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Shell’s Covert: The Last Bird Hunter

The year is 2047. The old man, now in his early eighties, struggles up over the ridge top, out of breath and wondering if he’d pushed himself this time too far. Maybe he’d die right up here in these laurels where he’d brought down many grouse and woodcock over the decades before it all began falling apart. That would be an end that suited him. He’d felt alone for so long now anyway save for his dog. The dog kept him going. He just wanted to outlive his last dog so he could make sure the old friend lived out his days in the woods. The thought of himself dying before Buster…well, he would tear up picturing the old fellow wandering aimlessly in the mountains for days until starvation overcame him. So he always quit a little before he was on his last breath.

Of course, what would it matter if they both died right here, right now? Who would care, or even know he was the last bird hunter? His way of life peaked in the mid-20th century, well before he was ever born, some would say. And in spite of valiant efforts by many agencies and non-governmental groups to “save” upland bird hunting, it died anyhow.

At first, there was a lack of birds, and scientists scrambled for a few decades piecing together the whys of the decline. There were many. Some could be addressed … like habitat loss…but in the end the innate quest for expansion by human beings led to increasing pressure to produce food and fiber. And this led to less and less land to set aside to be managed for wildlife.

The production of food and fiber in the best days of bird hunting actually was what produced the highest number of birds ever known…just by accident. And no one could have ever imagined it wouldn’t always be so good. For a couple decades, old bird hunters blamed wildlife agencies and private entities for not caring enough, or working harder, or cutting more timber, or using fire more. Toward the end of their lives though, they came to a sad realization…in all but the most remote parts of our land, or some of the wealthiest, you simply could not manage enough to offset the loss of the accidentally created habitat of yesteryear. The intensity with which land now had to be managed to meet basic human needs left little space for wildlife. But it hardly mattered anymore.

The decline in upland bird hunting…well, all hunting, really…was only partly due to lower game populations. Society changed, slowly at first, and then more and more rapidly every year. Reality became increasingly replaced by virtual reality. The human mind expanded, as the human leg muscle declined. Going outside became something folks did just to get to their newest mode of computer-guided transportation. People could place a device over their faces and experience virtual reality giving them sensations beyond anything they felt while walking through the woods following an old raggedy dog around trying to kill something.

The old man had shut down years ago. He’d seen it coming. At some point, any species that goes extinct first takes a wrong evolutionary turn or two. And, of course, the vast majority of them don’t realize it. He’d realized that the further removed we became from the earth that produced us, sustained us, the lower our chances of ever persisting as a species. He knew it was beyond bird hunting. He finally gave up on cell phones when it reached the point that you had to subscribe to a company and get a new phone delivered every week with the latest installments in order to communicate. The few people who knew him thought he was either very brave, or completely nuts, for venturing more than a few hundred yards from his house without phone communication ability. They had never read about Lewis and Clark, or Livingstone, or Teddy Roosevelt on the River of Darkness.

For a few decades, he’d also made his life working for an agency. He had done all he knew how to do to try to right the ship, so to speak. But he was a biologist, not a psychologist, or an outreach specialist. He’d blamed himself and been blamed by others for not doing enough. He’d lain awake at night for years wracking his brain into a fever…what is the magic bullet? Or how many smaller things can we try to maybe add up to more bird hunters again, more quail, more grouse, more woodcock. Should we use pen-raised birds to promote upland bird hunting? Should we try fall pre-season release on some of our WMAs?

He’d written articles about how to become a 21st Century Bird Hunter. He’d often wished a movie mogul would make a movie about bird hunting similar to the great movie built around a family’s struggles and their love of fly-fishing for trout. After “A River Runs Through It” was released, there was a noticeable uptick in the number of fly-fishers.

He never gave up until the day he retired. They did see some successes, though limited geographically. He’d also seen an uptick in habitat management interest over the years. But this was accompanied by an uptick in the need for other critical agency jobs such as human/wildlife conflict resolution. And he’d seen a continued decline in the number of wildlife professionals per capita in most states. He and all of his colleagues lived the adage “more with less.” He did find some hope in the fact that there were a lot of bright young biologists sharper than he ever was coming along.

But after he retired he reached the conclusion that the best thing he, and all the remaining bird hunters, could do to keep bird hunting alive, was to keep going themselves. To keep talking about it, writing about it, and living it. Every time he saw an old bird hunter hunting alone he’d ask them why they did not try to find a protégé. Every time someone complained to him about how bad things were going he’d ask them “What have you done to help today?” Every time someone saw his dog, he’d tell them not only about the breed, but about its history, and then about the dog’s life itself.

