It’s A Shell Game Out There

(… Or, These Ain’t Your Grandpa’s Quail)

                                                                                        
Landscape of bobwhite habitat with thicket cover

All of you should be familiar with a “shell game.” No reference to my old setter, Shell, who played her own games when it was time to get back in the dog box. What I refer to is the simple old shell game. A dozen walnut shells, perhaps painted in bright colors to fascinate kids and hidden under one was a dime, or a quarter – back in the late 19th or early 20th century these weren’t amounts to scoff at.

 These games may have been used to entice citizens at county fairs to come in and then spend money on more elaborate games, always rigged in the house’s favor. (My daughter and I still attend our county fair every fall, and while some may say these fairs have become less than desirable places for families, I still find a magic in them worth sharing. But that’s another story.) However – what follows is a very simple shell game analogy as to how you should view your land and manage it to provide cover for quail.

I hear on almost a daily basis from so many well meaning sportsmen their views on what has been and is causing the quail decline. Predators, pesticides, pollution, mowing, and more top most lists. Some of these things we can do more about than others, and trust me we are trying to address them all every day. With regard to predators – I believe there are more predators now and I believe quail have adapted to some extent to their higher numbers. Quail undergo a new generation every year – thus in terms of evolving, they can change much faster than humans when conditions warrant it. Hence my sub-title, “These ain’t your Grandpa’s quail, Boooooyyyyyy!”

My belief is that they have adapted to using heavier cover than ever before, and that thicket cover is more important now to quail than it was 100 years ago. Remaining quail fly farther, faster and deeper into thickets than their predecessors. I’m also convinced that while we have undergone an enormous quail population decline, there are more quail out there than hunters find and they are in places where what I call “old time bird hunters” don’t really go.

So what about this shell game theory for quail thicket management? If you think of a quail covey as the dime and thicketsas the walnuts they hide under, as a predator would you rather have to look under 2 walnuts, or 20 to find your covey? It is estimated that 25% of your land needs to be in some form of thicket cover to be ideal for quail. I suggest 10% to 15% is a minimum that is more workable for most landowners. The good news is, these thickets do not have to all occur in your fields. They can occur just as effectively within thinned and burned pines or hardwoods. The thickets within your cut-overs also count – which brings me to another point, using less intense site preparation herbicides when preparing to plant pines will help leave a lot of good blackberry and other thickets out in those cut-overs, and further down the road, within those thinned pine stands.

So how do you visualize the arrangement of this cover? It’s best when it occurs randomly and well distributed throughout a property. One way I have illustrated this is to say visualize a checkerboard, with its red and black squares. If you were to number each square, then put those numbers in a hat and draw 15% of them out and paint each square whose number you drew green, you’d see random visualization of how thickets should be arranged on the landscape.

I recall hunting in western Kansas back in the mid 90s – and how perfectly well distributed the plum thickets were. You really didn’t need a dog to hunt quail there (though shame on you if you don’t have one). All you had to do was look under enough of the plum “shells” and you’d find some quail to shoot at … and miss. Those that were missed had vast numbers of other coverts to fly to, thus making an attempt to relocate them harder.

The point is, stop worrying over things you can’t control and go do something about the things you can control. For landowners the number one thing you can control is habitat. (And to some degree pesticides – remember, it is your choice if, how and when you use them.)

April 14, 2014

... Or, How do Bobwhites Fare in Bad Winters?

Winter snow scene  
   

 

The topic on everyone’s mind these past few weeks has been, “When will this blasted winter ever end?” Few Americans escaped winter’s effects this year. In my home state of Virginia it has been one of the worst 3 or 4 winters in my 51 years of breathing air on this planet. I do recall back in the late 1970s a couple of winters in southwest Virginia that were severe by most standards. Of course, compared to Wisconsin where quail used to thrive, and where some important early research was done on quail (Paul Errington – Aldo Leopold’s first doctoral student in wildlife), I suspect our winter would not have been considered severe.

