I felt compelled to write this post about pen-raised quail, in part, because in Virginia and I suspect elsewhere, stories are becoming more common about landowners using pen-raised quail in an attempt to restore wild bobwhite populations.
I’ll start by saying that as I age, the more humble I become. I am not as arrogant a person now at nearly 51, and that is somewhat due to the fact that in my arrogant youth I ate a lot of humble pie. I also know that landowners, farmers in particular, are very resourceful people used to solving their own problems. So when someone tells me they have used pen-raised quail to re-establish wild quail populations I do not immediately scoff at their claims.
I will start, though, by saying science has not documented long-term, viable quail population recovery based on pen-raised quail release. By that I mean, my definition of true success would be a situation where the original released pen-raised quail reproduced successfully, and their offspring reproduced successfully as did the next generation and so on –without the need for annual supplements of more pen-raised quail. That is now a “self-sustaining” population of wild bobwhites. I personally believe that most claims of “success” using pen-raised quail are much shorter term, meaning some released during fall make it until spring and are heard calling, or perhaps occasionally even reproduce.
This may be seen as “success” but to me more is required. My heart goes out to landowners who are desperate to see and hear bobwhites. No one has worked harder to bring back quail in Virginia than me and my colleagues. And like these well-intended people, we love quail. I think two things we all agree on – 1) we love bobwhite quail and want them to come back, and 2) regardless of methods used to restore quail, you have to have great habitat to start off with.
Let me take a minute to mention science. I fear we are living in an age when folks are starting to believe science is not necessary. I hear it often said, “common sense is what is lacking in America, not science.” Well, in my humble opinion, perhaps the best example of common sense is the recognition of how important science is.
For example, suppose someone says they have invented a vaccine for the common cold, but it has not been scientifically tested, they just know it works. Nothing is known about side effects, or effectiveness of the vaccine. Will you be first in line at your pharmacy to get that vaccine? Or how about this scenario – a brash engineer designs a new bridge-building technology, but doesn't test it before building a bridge – will you be the first to drive across? Extreme examples maybe, but we owe the vast majority of advancements in our society to sound science (and hard work and faith – they are not mutually exclusive). Saying something is so, just because we "know" it is so, or believe it is so, is not enough.
What do we know about pen-raised quail?
First, there is a wide range of quality in pen-raised quail … how they are hatched, raised, bred, etc. If you are going to release pen-raised quail, you owe it to the environment to use the highest quality, healthiest quail you can obtain. In Virginia it is the law that to import quail from another state requires a certificate from the supplier that 20% of the quail in the flock being sold have been disease tested within at least 10 days of being shipped. Further, if you are planning to buy quail eggs to hatch and raise, or if you plan to breed and raise your own quail, you need a Propagator’s Permit from our Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (at this link: http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/forms/PERM/PERM-014.pdf ). This permit helps us keep track of who is raising, selling and releasing quail in Virginia. This is particularly important when you consider the vast poultry industry in Virginia and the economic implications of potential quail diseases to poultry producers.
What else can we say? Are fall pre-season release methods using pen-raised quail being used to provide longer term survival and more realistic hunting for bobwhites? Yes, but not without annual, if not semi-annual, supplementation with further releases and also supplemental feeding.
Are pen-raised quail being used to maintain interest in quail among young and old? Yes they are, and as long as the right message is used – that these are not wild bobwhites – that use is a good one.
Are pen-raised quail being used effectively to train bird dogs? Yes, so much so that I heard one trainer say she did not like wild bobwhites because they would not hold for the dogs. Seriously , it would be hard to train bird dogs today without pen-raised quail.
Are pen-raised quail being used to maintain a tradition of bird dog field trials? Yes. No argument there. Our country has a long and proud tradition of bird hunting and field trialing heritage and it is worth maintaining.
Even though I have been working with wild bobwhites for over 20 years, which included studying them for my Masters degree in Wildlife Ecology and trapping and radio-tracking over 600 wild bobwhites on various quail research projects, and even though I have talked to hundreds if not thousands of landowners over the years, and have raised and trained my own bird dogs and have talked to dozens of game bird breeders – I certainly do not know everything there is to know about quail, wild or otherwise.
I also believe if done properly, releasing pen-raised quail does not harm wild bobwhites and in some ways continues to offer us hope. But I do worry that if we start to accept pen-raised quail as being wild – after all their calls sound just like wild quail and they look just like wild quail – that maybe we will begin to devalue wild bobwhites. I mean if you can buy them for $3 or $4 dollars apiece, or better yet raise your own for less, and release some every year – maybe we will start to feel like we don’t need real wild quail anymore? Maybe we will develop an almost “pet mentality” when it comes to quail. I hope not. I hope we will always value and try to restore truly wild populations of bobwhite quail – one of the most gallant, gamey and tough little birds ever to inhabit Virginia.
