Early in my career I was guilty of arrogance in my statements that habitat alone was all that was needed to produce great populations of bobwhite quail.
I recall being on a field tour in eastern Virginia, the primary purpose of which was to highlight quail habitat management. Halfway through the tour, as I had been espousing the benefits of great habitat management all morning, we came to a stop where an old gentlemen stood next to a cage trap which had a live red fox. The man was wiry, and though old, still in excellent health. He proceeded to tell the audience in his rural Virginia twang how he had worked for NASA for decades before he retired and got into the quail management business. He was a good speaker and I recall one statement vividly…because coming from a former NASA scientist, it shot my credibility down a notch or two.
He said “The biologists will tell you nature reaches a balance on its own, and that you need not go messing around with it by doing predator control. Well…that may have been true back when there were lots of big predators and small predators, and back when the landscape was more natural…but right now, after all we have done to this landscape as humans…there is no such thing as balance. Things are out of whack, and if you want a lot of quail you need to do predator control.”
I felt “bushwhacked” because no one told me this fellow would be a part of the tour. But once I swallowed my pride, I got to know this gentleman over the years. I came to realize that he was right in some ways.
Further, research from several entities, most notably Tall Timbers Research Station, began to clearly demonstrate that control of what are termed mid-sized mammalian predators could have a positive effect on quail populations. Our own studies in Virginia also showed that there was no shortage of “nest predators” either. Animals such as raccoons, opossums, red and gray foxes, and skunks could take a severe toll on quail nests, even if they did not kill that many adult quail.
So here is what I believe now.
First, I know beyond doubt that having great habitat is the foundation for all wildlife management. So whether as a landowner you’re managing large or small acreage for quail, the first thing you have to do is learn what good habitat consists of…and then be honest with yourself whether you have enough of it to support quail or not. You can spend lots of money and/or time doing things in an effort to enhance a quail population that will never respond because of poor habitat. The old saying about building a house on sand versus stone applies fittingly to habitat and bobwhites. If your “quail house” is built on stone, then you can pursue tactics than can increase quail survival throughout the year.
Something I noted in Tall Timbers Bobwhite Quail Management Handbook struck me like a baseball bat. They demonstrated that the difference between an increasing versus a decreasing quail population is just a few percentage points in annual survival. In fact, if a quail population does not have a survival rate higher than 20% annually, it is unlikely to increase…but if it runs just a few points higher than that …like the average 23% survival quail enjoy at Tall Timbers, the population can increase substantially. But if the annual survival falls below 15%…steady decline will ensue. So, a manager must do everything to maximize quail annual survival if they want to see their populations increase.
I also want you to think about that 23% number. On what are arguably the very best managed quail lands in the country, where quail experience optimal survival rates…annual survival only averages 23%. Quail evolved as prey…so a lot of death is in their ecology…but if you can boost their chances just a little, they can thrive. Going from 14% annual survival to 21% annual survival…a difference of just 7 points, can make all the difference.
So let’s just run out there and start killing everything we think might kill a quail or destroy a nest, right? Not unless you want to waste a lot of time, kill a lot of things that probably are not causing any harm and run the risk of upsetting the apple cart to the point where you may never get the wheels back on it.
Let’s first consider raptors…like hawks and owls. You need to abandon your ideas about raptor control. They are protected for good reason. There are large numbers of people in our society who value raptors as much as some of us value quail. I am one of them. Studies have shown that through proper habitat management, you can minimize raptor predation on quail. Having ample protective cover is critical.
Studies out of Texas that observed quail behavior when pursued by raptors clearly demonstrated that a quail’s best friend was thorny escape cover (Cat claw acacia was one of the best in Texas – think wild plum, greenbrier and blackberry in the east). This led to a rule Dr. Dale Rollins developed called the “Softball Rule” – standing out in your quail habitat, quail thickets should never be more than a good softball throw away.
And what about another often maligned quail nest predator – snakes? What quite often preys on snakes? Yes, raptors…and other snakes.
So what predators should we try to control?
One statistic that sticks out in my mind from the Tall Timbers Quail Handbook is this: Quail produced on average 44% more chicks on areas where mid-range mammalian predators had been controlled versus areas where no control had been done. Predator trapping increased production and reduced variations in annual survival rates on trapped versus non-trapped areas. Raccoons, foxes, bobcats, opossums, and skunks are key culprits.
Tall Timbers recommends doing a predator survey or index on
your lands. You can find more about how to do this on their website (http://talltimbers.org/measuring-the-predator-context-on-your-land-to-manage-predation-of-bobwhites/), but in a nutshell, they use a mineral oil and sand mix and place sand rings along roads, trails throughout their properties. They alternate sides of woods roads and trails about 500 yards apart. When the index reaches 20% or greater (meaning 1 out of 5 sand rings has fresh predator tracks in them) they recommend intense predator trapping.
Trapping is a good, honest form of outdoor recreation that requires a great deal of skill. The animals being trapped are not vermin. They are part of our environment and have an established place in the ecosystems in which we live. I support predator trapping when it is conducted ethically as a form of legal animal harvest.
In Virginia, we have a legal trapping season that runs from mid-November until the end of February, depending on species. For some species, such as striped skunk and coyote, the season is year-round. My recommendation to landowners intensively managing for quail would be to have an experienced trapper thoroughly trap their lands as late into the legal trapping season as feasible. This can create a window of time during which new predators may not re-occupy the area before ample nesting has occurred.
Once a relationship is established with a good trapper, allow them to trap every year. This helps keep the tradition of trapping alive (I have many fond memories of my teenage trapline) and has the potential to help some declining species like quail do better.
Here are some other predator management BMPs to consider:
1) Increase the quantity and quality of protective cover (thorny thickets – as much as 1/3 of the quail’s range and well distributed)
2) Make sure all cover types a quail needs are well interspersed (good feeding and bugging areas near good escape cover)
3) Minimize large dirt-laden piles of debris, dilapidated outbuildings, and other such attractors of burrowing predators
4) When a choice exists, conduct habitat management on uplands as far from swamplands as possible, as swamps tend to harbor more mammalian predators
I will end by saying I think you can have some quail without doing predator control…but to develop a highly populated quail plantation, you will need to do predator control.