HOLDEN — Logan Klingler isn’t Ray Kinsella, but he’s doing a pretty fair imitation of him.
Kinsella, the central character of “Field of Dreams,” modified a cornfield to give ghostly baseball players a place to play. Klingler is modifying meadows to bring a long-missing bird species back to West Virginia.
The bird? Bobwhite quail.
The species, once widespread in the Mountain State, vanished from the landscape in the late 1970s. Biologists say it disappeared because the state’s habitat had changed.
“Quail prefer grassland and brushland,” said Mike Peters, game bird project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources. “West Virginia historically is a heavily forested state, so it has always been marginal in terms of habitat.”
Quail thrived here when small family farms were found throughout the state. As the farms disappeared, the quail’s grip on survival weakened considerably. In the late 1970s, a natural calamity shook loose their grip for good.
“We had two really harsh winters in a row,” Peters said. “Those winters seem to have wiped out quail in several states at this latitude. Essentially, quail were stretched to their limits of survival before those winters. They had endured harsh winters before then, when they had better habitat. With their habitat depleted, they couldn’t survive.”
In the years since, wildlife officials wondered if quail would never be able to return to the state. Then, in 2015, the DNR acquired more than 32,000 acres of former surface-mined land in Logan and Mingo counties.
The property’s extensive mosaic of grassy savannas, a byproduct of the mine-reclamation process, made it ideal habitat for the agency’s effort to reintroduce elk. Coincidentally, it also held promise for another grassland-loving species — quail.
After elk were stocked there in 2016, DNR officials decided the tract, by then named the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, would be a good place for a quail reintroduction effort. They worked a tentative deal with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to trade eastern wild turkeys, which West Virginia has in abundance, for wild quail, which Texas has in abundance.
The swap hasn’t yet taken place; Texas officials reportedly are having had a hard time trapping enough birds for an initial stocking.
“Even when they’ve been able to get birds, they haven’t been able to get the female-to-male ratio we need,” said Klingler, the DNR’s wildlife manager at Tomblin. “When you’re trying to establish a population, it makes no sense to bring in a bunch of males and only a few females.”
In the meantime, Klingler and his coworkers have busied themselves preparing the land so quail — when they do come — will have the best possible chance to thrive.
“Mike Peters came down here last year, and we evaluated the habitat to see what we were lacking and what we had a lot of,” Klingler said.
Quail need three basic types of habitat — places to nest, places to rear their young, and places to escape from predators.
“We noticed we were lacking in brood-rearing habitat,” Klingler recalled. “A lot of the land here is covered with [a plant called] sericea lespedea, which is not good habitat for any kind of wildlife.
“Sericea grows very, very thick, so thick young quail can’t move through it. When a year’s growth of it dies off, it creates this nasty brown tangle at ground level.”
To thin out the dense growth, Klingler and his coworkers have sprayed sericea-infested fields with a selective herbicide that kills the offending plant but doesn’t harm other, more beneficial plants and grasses.
In some areas, DNR workers have simply bulldozed away undesirable vegetation and have replaced it with clover, winter wheat and cold-season grasses, all of which will provide considerably better habitat for young quail.
The bulldozer also cleared away thickets of autumn olive, an invasive bush that looks like good quail habitat but isn’t.
“During the summer, autumn olive is nice and thick and provides a lot of cover,” Klingler said. “In the winter, though, after it loses its leaves, it’s pretty open underneath and doesn’t afford much protection for wildlife that tries to hide in it.”
Klingler and the bulldozer operator recycled the bulldozed bushes by stacking them into head-high brush piles.
“Those brush piles will make great escape cover for quail, as well as for rabbits and other wildlife,” Klingler said.
Quail prefer habitat where escape cover is no more than 50 to 70 yards away. Some of Tomblin’s grassy meadows are several times that size. To make them more quail-friendly, Klingler plans to plant blackberries.
“The blackberry bushes will grow up and form hedgerows that break up the big fields and provide great escape cover for quail,” he said. “We think we’re going to have some really nice quail habitat here. At the moment we’re working on about 50 acres. Eventually, we’d like to have about 500.”
Next on Klingler’s agenda is to bring back the bulldozer.
“I want to plant some warm-season grasses like switchgrass, little bluestem and big bluestem,” he said. “They’ll give the quail a little more [food] variety.”
The habitat work will continue until Texas is able to trap at least 30 quail, ideally a 50-50 split between males and females. Since trapping takes place in early spring, before the nesting season, the earliest West Virginia could receive quail is sometime in 2020.
Even after the birds arrive, they’ll be kept off-limits to hunters until a viable, self-sustaining population becomes established. No one knows when — or even if — that will happen.
In the movie, a disembodied voice whispered to Kinsella, “If you build it, they will come.” West Virginia has built a field of dreams for quail. Will the birds thrive, or will they vanish like ghosts into the rugged Appalachian landscape?
Time will tell.