Today’s existing situation with the federal government brings a story to mind.
A couple of years ago we were conducting a requested quail management workshop in eastern Virginia (county not named to protect the guilty). We had a good crowd of about 80 or 90 and when it came my turn to speak I said, “Don’t sit around and wait for the government to come do it for you, only you can create quail habitat. (That was my "play" on Smokey the Bear’s “only YOU can prevent wildfires.”)
A middle-aged lady in the back of the room responded by jumping up and shouting “YEAH!!! Don’t wait for the d**n government to do it! Get up and get it done yourself!!!”
After which followed a lot shouts of “Amen!” and “You tell ‘em sister,” along with applause.
As a government employee working in this field of conservation, I’d first like to say no one works harder, or is more dedicated, than the thousands of government employees who perhaps forgo higher paying jobs in the private sector to lead a life of community service. The government employees I work with don’t refer to their work as “jobs,” but rather as “careers,” or vocations to which they are called by heartfelt passion.
That said, in our role as wildlife biologists there are too few of us, too widely scattered to come to your farm and do the work ourselves. Our role is that of the enabler, the facilitator and the educator. We provide the landowner the know-how, the tools, the means and sometimes the funds to get habitat work done on their land. Ultimately, whether or not quail and their habitat associates make a meaningful return to the landscape is up to the landowners whose properties -- big, medium and small -- make up the bulk of our country.
“Remember, only YOU can create quail habitat!” And on that note, what follows is a description of my own small contribution.
I conducted my own little habitat project this spring and summer. Last year, we had our pine timber thinned. The resulting logging deck provided an opening of about ¾ of an acre, maybe an acre, upon which to try something.
The loggers did a good job of cleaning the deck off and helping me prevent erosion, but the resulting surface would have made for a nice clay court tennis match. As soon as the loggers cleared out last summer, I broadcast-planted a cover crop of brown-top millet and buckwheat to help prevent erosion, to provide a little food and cover for wildlife and to start rebuilding the soil.
It did better than I expected. The impressions left by the dozer tracks seemed to hold seed and moisture and by fall I had a nice stand that was attracting doves. By spring, however, the plantings had thinned down and little cover remained. I decided to try a native warm season grass and forb planting in an attempt to create my own small wildlife meadow.
Now, I have no equipment other than hand tools, and can’t afford a tractor or disc, so what could I do with what I had? As my Dad has always said – “do the best you can with what you got.” For me that meant planting with a standard walk-behind broadcast lawn seeder. I obtained a 25lb mix of “floor sweepings” from a reputable native grass company with a guarantee that there were no invasives or other unwanted seeds in it.
I could identify many of the seeds, but not all. I saw indiangrass, switchgrass, big and little bluestem seed, along with some partridge pea and then a few wildflower seeds I didn’t recognize. Since I expected poor germination, I planted the entire 25 lbs on March 7, just before a forecast rain. And since I had no way of working the seed into the soil, I also covered the entire area with wheat straw – about 30 to 40 bales total -- spread at a moderate coverage level to help hold the seed in place and hold moisture for germination. And then I waited.
Initially it appeared the stand would be a failure – well, at least a failure of what I planted, because there was plenty of ragweed and other plants resulting from the soil's native seed bank. And since this was a wildlife planting, I was happy to see those native weeds that quail need to thrive. This is an important note to all of you who are considering a planting of native grasses and wild flowers for wildlife – you do not want a pure stand of grasses. You need the mixture of annual forbs and legumes along with the grasses to be truly successful for quail.
Well, as the summer progressed I began to notice that germination had actually been pretty good and I started to see a good bit of partridge pea, some black-eyed Susans, a handful of cosmos, lots of native tick seed sunflowers…and a bunch (pardon the pun) of native grasses popping up through the ragweed. The area ended up being almost perfect from a quail’s point-of-view. There is a fantastic mixture of native grasses, legumes and forbs, and there is 40 – 60% bare ground underneath it all. As you know – quail need this bare ground to increase their mobility and their ability to find seeds and insects. Throw in some nearby thickets for escape cover and all my patch lacks is size.
It is already loaded with pollinating insects and many songbirds, and I’m hopeful a quail covey might someday find and use it at least part of the year. This area will serve as a seed source as I expand my habitat by conducting understory burning in the surrounding pines (hopefully – pending funds).
So can small landowners help? Absolutely! And don’t forget the sheer enjoyment of a project like this. There is nothing like some physical labor that you can see the results of to cure those “office desk jockey blues.”
--October 3, 2013
We Need More Grimsteads and Farinholts
To Help Us Redefine Bobwhite Success
By David Bryan
Private Lands Wildlife Biologist,
USDA NRCS/VA DGIF/VT CMI
In the field of wildlife biology, conservation success is often measured quantitatively. As quail biologists, we may be interested in the amount of acres that have been successfully converted to native meadows or perhaps how many acres of contiguous longleaf pine forest have been burned by prescription. More importantly, we survey to see how these newly created or managed habitats lead to responses in the populations of Northern Bobwhite quail and other early successional wildlife species such as rabbits and songbirds.
While any good biologist will tell you that true restoration success depends upon habitat creation and management at a landscape scale, this simply is not possible in all areas of every state in the Northern Bobwhite range. We should certainly focus on the areas where habitat work has the potential for the greatest success, but what about the other areas of our states? Essentially we have two options for these cases -- give up altogether, or find other ways to influence the future for quail. And since quail folk aren’t quitters, we keep trying and trying.
While our ultimate goal will always be the rebound of quail populations via habitat restoration, on rare occasions we encounter situations where we find success via other avenues. Case in point are the efforts of landowners in Gloucester and Mathews Counties, Virginia, where several citizens are leading the charge for quail … and in so doing are redefining success.
Nancy Grimstead is a retired school teacher who owns a small family property in Mathews County. After a career of service through education she came into contact with the Virginia Quail Team in 2011, signing up for the Quail Management Assistance Program run by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Having been in Mathews for years, she remembers the days when quail were plenteous. When asked for her opinion about quail declines in the area, she likes to target riding lawnmowers. She realizes that humans just have to have everything clean, and on an agricultural or residential scale, this is bad for the quail. When we made the initial visit to her residence, we did not have any idea what door was being opened for us. With a small property, she would only be able to do a relatively small amount of quail-benefitting habitat work (which she has done). But unlike most folks she decided to try to help the quail in other ways.
As it turns out, Grimstead grows and sells native wildflowers at a local farmer’s market under the heading of “Weeds & Company.” She says that 12 years ago when she started her little business, there was no demand, but through time the public has become more receptive to the native species that she sells. As a native plant specialist, the fit with quail made perfect sense so Grimstead began distributing brochures and spreading the word about quail conservation.
More recently, she developed a three-fold display reviewing everything from quail habitat needs to debunking the notion that pen-raised birds are the answer to our problems. She has also helped spread the word by giving a quail presentation to local 7th graders, teaching a wildflower-oriented class at a local summer camp, and re-adapting her business’ outreach materials – stickers, bumper stickers, and bookmarks – to say “Think Habitat: Weeds and Company” with a quail logo.
Though all of her efforts have not been without criticism – for example, one gentleman who has given her a hard time blames Wild Turkey for the decline in quail – Grimstead has brought Bobwhite to the public eye, touched the hearts of many, and truly redefined success.
Though it is hard to say if quail numbers will ever turn around in Mathews, success has been achieved on other fronts and, hopefully, it has only just begun. We applaud her for her efforts and what she has inspired.
Amazingly, in neighboring Gloucester County, once again the Quail Program has found a landowner to take up the cause. In the summer of 2012, we made a site visit along with NRCS District Conservationist Michael Combs to the 488-acre historic Elmington property managed by Blair Farinholt.
Growing up in Gloucester, Farinholt remembers the days when birds were everywhere. Though he has been in the real estate business for over 50 years, his passion without a doubt has been the Northern Bobwhite quail. It makes sense that he was hired over 25 years ago to manage the Elmington property and during this period he has balanced agricultural objectives with a matrix of habitats from native warm season grasses to a variety of shrub hedgerows. He is proud to have multiple coveys on the land, but not satisfied with letting the Elmington property boundaries define his influence, Farinholt looked for more.
When Michael Combs went out with us that hot summer day in 2012, little did the two of us know that our site visit was a “set up” of sorts, for Farinholt had a grand plan to hold a quail workshop in Gloucester. And so it unfolded, with Farinholt working with nearby Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, a well-known local daffodil grower, to plan, organize and advertise a quail workshop largely without outside help.
Though the Virginia Quail Team helped with getting a team of three expert speakers together and some advertising, Farinholt truly took the lead. The result? It was a well-run workshop with over 100 participants from counties near and far, as well as local media representation.
But Farinholt was not willing to quit there. He has targeted local landowners and farmers to set aside field border strips for quail in the fall. And, after getting advice regarding good quail habitat species, Farinholt bought Switchgrass, Coastal Panicgrass, Partridge Pea, Lanceleaf Coreopsis and Black-eyed Susan in bulk and, in partnership with Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, has packaged and distributed packets of the mix to all who want it. Free-of-charge! At last count over 100 packets had been picked up with a second load ordered. The Quail Team’s quail cooperator signs are now popping up here and there throughout the county as more landowners get involved.
We could go on about Farinholt’s efforts. The media blitz regarding quail ... the outreach efforts to a local Garden Club and Rotary Club ... the Virginia Nursery & Landscaping Association’s Field Day and Summer Tour. The list will only grow, we are sure, as long as Farinholt is around.
All-in-all, Grimstead and Farinholt are some of Virginia’s best examples of landowners who have truly answered the call of the Bobwhite. Though Virginia’s Quail Team, headed by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Virginia Tech Conservation Management Institute, is doing what it can for Northern Bobwhites in Virginia, government alone cannot restore quail to their native range. We need more landowners who spearhead local success. Whether they are in areas of low, medium or high habitat restoration potential, we need more Grimsteads and Farinholts. Period. Their efforts are contagious. Once one landowner gets excited about quail restoration, others follow.
For example, we’d be remiss if we did not mention Beverly Holmberg who has, in turn, picked up the torch from Nancy Grimstead in spreading the word about the Quail Program in Mathews. Accordingly, we have been able to hold multiple quail-oriented events in the county, including a lecture and field tour.
Yes, while biological response will always be our greatest goal, hopefully we’ll all agree that landowners like these are truly redefining success.
I am behind in my blogosphere. We’ve been very busy this summer preparing to host and then hosting the 19th annual meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee. Soon after the meeting I was e-mailed a series of questions about it from well known outdoor writer and blogger Bill Cochran (Roanoke Times and World News – Roanoke VA). The biggest factor to note about the meeting is it was a huge team effort. Our crew came together and got it done. My answers to Bill’s questions I thought would serve as a good post this month. We will have a guest blogger in September – one of our Private Lands Wildlife Biologist, David Brian, will share a success story with you.
“Bill thanks for inquiring about the 19th Annual National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting that VDGIF along with our many partners and sponsors hosted at Hotel Roanoke this past week. The meeting was a big success. The NBTC represents 25 states that have signed on in support of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI). The NBCI is a comprehensive undertaking that results from efforts ongoing since 1995. This was Virginia’s second chance to host. We hosted back in 1997 at the 3rd annual meeting and we will not likely host again for 15 to 20 years. This gives every state a chance to host and spreads the financial burden, as well. On that note, our sportsmen and women need to know that 95% of the meeting is funded by registration fees and sponsorships, so our sportsmen are not footing the bill.”
How many people did the conference attract, and how does this compare to past years?
We had about 125 this year, and 23 of the 25 NBCI states were represented. This compares well to the past several years, and is especially good when state and federal travel budgets are somewhat reduced. The meeting revolves around a series of working sub-committees and it is our one chance to all meet face-to-face each year to continue to move quail conservation forward. You can accomplish a lot by phone, e-mail and Skype, but without at least one person-to-person meeting, we’d have a hard time operating across so many states.
What would you say was the most defining thing that occurred?
To me it was that so many different entities were represented. We reached out to many with a message that we needed to unite for early –succession species conservation. Our theme was Appalachian Overlap: Where the Ranges of Quail, Grouse, Woodcock, Turkey and Golden-winged Warblers Overlap. The US Forest Service, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Quail Forever, the Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, The Ruffed Grouse Society, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Virginia Dept. of Forestry, the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture, and many others were either in attendance or actually helping with the meeting. We all feel we need to unite around a central message that young forests, weeds, thickets, native grasslands and other habitats we deem early-succession habitats are just as important to wildlife and ecosystems as are wetlands and mature forests. We are kind of saying “let’s not focus on our differences, let’s focus on what we can agree on.”
Did participants appear to have enthusiasm that the job of restoring quail can be accomplished?
I think participants would be the first to tell you, yes they feel quail restoration can occur. It is occurring on modest levels in several areas. But I also think they’d tell you to roll up your sleeves for a long fight. We have talked before that deer, bear, turkey, geese, ducks – none of those species came back in 20 years, it was more like 75 years from the beginning to the end of their recoveries and quail will be no different. Yes – we have been working already for a number of years, but I’d argue that only in the last 10 to 15 years have the quail recovery efforts reached the national capacity to start to promote meaningful recovery. This is a motivated “glass half full” type of a group, though. Those that show up believe, those that don’t – they fell out years ago. I do not believe there is any quit in this group.
On a side note… On a side note, I’d ask folks to stop and wonder what could be done for quail if we had the entities behind us that waterfowl have behind them. Over 6 billion dollars have been spent collectively on waterfowl conservation in the last 75 years. The duck world has the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the National Duck Stamp behind them, not to mention the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Wildlife Refuges System. This is largely due to the fact that ducks and geese migrate and quail and upland game birds do not – they fall under different jurisdictions. Hence for many years states have been left to function on their own, doing the best they can to face multiple challenges for many species. What NBTC / NBCI is trying to do is to provide a collaborative national umbrella for all states and non-governmental organizations to work together under. We are much more optimistic having an entity like NBCI.
It’s summer, at least for the kids who are already out of school. Earlier this week I was transporting my daughter, niece and nephew to various summer day camps before work. They range in age from 8 to 13 and it’s always interesting to spend 20 minutes on the road with them. Topics of conversation vary from American Girl dolls, to playing tight end on the football team. Since they all know I am a biologist, occasionally a subject even “old Daddy” knows something about comes up.
Here in central Virginia we have been in the midst of a “hatch” of Brood 2 of the 17-year cicadas. For the uninitiated, it’s quite a spectacle. All you need to do is type the number 17 into your Internet search engine now and it will immediately go to “17-year cicadas.” In a nutshell, they are not in the locust family, as they sometimes are mistakenly identified. They are in a different order – Homoptera, as opposed to the Orthoptera order for locusts (grasshopper-like).
There are 3 sub-species that hatch (emerge is a better term) on a 17-year cycle, and 4 sub-species that emerge on a 13-year cycle. But by the number, far more broods of 17-year cicadas are extant than are 13-year. Once the soil temperature in an area hits 63 degrees they begin to emerge from their underground burrows of 17 years. While they are mostly harmless, their size and sheer number can make them the dominant “wildlife” where they occur. To a small kid they can be terrifying. And their fire red eyes, and black and yellow striped torsos might even scare a few adults (especially when mowing the yard and rounding a corner to have one fly right into your face).
Of course their primary purpose is reproduction. They mate; lay some eggs in the tip of a tree branch, often an oak, then soon die. After a few weeks the rice sized larvae drop to the ground, burrow in and begin their long development up to a foot underground.
To a biologist they are another fascinating example of the vast diversity on our planet, not only of species, but in strategies for survival. The subject came up on our ride in to town. “Uncle Marc, why do these bugs only come out every 17 years? And how do they live in the ground for that long? What do they eat down there?” And on and on.
I can usually answer some, but not all, of their questions. When I get stumped I usually turn the table on them: “Hey, tell me how old you will be when these bugs come out again.” Of course this causes some silence, then a bit of laughter, because most kids have not thought of themselves 17 years older.
“I’ll be 30!” exclaimed Wyatt “Man, that’s old!” (No slack for his 50-year-old uncle).
“I’ll be…twenttttyyyyyyy fiiiiiivvve,!” my daughter said. This, of course, led to more giggling and speculation on many things. “Yep” I said, “Last time these things came out, I had not even met your mother and none of you were even born. And Paw Paw was only 64 years old.” The truck fell silent a while and I suspect even kids as young as these stopped to think about time … for a brief few seconds.
I pondered on it all day. I asked myself “I wonder where we’ll be with quail the next time these things emerge?” Do we have the stomach for the long haul? Or will we throw in the towel? I also had a more somber thought, “I think I’ll make at least one more cycle…hopefully two, but there are no guarantees on anything.”
To see these neat critters two more times I’d have to make it to 84. It made me wonder, too, “what if quail had a similar strategy? They’d burrow in the ground as chicks and emerge say 40 or 50 years after going under?” Would they even recognize the place? For all those people who tell me “Heck, we had quail and ain’t nothing changed around here, so where they’d go?” Well, try thinking about it like a quail that’d been underground for 50 years.
It also made me think of how short a time period 17 years really is. How much can happen over even that short span – good and bad, though. It really made feel like time is short and rather than throwing in the towel we better step it up even more – not just for quail, but in every aspect of our lives.
“Carpe diem (whispered), caaaarrrrrpeee diem lads…seize the day! Seize the day! We’ll all be food for worms someday soon, boys!” That's Robin Williams’ character’s classic line in one of my favorite movies “Dead Poets Society.” This line has always hung like an apparition in the back of my mind.
How many cicada life cycles do have you left in your time here? And what will you do with them? And it also made me think of my dog Shell for whom this BLOG is named – she was 17 years and 3 days old when she died 2 years ago last Sunday. You can live a lot of life in 17 years. – June 10, 2013