Blogs

Shell’s Covert: The Charismatic Bobwhite

Way back when, at one of our quail team meetings, a member of our distinguished crew mentioned, “We’ve been using these same quail photos forever. We need to get some new ones.”  Admittedly, nearly two decades had passed since our former quail team gathered some pen-raised quail and did our best to get some “realistic” field photos of bobwhites.

“No problem,” I said. “I’ll get us some pen-raised birds and we’ll see what we can do.” I then sent a note to some of my DGIF friends who edit our magazine and direct art for the agency. I queried “Would you all be interested in working with us to get some new quail pics?” The reply was quick “Sure, we’d love to.” All set, I thought. Nothing to this! We have some of the finest photographers in the world working with us. All I have to do is get some quail. But many of my ideas don’t quite pan out to be as simple as I envision them.

Puckett's modified chicken coop

Puckett’s modified chicken coop

I won’t bore you with every detail, but here are some snapshots of the struggle to get some nice pen-raised quail and properly house them and then get them to the photo shoot: the purchase and assembly (not in the1-hour suggested on the box, which failed to mention metal fabricating skills would be needed) of a nice chicken coop modified for quail (using personal funds – not license dollars); a 5:30 a.m. departure on the delivery date to meet a very generous supporter two and a half hours east in King and Queen County to pick up 26 high quality quail he donated to our cause; the realization that getting these pen-raised quail out of the chicken coop was not going to be nearly as easy as getting them in; the near-dark dash to secure the quail coop in the face of a tornado and hail warning (forgetting about the house I live in and more worried about the quail); the comedic capture of the fine feathered bobwhites using a long-handled trout fishing net; and, once in the field, multiple attempts to get them to pose for photos – which they are not of a mindset to do. There is still a good bit of wild left in these pen-raised pompadours.

My hat is off to the patience exhibited by our professional photographer friends. They did capture some good pics, but I think we all realized the best way to get real wild quail photos would be to find a place with a lot of them, set up blinds, perhaps do some baiting, and plan on spending days in the field. Those places are few and far between north of South Georgia.

In the course of all this I realized something else. I have been too far removed from the animal I work so hard to try to help recover. I had lost my own personal fascination with the quail itself and had forgotten how much charisma these birds have. My life has become about workshops, field tours, meetings, pamphlets and giving talks. How long had it been since I held in my own hands a living quail? My daughter had the answer. She is 11, and upon seeing these cool puffs of feathers said “Wow! They’re neat! I have never seen one before up so close.” She marveled at the soft sounds they make among themselves, as did I, having forgotten many of them myself. She is helping me take care of them.

The pen-raised bobwhite is much maligned by some, especially those of us who are biologists. But I have to think that as wild bobwhites become more difficult to find and see, these pen-raised quail have a role to play in quail recovery. It’s hard to appreciate an animal that you never see. We can debate the pros and cons of stocking pen-raised quail all day, but I think they have a valid place in education. Trout Unlimited™ has a fantastic program called “Trout in the Classroom©” where they expose young people to living trout. I see this as a role the quail non-governmental organizations could play in quail recovery. Maybe by becoming interested in the quail as an individual, a young person may be inspired to create habitat for them someday. I know I have seen the spark of life-long interest ignited in the eyes of many kids who attend wildlife educational events featuring live animals they can see and touch.

I also see the long tradition of quail hunting and bird dog training slipping away from a land where 50 years ago a person could never have imagined it. To help keep the tradition of quail hunting alive, an increasing number of quail hunters who own land are incorporating fall pre-season release of high quality pen-raised quail into their management system. This also helps keep alive the “drive to hunt” lifeblood in dog lines for future generations. It can also provide a realistic experience for grandsons and granddaughters that may not be able to take a trip out West, or have access to good wild quail lands here.

I’m not advocating the establishment of state run game bird stocking programs. The programs are enormously expensive and consume staff and time. And I still do not believe stocking pen-raised quail will bring back wild bobwhites. But I am saying that landowners who really want to create great habitat first – because that is what it takes — and then use some stocked quail to supplement their sport and help keep it alive are not doing any harm, as long as they use well tested, disease-free, pen-raised quail. And they may be helping develop the wild quail managers and bird hunters of the future.

