By Justin FolksJustin Folks poses with dog, Shelby
Private Lands Biologist
Virginia Quail  Recovery Initiative

Field of Dreams is a fantastic movie, and one of my all-time favorites. Perhaps the most memorable line from the movie comes from “the voice” that speaks to Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, throughout the film: “if you build it, he will come.” We find out toward the end of the movie that the “it” the voice refers to is a baseball field and the “he” is John Kinsella, Ray’s father who passed away years ago. After being jeered by everyone for plowing under his corn and constructing a full-sized diamond, the ghost of Ray’s father eventually emerges from the surrounding corn (where “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and other greats of the time also appeared beforehand) and they have a game of catch. Obviously, not a work of non-fiction.

Our Quail Team hears a similar voice. It is a FACT that the underlying cause of the plight of the bobwhite is habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. By adhering to the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy, we aim to stitch together patches of quail habitat and recover this once-familiar Prince of Gamebirds to sustainable population levels. Do we expect these ghostly birds to just appear out of the woods like “Shoeless” Joe Jackson? Is our approach as far-fetched as Ray Kinsella’s? I submit that it is not.

Bill Fletcher, a resident of Rappahannock County, has been working with the Virginia Quail Team for the last 3 years to create quail habitat on his property. Bobwhites have not been observed there in 5 years or so, but Mr. Fletcher aimed to change that. Mr. Fletcher has completed 2 large habitat projects in which he has converted marginal crop land, hay land, and pasture land to suitable quail cover. While establishing quail cover may be hard work, the hardest part is perhaps the waiting game afterward.  Will they come, or won’t they?

One of the most beautiful things about “quail habitat” is that the plant community and vegetation structure necessary for quail provides food, cover, and shelter for many other wildlife species—songbirds, rabbits, pollinating insects, deer, and turkeys to name a few. There aren’t many who appreciate these “fringe benefits” more than the folks with Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL) out of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who have been conducting research on maximizing wildlife benefit while maintaining sustainable agriculture. Amy Johnson, one of VWL’s principal investigators, has been conducting summer and winter bird surveys at Mr. Fletcher’s property for the past couple of years. Without spitting out a bunch of data, I can tell you that the number of bird species and total number of birds using the “quail habitat” areas compared to the adjacent fescue fields and crop fields is staggering, especially in winter. There ARE immediate benefits to “quail work,” even if quail may not appear for some time.

When we began working together, Mr. Fletcher told us that he had seen or heard a few bobwhites here and there up until about 5 years ago when the area experienced an unusually harsh winter (snow depths in some areas were recorded at around 50 inches!). After the spring thaw, the birds didn’t return—that is, not until after Amy informed me recently that while conducting a bird survey at the property in December, she flushed 3 bobwhite quail! Lo and behold—we built it, and they came! I’m sure these are the first of many bobwhites to return to Mr. Fletcher’s property. He really has done some amazing work.

Would they have come back without the work? It’s possible, but I doubt they would have thrived. Bobwhites can handle marginal habitat conditions so long as weather conditions are favorable; if the weather gets bad… bye-bye bobwhites. The slow deterioration of bobwhite habitat on a landscape scale over the last 60 years (not just in Virginia, but across the U.S.) has caused a steady decline in bobwhite populations. Slow changes are hard to see with the naked eye, and it isn’t until after an extremely dry summer or one brutal winter until we notice a change—the bobwhites are gone. This is what I refer to as the “Vanishing Bob Phenomenon.” Many landowners I meet with tell me that they had quail on their properties until about 30 years ago, and then “they just vanished” (and this is usually followed by some poor excuse about there being too many hawks or coyotes). About 30 years ago, there was a really bad ice storm that impacted much of Virginia, but was especially hard on quail west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In small pockets of marginal habitat where quail were still hanging on after 40 years or so of habitat loss, that harsh winter was the nail in the coffin. The hawks did not just suddenly declare war on quail.