Someone asked him once “Why do you care if bird hunting survives? What’s it matter to you? You have birds now, and a dog, so why waste your time on people who don’t want to live your life?” He touched the young man on the arm softly, then grabbed a bit of the cloth of his shirt, just enough to make sure he was listening and he said “Because I see where we’re headed when it’s gone.”

From the Farmhouse to the Whitehouse: The Christmas Covey Gift

An autumn consumed by personal transition interfered with—well, squashed—any ambitions for bird hunting this season. Thankfully, friends and colleagues have provided tales and pictures of numerous excellent bird hunts for my vicarious fulfillment.

My 2017 ended at Orange Beach, Alabama with parents and siblings, for what is becoming a new family holiday tradition. It’s not Midwestern bird hunting, but it’s still a neat area and a needed change of scenery, with fantastic seafood and no crowds this time of year.

On Christmas Day, I went to Gulf State Park for another long bird walk by myself on the impressive network of trails and boardwalks. The 6,150-acre park protects but provides public access to

Paved trail and boardwalk at Gulf State Park

habitats varying from beach, to inland dunes and swales, to pine forest, as far as 1½ miles inland. The day before, on a different trail, I had seen two medium-sized cottonmouths, and earlier on this walk a fair-size gator greeted walkers and bikers. So when I heard unusual, sustained rustling in the leaves under some brush near a lesser-used trail, I approached cautiously to investigate. Imagine my surprise when a full-size covey of bobwhites exploded from under the brush within 5 feet of me, scattering only a short distance to the ample brushy escape cover!

A network of trails at Gulf State Park provide a view of a variety of habitats.

The covey was only 1 mile by air from the ocean, and the beachfront condominiums were easily visible. I would not have bet a dime on seeing bobwhites in that location. Even though the habitat technically appears suitable, I just assumed the surrounding landscape was too developed and too busy for bobwhites to be able to hang on.

I called the park later and talked with Casey, a staff biologist from Auburn (War Eagle!), who was jazzed to hear my report. She said releases of penned birds are not allowed, and that a persistent population of wild bobwhites can be heard singing all around the park in summer, but that coveys are rarely seen.

When hunting, every single covey of provides a thrilling adrenaline rush; but finding a covey when it is not being sought and is least expected is an extra-special gift. I am banking on my surprise Christmas Covey being an omen for a good 2018!

Shell’s Covert: A Christmas Quail Management Package

Another short but sweet post…

It occurred to me that there are a lot of resources available to people interested in learning more about quail and early-successional habitat management. Many are available electronically and are FREE, but they are scattered across multiple locations. This post compiles links for you (in one document) that will take to you valuable quail management resources. This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but these links are some of the best resources in my opinion…and again, for FREE!

Bargain Basement Bobwhites

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/bargain-basement-bobwhites-an-affordable-diy-approach-to-managing-land-for-wild-bobwhite-quail/ prepared by Private Lands Wildlife Biologist Justin Folks with assistance from our quail team.

NBCI’s Comprehensive Guide to Creating, Improving and Managing Bobwhite Habitat

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/nbci-the-comprehensive-guide-to-creating-improving-managing-bobwhite-habitat/ Prepared by staff of various wildlife agencies and NGOs coordinated by NBCI/NBTC.

Bobwhite Basics

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/bobwhite-basics-2016/ Prepared by various agency and NGO personnel with assistance from NBCI / NBTC.

Managing Your Pine Forest for Sunlight, Fire and Quail

 https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/managing-your-pine-forests-for-sunlight-fire-quail/ Prepared by the forestry coordinator of NBCI, Steve Chapman, along with the Forestry Sub-committee of NBTC.

Ecology and Management of Oak Woodlands and Savannahs (PB-1812)

 https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/ecology-and-management-of-oak-woodlands-and-savannahs-pb-1812/ Prepared by University of Tennessee Extension.

Old Field Management

https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/Old-Field_QW.pdf Prepared by UT Extension Dr. Craig Harper and John Gruchy.

Wildlife Considerations When Haying or Grazing Native Warm Season Grasses

http://nativegrasses.utk.edu/publications/SP731-H.pdf Prepared by multiple professors from UT Extension.

This selection provides something for nearly everyone in Virginia in settings from oaks, to pines, and from old fields to pastures. Like most things in life, success depends on personal initiative. But sometimes reading is not enough. If you review this literature and you still have questions, that is what our biologists are for. Contact me at marc.puckett@dgif.virginia.gov or 434-392-8328, and I will connect you with a highly skilled biologist who is dedicated to helping you. The more homework you do before their visit, the more you will benefit from the visit.

Happy Holidays!

Hunting Public Land Quail

By: David Hoover, Small Game Coordinator, Missouri Department of Conservation


As an avid bird hunter I hunt both public and private lands and have had many quality hunts on both. However, as many of you have likely experienced, hunting quail on public lands is often more challenging. So much so that hunters are often left with the impression there are no quail to be found; even on areas where proven survey techniques have documented good quail populations. Why is this? One of the obvious reasons relates to the fact that public lands generally receive more hunting pressure, which can cause quail to engage in evasive maneuvers not often deployed by their private land brethren. So what is the public lands quail hunter to do? Quail researchers in Kentucky recently investigated quail biology, habitat use, and daily movements on a large wildlife management area managed primarily for quail. What they found regarding quail behavior in relation to hunting pressure may be surprising to many. Some of the more interesting findings included:
  1. Bird dogs were 8.6 times more likely to find pen-raised quail than wild birds.
  2. Skilled dogs and hunters found only 29% of wild coveys on the management area.
  3. Wild quail ran from hunters in herbaceous cover and held in shrubby cover, letting hunters pass by.
  4. Most of the year, quail were found in open herbaceous vegetation within 40 yards of shrubby cover.
  5. During winter, distance to shrubby cover was generally less than 25 yards.
  6. Quail spent very little time in food plots.
Simple tips for improving success when hunting public land quail include:
  1. Trusting your dog – when dogs get birdy but don’t find anything, slow down and circle back through the area. Birds are likely there, but have moved in response to the dogs.
  2. Maintaining close spacing between hunters to minimize birds slipping through.
  3. Hunting no more than 50 yards from shrubby cover.
  4. When you flush fewer than 4 birds, don’t give up, the rest of the covey is likely close by.
  5. More dogs equals greater success.
  6. Slow down and hunt cover thoroughly.
Public land quail hunting is challenging; however, it can be rewarding with the right attitude and approach. For more information on hunting quail on public lands in Missouri, visit the Department’s quail page.  To view a summary report of the Kentucky study referenced, visit the Peabody WMA Quail report.


This article was syndicated from MOre Quail Blog Updates.

Conservation Need for Bobwhites

This fall, the US Geological Survey released a summary analysis of the 2015 vs 2005 lists of state “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” (SGCN) as depicted in all the State Wildlife Action Plans

(https://www1.usgs.gov/csas/swap/index.html ). Predictably, I went straight to bobwhites. The first point I noticed from the USGS summary is that bobwhites are the 28th most-frequently-listed SGCN in the nation, out of 657 total SGCNs. Second, bobwhites are the 3rd-most-frequently-listed game species, behind king rail and American woodcock.

This simple spreadsheet shows how states listed bobwhites in 2005 (when the NBCI was still new) compared with 2015. Some of the state-by-state findings are interesting:

Bobwhites as SGCN

1. NBCI states that do not list bobwhites at all:
Alabama, Indiana
2. NBCI states that added bobwhites in 2015:
Missouri, Tennessee
3. NBCI states that dropped bobwhites in 2015:
Nebraska, Pennsylvania
4. Non-NBCI states that listed bobwhites both years:
District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin
5. Non-NBCI states that added bobwhites in 2015:
Colorado
6. Non-NBCI states that dropped bobwhites in 2015:
Connecticut, Michigan, Rhode Island
7. # of States listing bobwhites in 2005: 28
# of States listing bobwhites in 2015: 26

From follow-up conversations and emails, I’ve learned that Indiana subsequently has administratively acted and recently approved adding bobwhites as a SGCN. Alabama considers bobwhites to be of “moderate” conservation concern, thus not in enough trouble to warrant SGCN status. Missouri and Tennessee added bobwhites in their revised 2015 plan after determining it was legitimate for game species to be designated as SGCNs. Pennsylvania dropped bobwhites in 2015 after officially determining the species was already extirpated statewide in the wild. In Nebraska, bobwhites are doing comparatively well statewide.

The attention to bobwhites from eight states that are not participants in the NBCI is interesting and a bit perplexing. NBCI has approached at least four of those states in recent years about joining the Initiative, without success; the five that still list bobwhites as a SGCN seem not to be concerned enough to participate in the NBCI. The obvious question about the three states that removed bobwhites in 2015 is whether the species has been extirpated in those states, too, but no formal declaration has been made.