I won’t get too scientific on you, partly because I don’t have a great deal of time to really delve into old literature and see what I can find about winter weather’s effects on bobwhite populations. But also because I prefer to take a practical approach whenever possible. I picture a bobwhite covey out there making a snowman of their own, using partridge pea seeds for buttons, of course, lespedeza for eyes and maybe a beggar weed pod for a long nose. Sorry, I’m digressing.

Bobwhites occur in a very wide geographic area – from Mexico all the way into the northern prairies and east through Michigan, Wisconsin and even into southern Maine at one point – though I doubt many occur there now. Obviously, they can adapt to extreme winter weather. Some say, perhaps, that a Texas quail is vastly different from a Wisconsin quail, but in reality those who get into sub-speciation are truly hair splitters –the similarities among sub-species far outweigh the differences.

What we do know about bobwhites, as for just about any other animal, is that when they become stressed by cold they need more calories to maintain their body heat. Guthery (2000) in his book “On Bobwhites” (available in NBCI’s online store at http://bringbackbobwhites.org/donate-2/online-store) states that at 32 degrees (F) a bobwhite needs 50 kilocalories a day to maintain itself. This equals about 550 milo seeds per bobwhite.

Of course, bobwhites have other ways of mitigating for cold weather. They roost at night in a tightly packed disk which helps them conserve heat, among other things. They also seek areas where cover and terrain gives them protection from winds. During the day they may seek small micro-climate areas on southern slopes where the sun provides some thermal relief. And, of course, they eat more.

All wild animals are extremely resourceful when it comes to surviving, but they can and do reach a point when cold weather becomes deadly…well at least it is the proximate cause. I would argue the ultimate cause is often the fact that they inhabit “sub-optimal range.” In layman’s terms that means their habitat is not adequate.

During the mid-1990s I was a field crew leader on a  Virginia quail study involving numerous bobwhites with radio-transmitters affixed during February. We were actually able to track them through 2 substantial snowfalls during the first and third weeks of February that year. We found  they shifted their range and moved into pine forests where heavy cover limited snow depth and also where numerous greenbrier thickets occurred. We did not do a food analysis, but assumed that they were feeding on abundant greenbrier berries, as grouse often do. There were a couple of occasions when we did believe quail died due to exposure. These were  instances when the weather changed rapidly, going from very warm to very cold overnight in late winter – similar to some conditions we have seen in Virginia this year.

In Oklahoma, during a study in the early to mid-1990s (Peoples et al., 1994 – Progress Report Packsaddle Northern Bobwhite Mortality Study), researchers found that as much as 19% of winter mortality was due to severe weather. However, when averaged out over all seasons and areas, weather only accounted for 2% of annual mortality. When an average quail population suffers 80% to 90% mortality annually – which is a now a known, well-accepted fact throughout much of their range – it would seem that winter weather overall is a minor mortality factor. I believe that to be true here.

This winter’s weather probably did kill a few quail. But quail are adapted to high mortality rates and if they have adequate habitat and a good nesting season, they can bounce back faster than a super ball coming at you off a brick wall. Our primary problem here in Virginia has been, and continues to be, too little good quail habitat. Other factors compound this problem. New research on neonicotinoid (nicotine based) pesticides suggests they could play a role.

Regardless of other factors, quail can’t survive on concrete, asphalt or fescue. Every landowner’s best insurance for having quail year-in and year-out is to have excellent quail habitat. And as much of it as you can stand.

March 21, 2014

                Action – a simple word and one that so many know, but so few take to heart.  A “little less talk and a lot more action” as an infamous country song states so emphatically is what many circumstances need.  In his book “We Are Soldiers Still” General Hal Moore wrote in his chapter on leadership that every day you need to answer two basic questions: 1) What am I not doing that I should be doing to influence the situation in my favor, and 2) What am I doing that I should not be doing? General Moore was a famous leader of soldiers in Korea and Vietnam, most noted for his book “We Were Soldiers Once and Young.”

                In a much less dramatic context, I use the word A.C.T.I.O.N. as an acronym for how landowners should approach their wildlife management projects.