Quality habitat, in adequate supply, enables quail to quickly rebound after severe weather events. Quail have the innate ability to increase local population size by up to 300% in a single year if habitat and weather conditions are optimal. Mr. Fletcher’s property was marginal for bobwhites before we started our habitat work, and this is supported by the fact that quail weren’t there for 5 years following that severe winter. After some field borders and fescue conversions, we’ve been able to attract birds back to his place. I’m excited to see how things will look next year after those quail have had a chance to use Mr. Fletcher’s outstanding cover to create nests, raise broods, and form coveys (and oh, by the way: he plans on creating even more quail habitat this year!).

Your results, however, may vary. Some landowners have had quail show up within a year of management. For others, it may take longer. The important thing is to remember to enjoy the fringe benefits—what we’re doing is about so much more than just quail. You know, Ray Kinsella didn’t even know why he was chalking a batter’s box as he was doing it, but he felt there would be a big reward someday. Ray enjoyed hanging out with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the other players BEFORE his father appeared. It’s time we all have a little bit of that Ray Kinsella faith. Build your own “fields of dreams,” and we’ll all be rewarded one day by the return of the majestic bobwhite. In the meantime… “Shoeless” Joe is a pretty cool guy.

I hope all of you had a nice holiday season. Breaks are nice, but it’s always good to get back in the work “groove.” Yesterday, as on most Sundays, I was reading our weekly edition of the Sunday Richmond Times-Dispatch. I get it primarily for sports and comics, and I especially enjoy Tee Clarkson’s outdoor column. This week in the Flair section I noticed a blurb stating that “January is national ‘Thank You’ month.” I thought to myself, “Do we really need an official ‘thank you’ month to remind us to be nice?”

A friend of mine and I were talking Saturday between woodcock coverts (Thanks for the invite, Sandy!) about how shocked some people seem to be nowadays when you do something nice for them. It’s a shame, and I sure hope we can get back to a world where doing nice things for people is as common as air. It got me thinking about all the folks who have been nice to me over the last year. I hoped to myself that I had thanked them sincerely. They are too many to recognize in this post, but I did want to mention a few, not by name, but they will know who they are.

Many fellow quail enthusiasts sent me e-mails or gave me phone calls to simply say, “hang in there, we appreciate what you all are trying to do.” That means a ton, as we get negative comments sometimes and they can get to you. Thanks to those of you out there who understand and who are trying to help bobwhites…those who recognize that you have to be part of the solution.

In a class on leadership I took with some of my peers a few years ago we learned that within our fair species there are three basic types of people “Poopers, pointers and pooper scoopers.” Poopers make messes, pointers say “look at that mess” but do nothing to help, and then there are the pooper scoopers – who take action to solve the problem. Don’t point unless you are willing to help scoop. THANKS to all of you out there who are “quail pooper scoopers.”

I am “between bird dogs” as bird hunters say who do not have a good dog to take afield. I have three dogs at home that I love and feed, but due to a combination of my circumstances and ineptness at dog training, I don’t hunt with them. One is my Daughter’s little “country mutt” that we adopted from the local pound at about 8 weeks – the dog loves me, as I fed, cradled, and cleaned up after her until she could fend for herself. But she’s into squirrels not birds.

A special “friend” in King and Queen County, who would not want his name mentioned, invites me at least once or twice a year to benefit from his enormous habitat efforts, and his pre-season release system that has worked well for him (not to mention his superior bird dogs). We went the Sunday before Christmas and found 11 coveys in 3 hours.

Thanks to all of you who have taken pity on me and shared your dogs and coverts with me. I am getting a puppy this spring – I’ve come to see there is never a “good time” to buy one, and as each year passes my bird hunting life ebbs. What’s one more dog anyway? Hopefully next year I’ll at least be able to get out and train and at some point again enjoy that relationship with a good dog. It’s all about friends, both canine and human.

I got an e-mail back in October from a “quail friend” over in Chesapeake. He’d seen my blog post on my home habitat project back in summer. In it I mentioned renting a heavy duty mower to help me keep my wildlife cover from converting back to trees. In my case, I am not in a good position to conduct prescribed burning (though I plan to try) or disking, but I can mow in rotation, in late winter and still keep some cover in fair shape. He e-mailed to say he had an older brush mower that he had become “too old” to run anymore and I could have it free if I was willing to come get it. I told him I couldn’t take it for free, but would be willing to come get it.

