Leatrice holding her Quail Forever Award. CRAIG MOORHEAD/SPRING GROVE HERALD
Leatrice holding her Quail Forever Award. CRAIG MOORHEAD/SPRING GROVE HERALD
For Leatrice "Lee" McEvilly, an interest in birds can be traced to one particular day, and a small gift from a teacher.

"I went to a one-room country school," she said recently. "The teacher gave me some little bird cards with pictures on them. It set me off. I started going into the woods looking for birds, and never stopped.

Lee paused, "It just goes to show what somebody can open up to a child," she grinned.

McEvilly was honored last March as the Southeast Minnesota Land Manager of the Year by Quail Forever. She spoke from her rural Caledonia farm.

"When Thurman (Tucker) got his inspiration for a quail initiative, that was fantastic!" Leatrice said.

Tucker serves as Minnesota State Coordinator for Quail Forever's Metro Chapter. He frequents Houston and Fillmore Counties often, since those areas are a primary focus in bringing back the bob white to the state.

A Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) sign-up aimed especially at quail restoration was initiated by the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) in the two counties several years ago, Tucker reported.

"In Minnesota, the program is limited to Houston and Fillmore counties," he noted. "Lee enrolled six acres in 2006, and added to that later... A total of 500 acres was included in the quail habitat sign-up for Minnesota. She was one of the first to enroll. We now have 498 acres in the program, and Lee is one of 35 landowners who are taking part."

After adding more land in 2008, Leatrice now has 8.2 acres in the program. But she began to improve the wildlife habitat on her farm long before the NRCS began it's quail project.

When husband Jerry and Leatrice moved to their Caledonia Township farm in 1965, they were greeted with cheerful whistles from some little bob whites.

"There weren't a lot of them," Lee said, "but there were a few. There was an old fence around the yard with a kind of hedge in it. You'll see the little quail in there every once in a while. Over the years, they gradually disappeared entirely."

The McEvilly family didn't give up on wildlife, however. Some of their early efforts included planting several acres of evergreen trees.

Lee's son, Sean, has worked to improve nesting and brood rearing habitat for quail and other grassland birds by planting "CP-33" habitat (grasses and forbes) on the 10-year set aside. He has also planted food plots and performed a lot of chain saw work, tailoring the improvements to create better habitat.

"I keep taking questionable land out of production because I'm very conservation-minded," Leatrice said. Those include areas with rocky, shallow soils."

"We seeded it down to prairie - wildflowers and grasses, prairie grasses."

Efforts to hold a prescribed burn on the plot fell through due to last-minute rainfall, but a few spots which did light showed promise, she added. "There was one place where it took off, and some Indian grass came in there. It definitely has an effect. It really makes stuff like wildflowers and clovers grow. The burn just brings on the things you really want."

"Also, you've got to change your view on weeds. They're not all bad."

"A few years back, we were such ardent bird-watchers... we spotted a bird at our feeder from the Pacific northwest that came here on a storm about Christmas-time."

"It was about the size of a Robin - a beautiful bird with a big orangish chest with a big upside-down vee on it. I looked it up in my bird book and it turned out to be a Varied Thrush. Their nickname is 'Oregon Robin.'

When the word got out, birdwatchers from far and wide beat a path to the McEvilly feeder. "People came all the way from Duluth to see that bird," Leatrice chuckled, "Can you believe it?"

After a cold, late spring, quail have been scarce on the farm in 2013. That's no reason to jump to conclusions, however. Pheasants are numerous, as are a variety of other birds. As the habitat continues to be improved, the little birds should return, Tucker said.

One idea that Quail Forever is now implementing is placing "corn crib" feeders to help the chunky little fellows survive deep snow and cold. Tucker, along Quail Forever Southeast Chapter President Mark Monson and other volunteers have been busy installing them on Houston County farms this winter.

For a look at what's possible, take 2012. Good nesting conditions produced more than a few quail on the McEvilly farm.

"We were doing really well," Leatrice said, "we began seeing quail. We never knew how many we had until that year, when they really showed up."

"I was working in my garden in early spring when I heard a bobwhite whistle. I heard them several times that summer. We knew we had two covies, maybe more."

"If that habitat works for quail it will work for Meadowlarks and Bobolinks and all kinds of birds that need grass."

"It's a thrill to hear a quail whistle, just a thrill! Just to hear one really close and talk back and forth (whistle) with them," she smiled. "Last year there were some just over the garden fence. I couldn't see them, because there was a lot of undergrowth there, but we had quite a conversation."

"It's like it should be. If they were here once, they should be able to be here now. We just need to restore habitat, because too much of it has disappeared."

As December winds howled through the pines, ring-neck pheasants poked through the grasses, scratching out seeds and insects sleeping in dried stalks. Even though they're not natives, their presence bodes well for other wildlife species. And when snow piles up like leaden blankets in the thickets, they'll find a safe haven along with other birds and animals at the McEvilly farm, due in part to a school teacher who gave a little girl a set of cards."