Some may ask “Who cares if bird hunting dies out?” But for those of us who have lived this life that is like saying “Who cares if baseball dies out as our national pastime?” On my end, I plan to keep trying to help wild quail, native bees, butterflies and songbirds come back through habitat creation and management. It is the long-term key, but having a helping hand to keep traditions alive from a few charismatic captive-raised quail can’t hurt. And I know when I talk about quail now with my daughter she appreciates them much more now than before she saw one alive and up close.

Anatomy of a Partnership for Bobwhites

Partnerships are key to getting habitat work on the ground and restoring northern bobwhites to huntable populations.

One such partnership was created after many months of work between state wildlife agencies, the United States Forest Service (at the Region 8 office in Atlanta, GA and the Washington DC headquarters), along with efforts from several staff members of the NBCI.

This past June a working agreement was signed between the Region 8 office, National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, the GA Wildlife Resources Division, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the Oconee Ranger District of the Chattahoochee-Oconee Forest and the Enoree District of the Sumter National Forest. This agreement will allow for the USFS and the wildlife agencies within Georgia and South Carolina to create and manage suitable habitat on a scale that is sufficient enough that bobwhites can survive over time, and to prove that habitat is the missing piece in restoring bobwhite populations. Funding for the NBCI Focal Area projects came from the USFS Washington Office via hazardous fuels funding in the agency’s State and Private Forestry Office.

The agreement didn’t happen overnight. It started several years ago with conversations between staff of the GA Wildlife Resources Division Bobwhite Quail Initiative, the Oconee Ranger District and the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge. These meetings laid the groundwork for future meetings in the fall of 2015 between USFS Region 8, USFWS Region 4, GA WRD and NBCI. These meetings were held so that staff from the federal agency region offices could be made aware of the importance of early successional habitat and that without it species like the northern bobwhite, a number of other declining priority songbirds, and pollinators would continue to decline.

These first meetings were just a beginning. As NBCI forestry coordinator, I was asked by Tony Tooke, Regional Forester for Region 8, to poll the state wildlife agency quail coordinators within the Southern Region on which National Forest properties within their states that had highest potential for quail management and partnerships between the USFS, the states and NBCI. Findings of this survey were provided to Forest Service Staff in follow-up meetings.  Subsequently, the Region 8 office issued a briefing paper to Forest Supervisors in five states identifying their national forest lands as highly suited to quail habitat restoration.

While talks continued throughout the winter months with region staff, other NBCI staff was talking with Forest Service staff in Washington. These talks eventually led to an offer from the Washington office for funding  that could be used on National Forest lands for quail habitat restoration. NBCI had the responsibility of writing a proposal and working with the WO and RO to iron out the details of the proposal. After more discussions everyone was able to agree on projects where the funding could be used to best benefit bobwhites and other associated species on two national forests in Georgia and South Carolina.

Even though these two areas were chosen, there are still many other opportunities to manage for bobwhites and other associated early successional species on Forest Service lands within the 25-state National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. Just recently, at the National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting in Lincoln, NE, announcements were made by the state quail coordinators from Louisiana and Alabama that progress is being made in identifying areas on National Forests within their states (Conecuh in AL and Kisatchie in LA) that could be intensively managed to create bobwhite habitat and classified as official NBCI Focal Areas.     

Shell’s Covert: A Quail Cannot Live on Lespedeza Alone

 

I hope to share with you this month some revealing — and maybe even shocking — facts about quail nutrition. Such as this …  in order to survive on a cold winter’s day, a bobwhite quail would have to eat 18,639 Kobe lespedeza seeds to meet its nutrition requirements for that single day. That means it would have to eat a lespedeza seed every 2 seconds for 10 hours!!! Hope I’ve hooked you into reading the rest of this, because there is a lot more!  Much of what follows I derived from the book “On Bobwhites” by Dr. Fred Guthery – University of Texas A&M Press. 2000. (Many inexpensive paperback versions are available on the internet.)