Long story short, I hitched up my trailer one day over the holidays and rode to Chesapeake, about 3 hours for me one way, but well worth the trip. I got a used, but very good condition walk behind brush mower for a low, but fair price according to my friend. It will work great for keeping my habitats from being overwhelmed by trees, and also for mowing fire-lines. Friends helping friends is what it takes.

A quick habitat note: most mornings rather than watch the news, I sit on my front porch and watch the day take shape (as long as it is above 25 degrees). One morning last week I watched a Cooper’s Hawk glide with his tell-tell quick three or four wing beats followed by soaring and then repeated, just a few feet off the ground. He flew into the woods west of my driveway and as he entered the woods, an up roar of song birds exploded from within. Every cardinal, towhee, chickadee and tufted titmouse in there blew out, crossed my yard and flew into the thickets I have established along my yard edges. The cardinals flew out so fast their wings sounded like a covey of quail. This year’s challenge for you all – tell a neighbor about the importance of thickets and then help them create some.  

God Bless all of you and Happy New Year.

In this modern era we live in I admit to not being able to keep up with communications. As small game project leader for VDGIF I get a lot of messages every day, dozens by e-mail  - some good and some bad. As an aside, though our communications methods may be quick, we need to all remember (me especially) there is a person on the other end of the note and a phone call, or meeting in person is always best.

Hunter, dog, flushing bobwhite  
   

A topic that has caused me to receive some “forceful” commentary lately is that of the quail season and bag limit. As many of you know, we (VDGIF) still allow quail hunting statewide with a bag limit of six per day. Many of you also know we have been working on a quail recovery initiative for many years now. We are doing that because across their range (in all 25 states of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative) quail continue to decline, markedly in some places. So why then do we still allow quail hunting?

“Geeze…you had to ask me that question again,” I may mumble to myself (because I struggle with the issue personally and it is not easy to answer). Every two years VDGIF takes public input on our game laws. (Essentially we always take public input, but this is officially for regulations).  A series of committees composed of agency staff considers each and every comment. This does not mean each one is acted on or becomes a change. It does mean that they are all taken seriously. These committees debate and eventually make staff recommendations to our Board of Directors. The Board ultimately decides, after considering input from all parties involved, what changes are made.

OK, back to quail. I have been with VDGIF for 19 years and for the last 7 years have been the small game co-project leader. This is the 4th regulations cycle that I will have overseen for small game. Our small game team will again debate the issue of the quail season and bag limit. Each time in the past we have concluded that changes would make no biological difference to quail populations. Let’s look at why before we discuss sociological reasons for changing or not.

To a large degree quail hunting pressure is self-regulating. Where quail populations are low, quail hunting effort is low to non-existent. Generally speaking, as you move from east to west in Virginia, the quail population declines. Our hunter surveys show that there are about 9,000 quail hunters in Virginia (down from a high of 143,000 in 1973), but this includes incidental quail hunters who may see quail while hunting other species. To the best of our ability to determine it there are fewer than 500 avid quail hunters left in our state, and most of them can be found in the East where quail populations still produce some good hunting (some hunters finding over 100 unique coveys in a season). Avid quail hunters tend to also be avid quail conservationists. This means that they do not shoot coveys down below eight quail, and they don’t hunt them until dark. They’ll quit early enough to allow the coveys to regroup for roosting. They, more than anyone else, recognize the plight of the bobwhite.

Quail are also what biologists call R-selected species. This means they live short lives, suffer high mortality annually and have the ability to recover quickly in suitable habitat. Most quail populations, even in an un-hunted environment, suffer 80% or greater mortality annually. It is generally accepted among quail biologists that a population can suffer 20% to 40% hunting mortality without long term negative population consequences. However, it has been shown that not all quail mortality is created equal. The closer to spring a quail lives, the greater its chances of producing little quail. Studies have shown that late winter mortality (February and beyond) has more of an effect on the population than earlier mortality. This is why Virginia closes our quail season at the end of January, while other states seasons remain open through February and into March in some cases.