“A” is for ASSESS

You -- and that means you landowner -- need to have an aerial photo, or access to aerial imagery that allows you to see your land from the “helicopter’s” perspective. And not just your land, but how your land fits into the landscape around it. It should be as up to date as possible and with today’s technology it is not hard to find an image no more than a year old.

Assess also represents assessing your goals – what do you want out of the management? With regard to quail, do you want a few coveys to see from time to time or hunt occasionally? Do want enough quail to hunt routinely? Or would you be happy just having one resident covey of quail? These questions will have a bearing on your actions. In some cases your goals may be unrealistic based on the land you have. In those situations – maybe you can manage for another species.

“C” is for CONSULT

To further your assessment, bring in the professionals. Consult with your private lands wildlife biologist, your forester, your Natural Resources Conservation Service specialist and others if necessary. The more you prepare before their visit and the more you know about your goals, the more you will get out of their visit.

In some cases I have shown up to a property, asked the landowner about their goals and the reply was “We just want to do something for wildlife.” I have grown better over the years at asking subsequent questions to help the landowners determine their goals. But the bottom-line is you need to think ahead about what you want from the property. There is nothing at all wrong with buying a piece of property and simply walking through and enjoying it … and not managing anything on it but your time. This won’t get you any quail, though. If you want quail and their species associates, some actions will be required.

“T” is for TACTICS

How will you produce the desired habitats to bring onto your land the types of animals you’d like to see more of? How will you maintain those habitats? What tactics, otherwise called management techniques, will you use, when will you use them, and how will you make them happen to produce your desired outcome?

Your consults with professionals and personal research should lead you to the answers. This is a big part of the job for our private lands wildlife biologists, and for our district wildlife biologists in some cases. Tactics begin with some broad brush, general situations that occur throughout much of Virginia, such as how to convert fescue to better wildlife habitat, how to properly manage pine or hardwood timber for certain wildlife species. From here things become more specifically tailored to your property.

Once this general overview and basic outline for managing your property is determined, this is where an agency biologist, or a private contractor if you prefer that option, can prepare a long-term wildlife management plan for you. It is important to note that it is impossible to get every detail into a written management plan. Much of the future management and maintenance of habitats depends on conditions that change, weather patterns, etc.,  so don’t try to plan every detail.  Base your future management on the “O” in our acronym.

“I” is for INITIATIVE

Short and sweet - Without initiative none of the above will happen. The laws of physics apply – things at rest tend to stay at rest. Same with people. Get off the couch, put the laptop down and get outside. And what about taking the kids with you? I have said before and at the risk of being repetitive – the government folks like me can help, advise, recommend, teach, help develop favorable policies, and encourage, but there are too few of us to show up and get it done for you.

“O” is for OBSERVE

 Observe your management efforts. Evaluate the results. Re-assess every year, and modify management as needed to continue to keep the habitats you want. Don’t hesitate to bring the professionals back in to help observe and re-assess. I personally prefer relatively general management plans that require landowners to be engaged and to actually learn how to assess and modify management based on existing and expected conditions. The old adage about giving a man a fish versus teaching him how to fish applies. This leads us to our last and maybe most important letter.

“N” is for NEVER (as in NEVER giving up)

The first thing a landowner has to do is learn to love the management. If the work becomes something you enjoy and look forward to, you’ll continue to do what is necessary. But if the work required is something you loath…chances are you will not be able to keep the management up.

 In my Army days the training sergeants and later our platoon sergeants had a saying “You have to love the training men; you have to make friends with it.” I also recognize that not every landowner is in the physical condition to do the work on their own. In this case, private contractors can be used to help continue the work. In many cases, cost-share programs help pay for these efforts.

Like any other worthwhile goals in life, wildlife management goals need long term commitments of time, funds and energy. But it can and should be fun!

February 5, 2014

               

Marc Puckett, Virginia small game project co-leader and chair of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee, has turned over his Shell's Covert blog to guest blogger Justin Folks. Welcome, Justin! 

