By Mike Black
It was a cold and windy day in Central Illinois way back in 1973. I was 13 and out hunting pheasant and rabbits with my father and friends. We had covered several sections of corn and a hedgerow or two and had somehow been successful with a couple of roosters and a rabbit or two by mid-afternoon. While walking a field I noticed a patch of woods off my left that “looked good.” I hollered at my dad and told him I would cut through there on the way back to the truck. As I cut down from the field to the woods I remember that just the summer before I had walked through those same woods with a fishing pole headed to a secluded pond and flushed two coveys of quail. This time I headed in with a 20-gauge Ithaca pump instead of a spinning reel and 6# line…
There was some snow on the ground as I entered the woods and I had the feeling you get as a hunter that this was a special place. I did not understand the reason for the open and burned woods and the mix of shrubs and grasses, but something told me to step with a purpose and pay attention.
I eased through the area and about a hundred yards in I caught movement to my left. Almost instantly a covey of quail exploded around me and headed in what seemed every direction. In desperation I took a shot and sent a load of 7 ½ shot through thin air nowhere near a quail and worked another shell into the chamber. Two late flushing quail came up just to my right and crossed to the left as I pulled the trigger. Brush blocked my view after the shot, but with feathers blowing in the wind I was sure I made a hit! I had indeed killed my first quail. It was a hen and I can still remember the vivid memory of that still warm bird in my hand, the cold wind, the gray skies and, yes, that special place.
Two major changes have occurred over the landscape for bobwhite quail over the last several decades. First, forests have greatly increased in acreage and volume – we have more land in forests and higher timber volumes than at any time in recent history. We foresters are proud of that - but the forests have matured and the canopies have closed. Much of the extensive savannah and woodland forests of the past are gone. They were a significant and often dominate part of the forested landscape, and as recently as 1950-1960 era photography they are still clearly visible.
Secondly, and at the same time, fire suppression became the policy on the land and gone are the frequent and sometimes landscape-scale fires. Dense forests and an almost total exclusion of fire have dealt a heavy blow for the bobwhite.
As a forester, I understand the value of high volumes of timber as well as protection of property that good wildfire suppression provides. These amenities are important and highly valued, but increasingly other values such as diverse wildlife habitat and the restoration of forgotten species and ecosystems are also important on public and private forest lands. Natural resource professionals and, increasingly, the general public are aware of the value of prescribed fire for wildlife habitat development, restoration and maintenance.
Over the last 15 months I have had the privilege to work with outstanding co-workers, and dedicated biologists and foresters who are passionate about wildlife habitat management in general and with bobwhite quail in particular. I have had many beliefs re-enforced, and new visions added in my meetings and field visits, and I intend to share these thoughts with you over the coming months.
There is no greater opportunity in the historic range of bobwhite quail for habitat restoration than the forested landscape.
We can make a difference.