It is agreed among wildlife professionals that hunting is not the cause of the bobwhite quail decline and eliminating hunting will not bring them back (and reducing bag limits would have no affect at all). If we look at ruffed grouse for example, the season was closed in Virginia east of I-95. This was done primarily because restocking efforts were attempted there that ultimately failed. Though the grouse season has been closed east of I-95 for decades, grouse have not recovered there. We also note populations of many non-hunted species that use similar habitats to bobwhites are declining, too. Birds likes grasshopper sparrows, Bachman’s sparrows, prairie warblers, field sparrows, along with numerous pollinating insects, are declining primarily because of habitat loss (other factors contribute, but not hunting).

We try to base our recommendations on science to the extent possible, but there are social aspects that factor into decisions – we are humans after all. One reason we have hesitated to close the quail season in parts of the state where populations are low is that we feared it would send the wrong message. By closing the season the general public may be led to think hunting is the cause of the decline. So why close a season when we know it will have no impact on the population at all and may send the wrong message? You hopefully can now see the decision is not as simple as you might have thought.

But what about sending the right message? Should we close portions of our season to demonstrate the dire straits quail are in throughout much of Virginia? Would closing the season finally get that message out? Should we consider closing or reducing the season in central Virginia, where pockets of good quail numbers remain, but where much of the area has low quail populations? Should we consider imposing a daily time cut-off like many western states do (many end all bird hunting at 4:00 p.m.)?

Our team will consider all these scenarios again in the coming months. I personally would like to think that bird hunters are special, of high ethics, and more regulations would do little to assuage the bobwhite’s plight. As a bird hunter you need to ask yourself, “Just because I can legally kill six quail, should I?” I also hope each of you, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with our logic or the results, keep in mind, we have the best intentions at heart and we do not take these things lightly.

Lastly, Merry Christmas to all of you.

 
   

I began quail hunting long after the “glory days” had faded to the dull grey of a sunset just before dark. Repeatedly hearing“gentlemen bird hunters” speak of the days when they found eight coveys of “birds” after work – oftentimes on Wednesdays when many doctors, attorneys and businessmen used to take off half a day. I recall the Sanimode barbershop in Pulaski Virginia. It set right across from the courthouse – what a perfect location for a barbershop in those days. Its proprietor, Royce Lookerbill (what a name, huh? If you had to conjure a name for a gentlemen bird hunter, I can think of few better), cut hair and held bird dog court there every day. He was widely sought out by all the local bird hunters and known as a superb bird dog trainer. But you could not get your hair cut there on Wednesday afternoons, not by Royce; he took off to hunt like many of his clients did. I was about 6 at the time and did not know I was witnessing something wonderful; and something soon to be a thing of the past.

I know many times those old bird hunters found a lot of coveys. Maybe 8, 10, even 12 in a day. I also know memory tends to highlight the best over the worst, and they also had days of few to no coveys. Regardless, by combining grouse and quail hunting in a season, a bird hunter could be content, even in southwest Virginia.

In a recent issue of Garden and Gun magazine, author T. Edward Nickens proffered an article entitled “Crazy for Quail.” It is an excellent article that tells the story of three southern gentlemen who have not given up on the glory days of quail hunting. By owning a large contiguous tract of land, managing it intensively for quail for 20 years, using traditional techniques well applied like timber thinning and prescribed fire, and coupled with newly pioneered methods like supplemental feeding, these gentlemen are producing 25 covey days. The hat comes off my bald head to salute them and every other enthusiastic owner of a quail plantation where these numbers can be reached. These areas not only prove it can be done but also serve as source populations for surrounding lands, where smaller properties may benefit from “spillover.” Quail are prone to move regardless of whether they are in good habitat or not, it is a genetic survival mechanism.

All that said, I fear when the “average Joe” bird hunter out here in the hinterlands reads such an article, they begin to envision this on a massive scale, and start asking themselves, why can’t this be done across the landscape? Further, after years of placating their quail desires on hunting preserves, with an unlimited supply of pen-raised quail at their disposal as long as their wallets hold out, their expectations are simply beyond the reach of state agency-sponsored quail recovery efforts. When they go out and hunt a public area, or even private lands in a quail recovery zone, and find 2, 3 or maybe 5 coveys a day they are disappointed. Stories of as many as two quail per acre and a covey every 5 to 10 acres spilling out of north Florida have them pouting like a spoiled kid who did not get three new shotguns for Christmas.

My best day quail hunting in Virginia I recall like yesterday. It was a magical day. Probably would have been about 1999, or 2000. Me, my boss and friend Steve Capel, Al Bourgeois, a DGIF agency district biologist, and Buddy Chandler of the USFS hunted together on a property in Cumberland County, Virginia. I was lucky at that time to rent a house on the Hazelgrove Dairy Farm. Known as Forkland Farm, the Hazelgroves owned a couple thousand acres and it was still largely rural. The place had an “old” feel and in front of the big house where Joe, Sr. lived were two fence posts dating back to the original homestead in the early 1800s.

On that particular hunt, we killed a grand total of 8 quail and 2 woodcock. We found four nice coveys of quail, and two smaller coveys. But we were in birds off and on all day. We had fun. We laughed, talked, stopped for lunch, took our time and enjoyed the day. Our dogs did well and seemed content. We were tired after having walked several miles all told. We saw some beautiful lands. We had no reason to complain and didn’t. We sat on the truck tailgates at the end of the day quietly knowing we’d remember this hunt as long as our memories held out.

I now remember other hunts, some “skunkers” where all I got was good exercise, and some one or two covey days. I never recall being upset or feeling cheated. I now recall my best bird hunt in Virginia period – a day I hunted by myself with old Shell and killed two grouse and 2 woodcock. We did not flush that many but I somehow shot well and dropped most of what we found. We worked for every bird and to me that’s like the difference between burning “bought wood” and wood you cut yourself. I fear if we have reached a point when it takes 20 or more coveys a day to keep a hunter happy, our sport of bird hunting is in trouble … and it is not because of the quail decline.

‘...There are no silver bullets and chasing red herrings is costing us dearly.’

It is arguable that a person could not be in this quail business without being an optimist (or perhaps delusional). Many well-intended folks threw in the quail towel years ago. But “diehards” remain. In the articles I have written over the years I have always tried to focus on the positives. My fear was that too much pessimism would cause the few remaining quail enthusiasts to abandon ship.

But “rose colored glasses” are not doing us any favors in quail recovery. The situation is dire, and in spite of enormous efforts, quail continue to decline in all 25 states that comprise the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI).

There are bright spots.

  • Large portions of Texas are reporting increased quail numbers this year largely due to favorable weather (In parts of Texas, when it rains, it pours quail).
  • Portions of western Kansas, where hundreds of thousands of acres of native mixed prairie abound, still harbor impressive quail populations.
  • And in north Florida and south Georgia, across over 350,000 acres of quail oriented conservation easements primarily under the supervision of Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, bobwhites are doing exceedingly well. This is a result of intensive management on a large scale.
  • And even in Virginia, in portions of counties where years of conservation work overlap with favorable timber management practices, quail thrive.
 
   

But in much of the rest of the heavily populated eastern seaboard, the decline continues at rate of between 4% and 7% per year. It’s time to take off the rose colored glasses, wipe those lenses clean, take a stiff drink of coffee and look at the situation with a degree of realism. To do less is a disservice not only to the bobwhites themselves, but to those of us who work hard under duress trying to do the impossible.

That is correct. I said it. The bobwhite quail is not going to be restored to the entire state of Virginia in my lifetime. I have heard repeatedly now for decades “we did it for deer, bear, turkey, geese (on some levels) and other species, why not quail?”

First of all – these species did not come back overnight. When you examine the history, it took 50 to 75 years of concerted efforts on the part of many entities to “bring back” these great animals. Further, the landscape we live in today, largely by accident, favors deer, turkey, bear and other animals far more so than quail, grouse, woodcock or golden-winged warblers. And this is not likely to improve on a large scale (there are some “unlesses” I’ll talk about in a minute).

If you examine human population growth and growing global demand for food, fiber and wood products it won’t take you long to figure out that forestry and agricultural intensity is going to increase. This means “cleaner and cleaner” farms and timber plantations, and by “clean” I mean cleaned of competitors for water and nutrients. In short, things that compete with crops and pine trees like blackberry, broom sedge, partridge pea, plum, sumac, beggar weed – those things that landowners tend to want to bush-hog, or spray to control, will be reduced on our landscape. And of course these same things serve as critical habitat for dozens of declining species like quail. Our dilemma as humans is that we are always pitting our short term gains as individuals against our long-term survival as a species. And big money tends to cloud our view of anything beyond the next decade.

So what keeps me in this game? What allows me to continue to go for it on 4th and 6? It’s the “unlesses” I mentioned.

One great thing is most of the land in Virginia is privately owned by individuals. This means that they can make choices that favor quail if they choose to. The big money entities cannot force landowners to manage their land any particular way. Quail will continue to decline in my home state unless a major campaign is undertaken to educate “the masses” to the value of thickets, weeds, native grasses, wildflowers and brush.

Much as we have educated generations to value mature forests and wetlands, we must educate current generations of landowners about the value of transitional habitats. Landowners must come to know they have choices and what those choices are.

For example, fall mowing (Bush-hogging) runs rampant over Virginia every year. By simply changing the mowing to late winter or early spring (February to early March), and not mowing it all every year (but mowing in rotation, 1/2 or 1/3 annually), positive changes will be seen in your wildlife populations.

If you sometimes substitute disking for mowing, even more results will be seen. Or instead of relying totally on cool

 
   

season, non-native forage grasses like fescue, as a landowner you make the decision to convert 20% of your forage base to native warm season grasses, mixed with legumes, you will become part of something bigger than yourself.

And consider that when you are deciding how to prepare to replant your recently clear-cut pines, you choose less intense herbicide options. Yes, this may cost you 5% or 10% of your future timber income, but you may be OK with that if you know your choice benefits bobwhite quail. I am optimistic that landowners will make good choices when they know what those choices are and what the costs are.

So what does our quail recovery effort hope to accomplish? Why not give up if we feel widespread recovery is not likely in the short term? Because it can be done in the long term if we do not give up. Our goal now is to “hold the line” in as many places as possible. We are trying to build some pockets of wider success (in keeping with NBCI’s Focal Tiers concepts and to demonstrate that it can be done with habitat), and establish some source quail populations in areas where they are nearly extirpated.

Our quail efforts are focused for a reason, and what we do now we hope will set the stage for wider scale recovery when landowners are awakened and excited about the choices they can make on a large scale to impact our environment for decades to come.

There are no silver bullets and chasing red herrings is costing us dearly. The time is now to refocus on spreading the message on a grand scale, sparing no expense, that transitional habitats matter.

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Marc Puckett

 

 

Small Game Project Co-Leader

Virginia Department of Game and Inland FisheriesMarc and daughter

 

Marc was born in Pulaski, Virginia in 1962. He earned his BS in Forestry and Wildlife from Virginia Tech in 1992, and completed his Masters of Science in wildlife biology at North Carolina State University in 1995. Marc’s thesis focused on trapping, radio-collaring and tracking bobwhite quail within an intensive agricultural system and examining quail response to the addition of field borders. Marc went on to work on several quail research projects where he trapped and tracked over 600 wild quail. He has worked for 17 years with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries as a private lands habitat biologist, a district wildlife biologist and for the last five years as small game project leader and quail recovery initiative coordinator. Marc served as an infantry paratrooper in several airborne units including the 82nd Airborne Division from 1983 to 1987. He is married to Sarah Elam of Prospect, Virginia. Marc and Sarah, along with their daughter Grace, reside in Pamplin, Virginia where they hike, fish, hunt, and enjoy the country life together.