Justin Folks
Private Lands Wildlife Biologist
VDGIF/NRCS/VT

You don’t have to be made of money to create quail habitat. A little bit can go a long way for species like quail, and even a relatively large project doesn’t have to break the bank. Here are some tips on ways to help quail that won’t hurt your wallet.

PARK THE MOWER!

People blame hawks, foxes, cats, and coyotes for the decline of quail, but the mower has had perhaps the most detrimental impact of all. Simply put, quail need old field-type habitat (free of fescue or other sod grass) with bare ground, wildflowers and woody thickets scattered throughout to thrive. Mowing gives you about the exact opposite!

If you’re what we refer to as a “recreational mower” and you want quail, the first thing you should do is find another hobby. Think of all the money you spend on a mower, the fuel, maintenance and the amount of time you spend on that mower every year. By letting areas grow up (without fescue, of course), you can actually save money by creating quail habitat!

To keep the old field from becoming forest, you’ll need to mow it every 3-5 years. To ensure cover is standing at all times and to add diversity to the property, mow 1/3 of the fields once every year around March. By mowing in late winter/early spring, you leave cover standing all winter which is crucialfor bobwhite survival. Taking this approach, you’ve cut down on 2/3 of the fields you mow every year and you only have to mow it once! 

Field with portion of it disked

Half of this field is disked every other year on rotation. Disking gives the quail bare ground to travel and forage on and promotes annual forbs like ragweed that offer excellent brooding cover.  The other half has more grass for quail to nest in and offers some escape cover as well. Combine this with a soft edge around the perimeter, and you have a recipe for success. No wonder a pair of quail were seen here just prior to this photo being taken! 

If erosion isn’t too much of a concern, consider using a tractor and disc as opposed to a mower. The disc promotes bare ground and broadleaf plants while still keeping trees out. Controlled burning is the ultimate quail habitat management tool, but disking is second best. If you're in Virginia and worried about what the neighbors might think if they see your fields grown up, call us and we’ll bring you some Quail Program Cooperator signs to let everyone know there is a method to your madness.They may scoff at first, but they’ll be jealous when you’re listening to male bobwhites calling in the spring and they’re not!

KILL FESCUE, THEN FALLOW

A common misconception among many of the landowners we speak to is that you have to plant something to bring quail back.  This isn’t necessarily the case. 

In many instances, there are a lot of great native “quail plants” in an old field that has a lot of fescue. Fescue is a cool season grass, meaning it actively grows in the fall and spring months. A systemic herbicide like glyphosate (active chemical in Roundup, Gly-4 and others) only kills what is actively growing, so by timing the herbicide application to when the fescue is actively growing and the native warm season plants are dormant, you can kill the bad stuff while leaving the good stuff.

To spray with glyphosate yourself (with the right equipment), you’re looking at a cost of around $10/acre (excluding fuel and equipment costs). Many farm cooperatives and other contractors may run you $30-$50/acre to have them spray it instead. Once the fescue is dead, let the field go fallow and allow the natives to dominate. Mow, disc or burn every 3-5 years, spot treat any fescue that might pop up, and that’s it!

FALLOW COVER CROPS

Field borders around crop fields provide enormous benefit to quail in just a small area. If you’re interested in quail and are already planting wheat, oats, rye, or barley for a fall/winter cover crop, leave strips of the cover crop at least 35 feet wide around the perimeter of your fields when you plant your commodity the following year. The cover crop will provide cover and seed for birds in the first year, and letting it go fallow will allow native plants to volunteer, which will be beneficial for quail for years to come. All you did was plant the cover crop that you would have planted anyway—Mother Nature did the rest.

FREE SHRUBS

Hinge cuts work best with smaller trees—say less than 6 inches in diameter.  For larger trees, remove the entire tree for firewood but leave the tree top as your brush pile and substrate for birds to land and “plant” shrubs for you.