Many things go into an animal’s survival and nutrition is huge. But as you will see, like with humans, quail nutrition goes beyond calories alone. As biologists we have our share of inside jokes. One revolves around a seemingly long-held belief among some deer hunters that deer can feed on acorns year around. And that as long as you have an oak forest, the deer will be fine (try telling that to a deer in west Texas). The same is true for quail hunters. Many seem to believe that as long as you plant some lespedeza for them, things will be fine (try telling that to the quail that were around well before the lespedeza was). These long-held assumptions could not be further from the truth. One of the first rules of providing for animals is that you have to consider all their life stages and all seasons of the year.

Let’s begin this “lesson” with a simple chart on some common seeds and the calories they provide. A note on calories – on a cold winter’s day, meaning below freezing, a quail needs about 60 calories (kilocalories for those perfectionists) to sustain itself. To put that in perspective, think of a pack of “Nabs” – six to a pack, a pack being about 280 calories, meaning each Nab has about 47 calories. That should give you some perspective on the size of a food item with about 50 to 60 calories.

Seed Type

Seeds per ounce

Calories per ounce

Switchgrass

21,875

53

Partridge pea

4,081

68

Kobe (common) lespedeza

19,375

62

German millet

13,705

98

Ragweed

7,187

110

Corn

75

109

Soybeans

188

109

 

This chart reveals several things. One is that there are a lot of small seeds in an ounce. This also means that just because we find a quail’s crop stuffed with a particular seed it does not mean it is their favorite food. In fact, it may mean it is about all they can find.

Another is that some native seeds have as many or more calories than crop plants. Witness ragweed at 110 calories per ounce. Taking this a bit further, to make 60 calories a quail would need to eat 41 whole corn grains, or 103 soybeans, or 670 milo seeds, or 1160 sunflower seeds, or 3,605 partridge pea seeds, or 27,690 switch grass seeds. Taken on the surface, one can see where the “food plot” mentality came from. After all, if a quail can get its fill off 41 grains of corn, all we need to do for quail is plant corn plots, right?

Dr. Guthery referred to this as “the Thanksgiving Syndrome.” The human fixation on food led many well-meaning people in the early decades of quail recovery to believe that all that was necessary to quail recovery were grain food plots. And many times a goodhearted landowner set aside a ½ acre “patch” back next to a mature woodland or near a hay field, of something like corn, or milo.

Little islands of food popped up everywhere largely surrounded by a “sea” of useless cover for quail. And folks were mystified as to why “the quail never came back.” I am not knocking food plots. They have a place, for deer, for quail, for many things, but they have to be part of an entire package that addresses food, cover, nesting areas, brood-rearing areas, and relies first and foremost on native plant diversity and abundance. Food plots, and even supplemental feeding (as studies in the deep South have shown), have to be woven into a functioning ecosystem in order to be truly beneficial.

Let’s delve a little further by recognizing that fat and carbohydrates are but one aspect of nutrition. Enter the common black cricket. A rather mundane looking fellow at first glance, little would anyone know that as far as the total nutrition package – he is the “end all” for a bobwhite quail. He has, in fact, 30% more calories per ounce than corn. And as with many insects, he also contains the proteins and amino acids that are critical for feather development, egg development and many other things a quail needs beside calories. Insects average about 40% – 50% protein and contain key ingredients like methionine and cysteine without which a quail cannot persist.

I bet as you have read this you might have thought to yourself, “If partridge pea and lespedeza seemingly are not the best quail foods, why do these biologists recommend them so often?”

Very astute question, my friends. Guess what? Many legumes like these are rich in proteins and key amino acids. They help make up for the lack of insects during cold weather. I admit that I am guilty of recommending them too often, and I have perhaps been part of the problem. However, they are very reliable seeds, they often are recommended in ecosystems that have been depleted of many native legumes, and for two other big reasons…they draw insects by the gazillion in summer. And they tend to provide the type of plant structure quail, especially quail chicks, need to forage in. But, in truth, in order for these plants, or any others, to be helpful to quail, they have to be part of an entire system that includes thickets, weedy areas, grassy nesting areas, and night roosting areas – all in close proximity. A quote from Guthery’s book: “Energy costs rise with increasing foraging effort, increasing disturbance, and decreasing quality of cover.”

