were conducted. Each quail chick was fed a specific amount of insect matter. Growth and feathering were recorded and a minimum daily insect requirement for quail chicks calculated. Project personnel also developed procedures for human imprinting of quail chicks. Human imprinted quail chicks proved to be a powerful tool for studying pesticide effects and the habitat values of crop and non-cropland areas.
Ninety-two feeding rate trials were conducted.

Research results and discussion:

Radio-telemetry measurements describing the behavior of transmittered bobwhite quail suggest that quail spend considerable time in and around crop fields. Accordingly, they may be exposed frequently to foliar insecticides. Controlled studies exposing quail to the high labelled rate of foliar insecticides (worst case scenario) used most often on soybeans and cotton produced no direct effects on the birds. In vivo habitat evaluation via measurement of the feeding rates of human-imprinted quail chicks ranked crop habitats in the following order: fallow fields > no-till drilled soybeans > conventional soybeans in rows > cotton fields > peanut fields. Over a two year period, agricultural areas with field borders produced 179 hatchlings as compared to 37 hatchlings in areas without field borders. Flush counts confirmed that cropped areas with field borders supported about 6 times more quail than areas without field borders. Other experiments confirmed that conservation tillage and remedial herbicide applications could increase the profitability of corn and soybeans in tidewater North Carolina. A machine designed to improve the vegetative structure on ditch banks and in field borders via the inexpensive (relative to mowing) “wiping” of those areas with glyphosate proved workable; it may allow growers to reduce the field maintenance costs while increasing the usefulness of field borders and ditches to wildlife, especially quail.

Participation Summary

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The data collected in this study offer a strategy for simultaneously: (1) reducing the potential for non-point pollution from crop fields, (2) reducing the cost of crop production without reducing crop yield and (3) improving wildlife habitat on the southeastern farms and (4) increasing quail numbers across the region.
Farmers are cognizant of project results. Wilson County, NC farmers made aware of results of our habitat survey on their farms decided among themselves to seek cost-share for establishment of wildlife habitat (a direct result of our study). Data from our studies, especially those in Wilson County, were also instrumental in the development of multi-state (NC, SC, and VA) recommendations for inclusion, in the 1995 Farm Bill, of “green” payments for on-farm establishment of field borders and wildlife habitat.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.