“The Challenges of Maintaining Upland Bird Hunting in the Mid-Atlantic States

Many times over the last few years I have encouraged upland bird hunters not to give up. I bought a new bird dog in summer of 2017. It’s discouraging at times, this year has been particularly so. But I cannot imagine never seeing a good bird dog work a gamey covert again. Seeing that transformation from a dog just looking and searching, to one that is starting to get “birdy,” to one that suddenly freezes like someone is pulling tight an invisible rope that runs through their tail, along their spine and down into their right front foot, their eyes focused to pinpoints, their noses “snuffling,” chests heaving, hind legs shaking. You’d have to have walked those miles through briers, sweating, scratched arms stinging from the salt, eyes blurred from it, yourself with a stomach full of grasshoppers to know what it’s all about. It’s never routine.

We have had multiple quail management successes in Virginia at the individual landowner level, and in some cases in portions of counties. But across much of the state they continue to decline, or hold steady at low densities. In next month’s post I’ll go into detail about how challenging it is to conduct wide-scale quail management in our modern world, while trying to maintain soil, water and air quality (Hint – just about everything that was once bad for wood ducks and bad for the environment, was good for quail).

My quandary as small game project leader for DGIF is in trying to encourage more people to upland bird hunt when many upland bird populations continue to decline. Across America, state wildlife agencies are facing steep declines in hunter numbers. And they are not just driven by lower game populations. Squirrel hunters continue to decline in an era when we have more squirrels than at any time since the Great Depression. Deer populations are at very good levels, yet even deer hunters are declining. And when it comes to upland bird hunters in the Mid-Atlantic region they make up a smaller and smaller percentage of the total. At some point they’ll become what statisticians call “Statistically insignificant.” Clearly, some of this decline is due to changes in society. State agencies are trying to learn more about why people are leaving the sport, and why new hunters are not being attracted to it. The official name for this is R3 – R for Recruit new hunters, R for Retain existing hunters, and R for Reactivate lapsed hunters. Simultaneously, agencies are working hard to support diverse constituencies like bird watchers, hikers, campers, canoeists, kayakers, etc. – diversifying our investment portfolio.

But I’ll stick to upland bird hunter recruitment for the sake of this BLOG. I had a friend and co-worker say to me a few weeks ago “If we don’t do something soon to help bring back bird hunters, they’ll be extinct in 15 years.” That statement troubled me, first because I HAVE been working hard to try to bring back upland birds and their hunters for over 25 years. And second, because I think he’s right. It sent me back to rubbing my forehead and trying to come up with something…a supreme example of the proverbial “grasping at straws?” Maybe. Even though we know hunting is not causing the decline in upland gamebirds – how do we promote the idea of attracting more hunters to pursue declining species? I can explain to most people why we still have upland hunting. I can point out that non-hunted species are declining as much (or more in some cases) than hunted species. I can ask that without hunters who will champion these magnificent upland game birds? But it is harder to explain why we want even more people to hunt them.

Some have suggested extending the quail hunting season in Virginia through February. They argue that one reason folks quit hunting quail was that they felt like they had very little time to do it outside the gun deer season. First, I have lived in the heart of deer country in Southside Virginia for 23 years now. I admit I have had to learn how to hunt with deer hunters, but deer season has never kept me from going upland bird hunting. Even more importantly, studies have shown that late season mortality in quail can be detrimental to the population. Simply stated a hen quail still alive in February is much more likely to make it to nest in April than one starting back in November.

Others have suggested going back to state agency run captive raised upland gamebird release programs. The few states that still run such programs will tell you they are expensive, not cost-efficient and not very effective at recruiting new hunters. Some private landowners are using fall pre-season release programs on their own private preserves to solve this problem for themselves. Kudos to them. But it is expensive and not for everyone. We have a private hunting preserve industry that is available and should be vying for hunters. I believe they could do more collectively to promote their offerings. Industry offers many examples of how competing businesses band together to promote their overall business model.

Some have suggested closing quail season, forgetting about upland bird hunters, focusing on other species that are plentiful and letting things take their natural course. Years ago when I first came to DGIF, a supervisor told me “You need to forget about quail, get these bird hunters to take up squirrel dogs. There’s squirrels everywhere. They still get to hunt with a dog.” I am all for more squirrel hunters and in fact am seeing a slight uptick in folks hunting with squirrel dogs. I will continue to promote that (we are in the middle of a fox squirrel research project – another topic come spring), but not as an alternative to upland bird hunting.

Though I have worried myself sick over this, I don’t have any answers. I can tell you what we plan to try. This year we will be proposing some new training areas for upland bird dogs. One complaint we get quite a bit is that people can’t find a place to train their bird dogs. This is especially true for urban and suburban hunters. Any proposals will go through our normal regulations development process and be out for public comment. We might also consider some type of youth and apprentice hunter quail season. By offering a week or two of extra season only for hunters accompanied by a youth or apprentice hunter, we might get a few new folks into the sport. We might also start promoting the idea of fall pre-season release of captive raised quail on private lands, not so much to recover wild quail, but to supplement quail hunting and encourage habitat development (you can’t have an effective release program without good habitat). These are all just ideas that may or may not pass muster. But we are trying. If you have reasonable ideas, please send them to me.

As for me, I still believe the best way to encourage people to do something is to lead by example. I plan to keep hunting, keep buying bird dogs, dog food, training collars and dog boxes until I am in a pine box of my own. And I plan to keep writing and talking about it and encouraging others to take it up. And our quail team will keep working hard to add to the over 4,500 landowner site visits we have made over the last nine years. There will never be a substitute for great habitat, and in today’s world it takes effort.