What a simple little quote, but it says a ton. If you desired to plant some milo strips for quail, weaving them within their thickets and weedy winter feeding areas is best. This decreases foraging effort, decreases exposure to predators and makes disturbance less likely. Just make sure that the milo strips don’t destroy the integrity of the natural cover. This quote might also make the more thoughtful hunters recognize that repeatedly hunting an area during cold weather and disturbing quail there could add to mortality beyond those killed by shot.

To wrap up, quail eat a huge variety of seeds, nuts, plant parts, greens, berries, and insects. To manage for them means to provide a rich, diverse, healthy plant environment that also attracts insects and provides escape cover. Keep the simple “Thirds rule” in mind. Manage for a third thickets and escape cover, a third weedy, fallow areas with a good vegetation canopy over some bare dirt like ragweed, partridge pea, beggar-weed etc. , and a third in areas a bit more grassy for nesting and night roosting.

Lastly, keep this old adage in mind “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”  That same wingstem, or stick weed (verbesina), that farmers hate so much – turns out to be a great quail food plant, and provides pretty good structure. So think before you bush-hog.

Shell’s Covert: Thoughts from the ‘Heartland’

Next month I promise to return to a topic that may be educational, useful and less philosophical – expressly quail nutrition and food habits. But this month, I wanted to share a few thoughts from the heartland after our recent National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska.

I have visited the “plains states” several times and I love it “out there.” Some folks refer to the heartland as the “flyover states,” insinuating there’s nothing there to interest anyone not from around there. And from 35,000 feet you see lots of squares and circles representing crop fields, and very few homes or towns. On the ground one of the first things I felt was that there’s very few places to hide from the weather … or hide from anything else for that matter. And it has created a people without pretenses. More than anywhere I have ever visited, it is a place where “what you see is what you get,” take it or leave it.

In winter the wind is relentless, as well as the work … and it leaves little time for fanciness. Homes look worn, but the people in them don’t and in every country café I visited, people were friendly and welcoming. “You guys bird hunting?” would be a frequent question as we sat eating fresh hamburgers. Often followed by something like “Well, if you get over by Clay Center, I have a piece of land there you are welcome to hunt.”

There's farmland all around

There’s farmland all around

I remember back in 2008 registering for a hotel one evening in Clay Center and I asked the lady behind the desk “What county are we in?” She looked at me like I was about the stupidest hunter she ever saw and said, “Why do you think they call this town Clay Center?” That’s when it hit me, most everything was surveyed in squares on the plains, and each square county had a town surveyed and laid out right at its center…hence Clay Center was at the geometric dead center of Clay County. When you are from the convoluted Southeast like me, there is something refreshing about that simplicity.

And not to disparage our Nebraska friends, but some things regarding quail are just easier out there than they are here. For starters, it’s rural, and that alone makes life easier for quail and all sorts of other critters. I am talking so rural in places that on our field tour last week the tour buses just parked right in the road while we went about our guided stops. And if a car did come along, they’d just go around us (maybe one or two cars all afternoon).

Next, farmland out there is everywhere – there is so much of it that it makes it easier not to farm every acre of it, and that again helps the bobwhite along with many plants and animals. Perhaps most importantly – it takes trees years and years to grow out there once any distance from a waterway. Sweetgum there is found in a pack, not growing from the ground. Red maple? Pine? Poplar? Not there. Plant succession is slow and thus the need for active management is not quite as urgent as it is here in the humid East. Another little something I noticed, non-native invasive vegetation has not had nearly as long to take hold out there as it has back here. It exists and does cause problems, but the native seedbank of plants seems to respond fairly well when given a chance. Wild plum still seems to grow on its own there, too, and I saw many a good thicket of it along roadsides, much like Kansas back in 1997 when we did not really need a bird dog to find quail. We simply hopped from plum thicket to plum thicket relying on the dogs mainly to help us chase the birds out (those quail would run around and around in circles within those thickets hating to fly out).

They have their share of problems, too, and I don’t want to make it sound easy. Winters can be severe, drought can have negative effects and as the human population increases they’ll be expected to squeeze every soybean out of their farmland. But it is nice to know that given good weather, a little passive neglect and some active management with fire and cattle grazing can still produce a bunch of bobwhites somewhere in America.

View of Cornhusker Stadium from my hotel

View of Cornhusker Stadium from my hotel

Also, in my opinion, if you have never visited our plains states, you can’t really call yourself an American or a bird hunter. If for no other reason, you need to drive out there during winter, stand out

in the middle of that vastness and appreciate the kind of self-sufficiency and courage it takes to live there.

Ah, yes, and about the NBTC meeting itself…it was fantastic (Thanks Nebraska folks!). I left once again feeling like the NBCI was on the verge of great things. Their list of accomplishments over the past year is impressive. There have been doubters out there and concerns expressed about the use of Pittman-Robertson funds to support NBCI staff.

As I sat looking out my hotel room, I had a magnificent view of the Nebraska Cornhuskers football stadium. A more famous stadium one will be hard pressed to find. The Big Red is everywhere in Nebraska. I thought about how the NBCI had only existed for six years and had only had stable funding for two years and it made me think to myself “I wonder where Nebraska would be if they’d given up on their football team after its first two years?”

The kind of work ethic and dedication I see in Nebraska fans is evident all over our great country, it is what makes us great, and I see it exemplified by the staff of the NBCI.

Shell’s Covert: The Subtle Things

I have been absent from the blogosphere since early June. It has been a busy summer so far. Not to mention a very troubling one with regards to some of what has transpired in our great country and around the world. I made the comment to a friend and colleague last week that I was afraid we ought to just put our American flags at half-mast and leave them there. It seems no sooner than we raise them back to full staff that another tragedy unfolds. I hope the future can return us to some sense of “normalcy,” but throughout history I am not sure that ever really existed for very long.

Pasture / hay field converted to short-leaf pine and pollinator cover

Pasture/hay field converted to short-leaf pine and pollinator cover

One thing I really struggle with sometimes given all that is going on in the world is how do I continue to believe in what I am doing? Some days I suffer from an existential crisis mood. I ask myself – why should anyone care about quail? About bees? About butterflies? About thickets, weeds, wildflowers and native grasses? About wetlands? About forests?

There has never been another species that has had as great a capacity to inflict atrocities on one another as ours. Going back as far in history as one can go, examples of the wholesale slaughter we have leveled on ourselves are limitless. But so are examples of our capacity to survive those cataclysms. It occurred to me as I thought about this that barring nuclear holocaust, we are not likely to bring about our extinction through war. As bad as things get, as horrible as times become…our species can survive those things.

Eastern Tiger Swallow Tail and Sulphur butterflies on butterfly weed in quail planting area

Eastern Tiger Swallow Tail and Sulphur butterflies on butterfly weed in quail planting area

But what we will not survive is the continued erosion of our ecosystems, or our continued loss of what Aldo Leopold referred to as a “land ethic.” It occurred to me that it won’t be the dramatic events that bring about our demise as a species. It will be the underlying, sometimes subtle things that go on around us every day that cause the “bottom to fall out” at some point. And therein were my answers.

I spent a good part of the last two weeks traveling around to various parts of our state looking at habitat projects of differing kinds. All around us was life and positivity on our site visits. Examples of landowners who, while still making income from their property, made decisions reflecting their love of the land and wildlife.

Projects ranged from reforestation of declining species of pines to incorporating wildlife considerations like reduced stocking rates and lower intensity herbicides, to a single project that incorporated hundreds of acres of native grass and pollinator plantings. These landowners counted on our professional recommendations to design and help them accomplish their projects. Many also relied on financial assistance from conservation cost-share programs.

Dedicated conservation professionals helped walk them through the process. At nearly every site we heard the “bob-bob-whiiiittte!!!” call. We saw countless numbers of pollinating insects. Plant diversity was improved at all sites. The only thing that dampened our thinking was the distance between good sites at times. We simply need more landowners inclined to do conservation-minded habitat work. And that is a goal worthy of our work. Our life’s chosen calling will become increasingly critical to the continued existence of our species. Our jobs are not glamorous, we rarely work in the spotlight (good or bad), and in most cases we do not risk our lives unreasonably in our profession. But what we do matters to our future on this planet.