Woody thickets are more important to quail than what most folks realize. Twenty to 40% of an area should be composed of shrubby thickets to provide essential escape and thermal cover for bobwhites, but shrubs are expensive and can be difficult to establish. Why bother when songbirds provide this service for free?

If you leave areas undisturbed for long enough, shrubs and trees will ultimately emerge, but to jumpstart this process, drag a cut cedar or the top out of a tree harvested for firewood out into a field. This creates a little bit of cover immediately, but it provides more of a perch for songbirds to land on and deposit shrub seeds.

Don’t mow or disc within 50 feet of the tree, and watch as blackberries, sumac, dogwoods, and other shrubs emerge on their own. You may also create a cheap perch by running some wire between two posts. Shrub thickets should be no more than 150-300 feet apart.

This windrow of logging slash exemplifies what can happen if you leave a tree top in a field. This is only a few years old, but blackberry and pokeberry have taken it over.  Outstanding quail cover… for free

 

If there is a standing tree in the field you want to remove eventually, try hinge-cutting the tree to get the same effect. A hinge cut is cutting through one side of a tree just far enough to where it will fall but it will remain attached to the stump. The tree will act as a living brush pile for a year or two until it dies, but by then, birds will have landed in the branches and deposited shrub seeds for you. You may then cut the tree up for firewood and your shrub thicket has been started. Hinge cutting is another great way to “soften” field edges where hayfields meet mature forest.

These are just a few ways in which you can help create habitat for bobwhite quail, rabbits, songbirds, and other wildlife without forking out a lot of cash. Of course, planting a native seed mixture is always an option, but it may be worth it to see what comes up out of the seed bank before you plant. You’d be amazed at what may emerge, and we often see plants that money can’t buy.

 

Biologist Justin with dog Shelby in quail habitat

 

 

About the Author

Justin grew up in the city of Staunton, VA and got his undergraduate degree in Biology and Environmental Science at Bridgewater College in VA. After a year of non-wildlife-related work, Justin worked as the Chronic Wasting Disease Technician with the VA Department of Game and Inland Fisheries before going back to school. He received his Master’s degree in Range and Wildlife Management in 2012 after researching white-tailed deer foraging behavior at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. After graduating, Justin became one of Virginia’s five Private Lands Wildlife Biologists working on Virginia's Quail Recovery Initiative, where he currently enjoys working with landowners interested in creating early successional wildlife habitat. Justin currently lives in Staunton, VA with his wife Dana, his 6 month-old son Barrett, and his bird dog Shelby.

 

I am writing this during the season of Thanksgiving and celebration. I am thankful for so many things, family, job, the ability to live in a free country and practice the religion of my choice, my right to keep and bear firearms, my access to millions of acres of public lands managed in trust for all of us, an open society where we can criticize our leaders without fear of retaliation, and a strong military which allows us to keep all these things - the list goes on.

I am also thankful we have a National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative and an NBCI staff. As Chair of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee’s Steering Committee, I have been intimately involved in the discussions regarding state use of a small portion of windfall Pittman-Robertson (Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration dollars- excise taxes on firearms and ammunition) funds to provide increased support for NBCI staff in the short term. I have been involved with the NBTC and the NBCI since only a few years after their inception in1995 (my involvement began in 1997). I have seen the group grow from a relatively small, southeastern-based Southeast Quail Study Group, to a 25-state range-wide entity (NBTC) with a parallel core group of “quail dedicated” staff (NBCI) – currently at very little cost to the states, and no cost for some. No growth comes without pain, trial and error and soul searching.

I think we are at a crossroads for bobwhite recovery and the next 3 to 5 years will be pivotal for bobwhite conservation.

When we moved to enlarge the SEQSG to become the 25-state NBTC I guess we knew that perhaps not all states would be fully on board. I understand that and I want to say in advance, whether a state is on board with NBCI or not, I appreciate their dedicated field staff and all they do on behalf of quail and so many other species every year. I will also say that we should appreciate good quail work whether it is done under the flag of NBCI or not.

But I also believe that if we could all work together under the umbrella of NBCI, we could be more effective nationally and within our own states. With regard to current NBCI staff funding, with the exception of Director Don McKenzie, they have been funded largely by annual grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) or the Multistate Conservation Grant Program. So every year NBCI staff not only has the fear of a short-term funded job hanging over their heads, they also have to work hard to find funding for subsequent years. This obviously detracts from their effectiveness – though they have been remarkably effective in-spite of this, in my opinion.

Our recent plea to states has been to request for a 3-year period significant use of Pittman-Robertson (P-R) funds to support NBCI staff. The intention is to allow the NBCI staff time and resources to thrive and reach their potential value and productivity, without having to spend inordinate time annually looking for money.

Simultaneously, the Bobwhite Foundation, an entity designed to eventually provide private funding through an endowment to support NBCI Staff and operations long term, would have those years to organize and develop a funding base to offset the need for annual grant writing. The amounts per state if all 25 participated would range from $20,000 to maybe as much as $75,000 annually, based on a state’s proportion of received P-R dollars. These amounts are significant to you and me, and should not be sneezed at, but as a portion of a given state agency’s annual budget, represent a very low percentage.

Well, first why do all this? Can’t each state manage its own quail recovery without NBCI?

At the risk of sounding ungrateful for all that state agencies do –and it is a ton – our record over the last 25-40 years with quail recovery is not great. This is not for a lack of trying. Many states have labored valiantly and had some successes along the way. But large scale success has been limited.

But when you compare us to “the duck folks” who have a National Wetlands Conservation Act, the federal Duck Stamp and a federal agency with significant portions of its resources dedicated to their recovery – (not to mention a very effective NGO in Ducks Unlimited) it’s not hard to see why they have had more success. There are other factors involved, but the bottom-line is – states need help.

I would argue that all NBCI is trying to do is to be that umbrella group that develops momentum at the national level for quail recovery. Much like Ducks Unlimited worked along side the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies, the quail NGOs (Quail Coalition, Quail Forever, Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, the National Wild Turkey Federation and more) work alongside NBCI, NBTC and state and federal agencies. NBCI is not trying to usurp anyone’s power or ability to do what they do. Rather they hope to become the force multiplier for quail recovery. The eventual goal is for NBCI to become a “giver to states” not a “requester of state funds.” But if this effort dies on the vine before that can happen – in my opinion one of the greatest opportunities for quail and early-succession wildlife in our lifetime will be lost.

Right now many states are supportive whole hog and they see the long term benefits of a strong NBCI. Our quail NGOs are also supportive and also careful to help NBCI see its role and stay within it. But some state agencies are not sold on the idea yet. And I understand where they are coming from – money is crucial to many of their programs and they do not yet believe their return on investment in NBCI will be high enough to justify the cost. It seems some states are saying “show us the results and we’ll show you the money,” and NBCI says “show us the money and we’ll show you the results.”

I personally believe in NBCI. A saying our agency senior staff uses quite often when field staff are too quick to criticize management decisions is “assume good intent” meaning “please do not be too quick to judge managers as having some subversive agenda – we have your best interests at heart.” I assume good intent from NBCI. Having known these people for years, some of them for over 20 years, I only see that they are struggling with how to do what is best for bobwhite quail range-wide…and without any authority at all.

Leadership is best defined as “the ability to get things done without any authority at all.” And that is why great leadership is one of the hardest things to achieve in life. NBCI is trying to provide great national leadership for bobwhite recovery and I for one hope states will embrace the P-R funding concept and give the NBCI a chance to show us what they can do. If the NBCI ultimately fails, I’d rather the states have first provided NBCI a real fighting chance to succeed than deny it a meaningful chance to try. 

I caveat all this by saying I have worked for a great state agency (VDGIF) for almost 18 years and recognize how many issues they all face, with quail recovery being just one of hundreds. For this reason, as much as any other, this is why I believe we need NBCI.

 

Marc Puckett – NBTC Chair – VDGIF Small Game Team Leader

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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.