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.

... or, You Don’t Have to Have 500 Acres to Make a Difference

Happy Fall to everyone! Though I do not like the shortening days, I do love college football (and if the Texas A&M / South Carolina game is any indication – what a season we are in store for), dove season, fall colors and cooler weather.

I titled this month’s post the way I did because I want people to know many of us in this profession do try to practice what we preach. There is no substitute for “doing” to truly learn how to accomplish something. This month I hope to let photos do some of the talking for me.

I wrote last year about the start of my small home project on a logging deck below my house. But I have been working on all aspects of my project for 10 years now. My goal was to develop my small property into a microcosm of a larger farm field. All totaled, counting my yard and logging deck, I have about 2 to 2.5 acres in this project. All managed with hand tools and small yard equipment like a back-pack sprayer, walk behind seeder, and lawn mower. I am battling numerous invasive species, but I am winning, or at least adapting. It's a work in progress, but it is at a point now where I can bring landowners to see it and show them everything they’d need to do on a larger scale to create a quail haven (and songbirds, pollinators, etc.) on their farm.

Picture 1) My “yard border” – yes, it includes some invasives like sericea, but also showing up this year were wild senna – a great August blooming yellow flowered legume -- and mist flower, a great pollinator plant. This edge resulted simply from letting the disturbance go after it was a logging road. I seeded a cover crop of millet on it and this is its second growing season.

 
   

Picture 2) Winged sumac thicket – sumac is an EXCELLENT mid-summer pollinator plant, it makes great summer loafing cover for quail and songbirds, rabbits love to eat its bark during winter and quail eat its seeds, too. It does not make great winter cover because it becomes sparse, but it is a great plant to have…and it tends to keep less desirable plants at bay – I have yet to see ailanthus come up within a sumac thicket.

 
   

Picture 3) This is my native warm season grass logging deck. This year making its first appearance was bee balm, or wild bergamot – an excellent pollinator and seed producer. I also had a lot of black-eyed Susan, some Indian blanket, and now blooming well – a ton of partridge pea. Partridge pea is not only a great bugging cover for quail chicks, it also produces a good winter food seed crop. And while we all know how much pollinators like its blooms, the larvae of many butterflies feed heavily on the plant itself. There is still a good bit of bare ground on this deck in places, making it good for quail. Notice the logging road which has now been seeded 3 times with fescue and ryegrass is still 50% bare. These native warm season grasses tend to do well on your poorest sites.

 
   

Picture 4) This is a close-up of Indian grass and big blue stem. There are two tier, one butterfly species in Virginia – meaning they are species of great conservation concern. One is called the Arogos skipper and guess what its larvae feed almost exclusively on? Big bluestem grass.

Picture 5) Thicket cover and edge. This is a shot of where I planted indigo bush about 11 years ago, it is now also grown in very well with blackberry, and though you see fescue on the edge of it coming from my yard, underneath it is open and free of grass – the shrubs having done their job of shading it out – along with some spot spraying by me during times when the shrubs were dormant, but the grass was growing – like late October. The shrub loving song bird diversity around my yard is fantastic – I often see towhees, brown thrashers, field sparrows, yellow-breasted chats, white eyed vireos, cardinals, and more.

 
   

Picture 6) Un-mowed mess. Yes, this is an un-mowed mess – exactly what I wanted. I still have work to do in getting rid of fescue, but the area is providing some wildlife cover, and it is saving me from mowing an additional 1/3 acre every week. I mow it once during late winter every other year with a rented walk behind brush mower.

 
   

In this small “habitat project” I have also had quail, though they did not stay. The satisfaction I have obtained while watching this project grow, pardon the pun, has been enormous. I can now show any landowner in a very small area what they need on a larger scale to have multiple coveys of quail. I have also been able to test some ways of controlling invasives – a work in progress.

More than anything I think I can show them that these grasses, thickets, weeds and brush are so much more than that. They are habitats to be cherished and valued.

   
 

 

Before I bite into the meat of this post, I want say what a privilege it was to serve as chair of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee these last two years. The years were not without substantial challenges, but with such a fine group of steering committee members, NBCI staff, subcommittee chairs and general NBTC members, there was nothing we could not work through. I thank all those who helped me along the way, tolerated my stress, and persevered with me. I look forward to continuing on the steering committee as past-chair through 2016. I also want to thank Todd Bogenschutz, of the Iowa DNR for the great job Todd and his staff and partners did in hosting the 20th annual meeting of the NBTC in Des Moines Iowa last week. Superb job gang!

Now to the title of my post – Volunteer Quail Departments.

It struck me recently that what we are trying to do for quail, that being to develop locally led, community sponsored wildlife conservation, is not unlike the Volunteer Fire Department model. Their model works well and I think it needs to be applied to quail, and perhaps to wildlife conservation in general on private lands. Not every community can afford a full time, professional fire- fighting staff. In fact, most communities can’t. But what they can do is organize volunteer fire departments. These departments rely on government to help them fund equipment, provide training and generally facilitate their efforts, but they are self-driven and rely on local leadership to flourish. They also conduct fund-raisers of their own that contribute significantly to their ability to serve their communities.

I have mentioned in as many places and venues that I can that if you’re sitting around waiting for the government to come rescue quail on your land – you may be waiting a long time. We basically have a “skeleton crew” when it comes to quail recovery. In Virginia there are about seven of us that work most of the time on quail, but none of us work full time on quail. In addition, we have many partners that contribute some of their time to various forms of early-succession wildlife recovery. There are 47,000 farms in Virginia. The math does not add up. At best, we can facilitate, encourage, provide technical expertise and in many cases help secure funding, but the proverbial “quail buck” stops with the landowners. We cannot be everywhere at once and with the huge number of counties each of us covers it is hard to avoid the occasional landowner falling through the cracks. A note on that: if you are a landowner who feels like you may be one of those that have fallen through the cracks, please pick up the phone and let us know – we are human, we make mistakes.

When we started the Quail Management Assistance Program, we envisioned dozens of locally led efforts, spreading “quail quilts” over large areas of Virginia. I still believe that is possible and will ultimately work.

 
   

One of the most recent and best examples is the “Botetourt County Quail Quilt.” Their effort is an example of a “volunteer quail department” at work. Built around the Longbeards Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, it is a community led effort assisted by private lands wildlife biologist Andy Rosenberger, DGIF District Biologist Dan Lovelace and several other partners.

When he first contacted me, Chairman Ed McCoy was a bit shocked at my candor. When he asked what their chapter could do to help us, my answer was perhaps not what was expected. I told him that what we did NOT need was another chapter of an NGO raising money to hand us a check to go do great things with. Furthermore, we did NOT need a chapter to buy more equipment for our small staff to then have to haul all over the state, taking even more time from their ability to visit new landowners.

I went on to say what we DID need were locally led teams of people willing to work closely with their neighbors and actually help them implement conservation practices (H.I.T. – Habitat Implementation Teams). I told him that we DID need people with equipment in the local area willing to loan it to neighbors, or we DID need a chapter to buy equipment and learn to use it, and then volunteer to help others use it locally.

In addition, we DID need groups of people willing to learn about the habitat requirements of quail and then be willing to fill in the gaps, making landowner site visits when demand was too high for our staff to meet.

Well, their group took the message to heart, having already sponsored a workshop for interested landowners, with another occurring this week. They also plan to have an exhibit at the local county fair. In short, they are taking it upon themselves to grow the effort, and we are supporting them any way we can. This is an excellent example of what we’d call a “volunteer quail department.”

If you are interested in forming one in your area, note that they can be built around a chapter of a non-governmental organization like NWTF, Quail Forever, Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, The Ruffed Grouse Society or others. By working through an NGO you can get help with fund-raising and promotion. But you do not HAVE to go through an NGO.  Your group may choose to develop your own totally local effort. Regardless, I believe this is the way to large scale quail recovery - locally led efforts that focus habitat work, capitalize on government assistance and become force multipliers building a cadre of community volunteers capable of independent operation on behalf of bobwhites.

 … a veritable volunteer quail department at the ready to go light quail fires, not put them out. 

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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.