 

7 Comments

  1. “As for me, I still believe the best way to encourage people to do something is to lead by example. I plan to keep hunting, keep buying bird dogs, dog food, training collars and dog boxes until I am in a pine box of my own. And I plan to keep writing and talking about it and encouraging others to take it up.” I love the quote. Definitely words for us hunters to live by!

  2. Marc: Thanks for the words of encouragement and your efforts. I too am a bird hunter, always have been always will be. Sure, there have been a few times when I lost my way, gotten discouraged, have been distracted by deer or turkeys but they have never held the same allure as birds. Especially quail. I picked up a male pointer in July of 2015 and I have another coming this spring. No matter what I’ll keep trying. Just too stubborn or stupid to quit. There’s still covey’s to be found in Virginia. Habitat via timbering is improving and I’ve heard a few more birds in the spring of 2018. I’ve committed to traveling to Nebraska and Kansas annually. Even if I only find 1 covey a day, it is still the pinnacle of outdoor sport…birds, the dog on point, the rise…priceless. A good friend who is 66 came home from Kansas last year with a pointer puppy. He named him Chance, as in Tom’s last chance. He called to see if my spare bedroom was open in case his wife did not approve LOL. He’s not quitting either. Our objective now is to take someone with us and introduce them to the hunt. We can’t oversell it, it’s hard. But everyone who has experienced the rise is hooked. Hopefully, we can extend to many more before we hang up the boots!

    Jeff

  3. I am a wildlife manager out in the Midwest and we of course have the same problem with declining hunter numbers. We have out own R3 program, and it mostly comes down to special youth hunts, small (miniscule?) mentorship programs, untargeted short burst outreach (podcasts, facebook postings and the like). They aren’t very successful because they don’t address the reasons that folks don’t hunt. Society gets increasingly urban and suburbanized and its a lot easier to spend time with your kids at a ball field five minutes away than at a marsh or forest 20, 50, or even more miles away. I grew up with a father who lived on a farm and could hunt anytime he wanted to, and he developed a lifelong passion for it. I grew up on the same farm and did the same. I got to hunt three to five times a week. I now live in a small town in a rural area, and am able to get my son (who is still too young to drive) out hunting most every weekend. I only have to drive five to 10 minutes to get to a public hunting area, and hopefully that proximity will help him hunt on his own when he gets of age. But if I lived in a metro area where it would be an all day round trip? I wouldn’t do it as often and I’m sure he would find other ways to occupy his free time. Most people are now emotionally and physically separated from the land and opportunities to hunt. Perhaps our best results with R3 would come from focusing on rural areas and getting kids (and adults) without mentors into long term mentoring (apprenticing?) programs. Seems to me like that would be the best use of limited time and funds. Regardless, thank you for carrying the torch for bird hunters, quite frankly they make better citizens.

  4. I am firmly convinced that a major reason we do not have good public quail hunting lands in Virginia is because of the attitude of VDGIF in the past “forgetting about” quail hunters. The same can be said regarding grouse.

    Try managing some of the larger tracts for birds; lets see where we are in another ten to twenty years.

  5. Marc: I totally agree with your assessment–It never ceases to amaze me that some how we have not been able to find a way to improve the quail population of the State during the past 50 years. We did it with deer, bear and turkey—but why not quail? I travel over thousand of acres of Virginia Piedmont forest/farm lands each year and have not seen a single quail in years. I traveled these same lands in the 50’s and saw 6-8 coveys/day. So I ask my self what is different–how has the habitat changed? My assumption is that problem is habitat related. Therefore I suggest we take a look at earliest photos of Piedmont region of Va—maybe from USFS timber survey and compare this area with today’s land stat. I suspect that on a macro and micro level we can document major habitat changes that may have a bearing on declining quail populations/habitat. Please do not interpret this to suggest that you and your team are not giving it your all—if blood, sweat and tears would bring back quail, you folks have paid the price and we would have bountiful populations. Again some where along the way we are missing the link. Hope you can find it. Good luck and keep up the good work. Charlie

  6. One of the major issues with recruiting more upland hunters is hunting land. 30 years ago I could knock on 10 doors and get permission 9 times. However times have changed. Deer hunters have leased everything or landowners are scared of lawsuits. The states that still have upland hunters are the states with 2 million acres or more of quality land to hunt birds. Here in SC it will never be good again. Period

  7. Well thought out commentary that I know is shared throughout the southeast, not only for quail, but for ruffed grouse as well. I took my father out on public land down here in South Carolina a few weeks ago, and though he only had $40 invested in a 3-day non-resident tag, I felt bad that our hunt was such a bust, without a single find. Not being a bird hunter, I could tell he had no clue why I put so much time and effort into upland hunting. I typically hunt alone and on long drives home after getting goose-egged, I often ask myself why I continue to do it. I think you sum it up well in your opening paragraph…the payoff is well worth the investment.

    One silver lining is the woodcock migration. I’ve read and spoken with several hunters that say if it wasn’t for the woodcock flight, they may quit raising and training dogs. Perhaps promoting woodcock hunting – while efforts for quail and grouse habitat improvement continue – will help with hunter retention. Might not bring many new folks into the sport, but will hopefully keep some folks in the game. It certainly helps keep my spirits higher.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *