I recently attended the Longleaf Partnership Council (LPC) meeting held in conjunction with the Longleaf Alliance’s Biannual meeting in Alexandria, Louisiana. The LPC meeting was a day and a half of intensive discussions with all the partners involved. The LPC is responsible for implementing America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative (ALRI), which is a collaborative effort of multiple public and private sector partners which actively supports range-wide efforts to restore and conserve longleaf pine ecosystems.
Included in this meeting were presentations from the Southern Region of the U.S. Forest Service and the national forests within the Southern Region that are working to help meet the ALRI goals. In 2017, Ken Arney, acting regional forester, announced the Southern Region’s “Million-Acre Challenge. It prompts the USFS Southern Region to increase the pace and scale of restoration within the longleaf pine’s historic range. Eight national forests within the region will take part in the challenge.
In the ALRI 2017 Accomplishments Report, Ken Arney said “When it comes to biodiversity, few ecosystems in the continental U.S. can contend with longleaf pine, but after years of overharvesting and land-use changes, longleaf pine forests have almost totally disappeared from the landscape.” The ALRI partners’ vision is to have functional, viable longleaf pine ecosystems with the full spectrum of ecological, economic and social values inspired through the voluntary involvement of motivated organizations and individuals. The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative has a permanent seat at the LPC table.
The 12th Biennial Longleaf Conference, hosted by the Longleaf Alliance, followed the LPC meeting. Over 300 longleaf enthusiasts attended. Participants included landowners from across the longleaf region, which stretches from southern Virginia to east Texas, foresters, biologists, professionals from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the US Forest Service and several NGO groups that are involved in the longleaf restoration effort. The meeting included great speakers to open the meeting, an excellent plenary session, many great breakout sessions that had too many topics that I wanted to hear about with too many of them concurrent.
To me, the highlight of the conference was the field trip. Traveling south from Alexandria, we headed first for Beauregard Parish and Daigle Farms, the 2017 Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture Private Landowner Conservation Champion and a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Natural Heritage Site. Once a clear-cut site, this property now represents a functioning longleaf pine savanna, supporting abundant wildlife habitat, wood products and native understory forage for quality Braford and Brahman cattle. This property also maintains foraging and nesting habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker along with maintaining habitat for bobwhites, wild turkey and other nesting grassland birds. The landowner also understands the importance of water quality and maintains many ephemeral wet weather areas on the property. Prescribed fire is also used in conjunction with the cattle and timber harvesting to maintain the habitat on Daigle Farms. Owner David Daigle also received the Gjerstead/Johnson Landowner of the Year Award presented by the Longleaf Alliance. This award recognizes a private landowner for ensuring the future of the longleaf ecosystem on private land.
Following our visit at Daigle Farms and lunch at one of the recreation areas on the Kisatchie, we headed to the Vernon Unit of the Calcasieu Ranger District for presentations by Kisatchie National Forest staff, along with other partners, about management activities within the Vernon Unit and surrounding areas. The Vernon Unit has earned the unique nickname of the “Burnin’ Vernon” because of the frequent use of prescribed fire that has shaped the longleaf forest here. Because of the frequent fire there is a diverse and rich understory of native warm season grasses which are dominated by bluestem varieties, forbs and fall flowering species. The red-cockaded woodpecker, bobwhites, and the Louisiana pine snake all find a home on the Vernon Unit. Active and compatible timber management is being practiced and coexists with this abundant diversity of species.
We were able to learn about work in areas of prescribed burning, endangered species, wildlife habitat management and timber management and the partnerships that exist to make all of this happen. We heard Cody Cedotal, of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, describe the ongoing work on the Kisatchie, where the LDWF and USFS — along with other partners — are working to create a bobwhite focal area that will be included in the NBCI Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP). A personal highlight occurred during the endangered species portion of this tour. After ending his presentation on RCWs, the speaker played electronic calls and was able to call up four birds to the cavity tree that was directly behind the tent. I have seen RCWs looking through a scope from the ground into the nest, but never have had the opportunity to see one flying around and on the outside of a cavity tree.
The longleaf pine ecosystem is said to be the most diverse ecosystem outside of the tropical rainforest. Before European settlement, it is estimated that longleaf pine covered 90 million acres across the southern landscape. Through modern logging practices, urban and suburban development, intensive forestry, agriculture practices and fire suppression, longleaf pine has been reduced in acreage by over 80 million acres. These are some of the same reasons are some why we have seen the demise of the Northern Bobwhite. In 2010, when the ALRI plan was written, there was approximately 3.4 million acres of longleaf pine. It is currently estimated that there are 4.1 million acres across the landscape. The 15-year goal of the plan is to have eight million acres of longleaf pine in 2025. The goal includes establishing approximately 190,000 acres per year, identifying and converting mixed stands that have a longleaf component to longleaf-dominated stands, and improving and maintaining the existing acreage, with an emphasis on increasing the acreage of prescribed fire accomplished annually.
The Longleaf Restoration Plan has some lofty goals, but with all of the partners involved the initiative is well on its way to its 2025 goal. To reach these goals, on-the-ground implementation requires coordination at state and local levels across all agencies and across all lands. Currently, there are implementation coordination teams at 17 locations across 9 states, as shown on the accompanying map.
By participating in the Longleaf Partnership Council, NBCI can help shape efforts to not only restore an important ecosystem but also provide guidance in restoring an iconic bird such as the Northern Bobwhite across that ecosystem.
Thomas V. Dailey, Ph.D.
NBCI Science Coordinator
A Google search on “best places to hunt wild bobwhite quail” returns 397,000 results (Gun Dog magazine, Quail Forever, state agencies, etc.), but you will not find NBCI’s www.quailcount.org. Some of the hottest bobwhite populations in the country are contained in NBCI’s Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP) spatial database, and they are classified as TOP SECRET. Secrecy is a primary responsibility of NBCI to CIP participants–private and public landowners, and many biologists who toil to create the habitat to produce the quail and count them. State agency coordinators of NBCI CIP projects control how much information is publicized via an NBCI data sharing agreement, which goes into effect in 2019.
How many quail? For the best CIP listening stations, where quail can be heard calling about 547 yards away (or 194 acres), 8 or more calling coveys have been heard 43 times during fall covey counts in the past few years. An essential part of CIP is that any one listening station is a small part of a large 1,500- to 20,000-acre focal area of habitat.
If the quail locations are secret and not used for hunting, what is the purpose of CIP?
CIP is providing best management practices, primarily for habitat, so that anyone can experience an abundance of coveys. The CIP proof-of-concept project is in its 5th year, and soon NBCI and CIP state agency projects will be publicizing their results as part of a 10-year monitoring plan. Preliminary results for one CIP focal area suggest a record high quail density across 30-years of the state’s intensive quail monitoring programs.
Headlines with record numbers of anything lead to questions about accuracy, reliability, exaggeration, etc. The CIP is standardized across the country and is backed by decades of research, rigorous protocol, training, independent analysis, peer review by committees and boards within the NBCI and National Bobwhite Technical Committee (www.bringbackbobwhites.org), and ultimately by publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals, such as the National Quail Symposium (https://trace.tennessee.edu/nqsp/). Independent analysis is provided by contract with Dr. James Martin, University of Georgia.
To improve the reliability of CIP data, NBCI just published an online covey count manual (https://www.quailcount.org/monitoring/fallcovey.html). As described in the manual, measuring quail abundance after the summer hatch is the bedrock of quail management, and this is illustrated by the fact that much of the covey count research cited in the manual was conducted by university students or staff biologists who are now biologists collecting fall covey count data. These biologists include Dr. Steve DeMaso, Dr. Josh Rusk, and Beth Emmerich, collecting CIP data, and Rick Hamrick and Shane Wellendorf, collecting non-CIP data. During fall 2017, 127 different observers collected CIP data, so the sound research foundation developed by these biologists is very important.
The new covey count manual is aimed at biologists, but it also has professional videos of actual pre-dawn covey counts and in-field training. It includes details about bobwhite behavior, including the “koi lee” call. Most of the CIP protocol provides a systematic measurement approach useful to anyone. Highlights of CIP are published annually in the NBCI Bobwhite Almanac (available online at https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download-category/state-of-the-bobwhite-reports/).
Not all is secret about NBCI CIP covey count locations. Some listening stations could be published, for example, CIP focal areas that are not open to hunting, such as Pea Ridge National Military Park (National Park Service/Arkansas Game and Fish Department) and Delaware Division of Wildlife’s Cedar Swamp NBCI Focal Area. Cedar Swamp’s remarkably high covey count is featured in the 2018 NBCI Bobwhite Almanac.
Where is that state-record-high quail population? We can tell you it’s a state west of the Mississippi River that has armadillos, that the focal area has quail hunting, and that during the next 5-year CIP analysis segment, you will learn how you, too, can produce record-high quail populations.
It’s human nature when life is going well to take things for granted. Electricity, running water, plenty of food on the table, a warm place to sleep…the list goes on of things we come to believe will always be there for us. That said, you never have far to journey to find folks who don’t have those things. And there are many more subtle things we take for granted that we really need to think about, too.
On a recent weekend I helped conduct a Hunter Skills workshop sponsored by our Hunter Education team. My role was serving as a mentor for an aspiring hunter who had never hunted anything before. It was also someone I had never met before. The “class” I helped with was squirrel hunting 101. For safety reasons and for insuring each new hunter got the help they needed, the ratio of mentors to hunters was one-to-one. We met after dinner the evening before the hunt, chatted some, got to know the hunters, and then watched a presentation on squirrels and squirrel hunting. We formulated a plan for the hunt the next day, agreed on a time to meet (0600), and then parted ways for the evening. Each new hunter had already passed the hunter safety course, and qualified by target shooting.
In the weeks leading up to this hunt I admit to being a little apprehensive. I have mentored some relatives and friends, but never a stranger. And many of the people I have helped have had some experience with either hunting or fishing. I was also worried about what I could really teach this person about squirrel hunting. It all seems so straightforward after having hunted for 50 years (yes I began tagging along with a BB gun at age 5).
“How hard can it be to get into squirrel hunting?” I thought to myself. Then I received a couple of fall hunting and outdoor gear catalogs in the mail. Thumbing through them I was trying to think like a person who had never had a parent or friend who hunted. For such a novice the sheer volume of gear depicted would be overwhelming. (The fishing industry got this right a long time ago by offering numerous pre-packaged fishing combos – perhaps the hunting industry should look into it at some level –“everything you need to squirrel hunt besides the gun and shells”). Where would I start? What would I really need to successfully hunt squirrels? What gun? What kind of shells? How much camouflage do I really need (very little really – we hunted in a good bit of blaze orange because it was youth deer season weekend and required by law during an open gun deer season)? How wary are squirrels? What do I look for in a good squirrel hunting place?
These questions just scratch the surface. I started to realize that I took a lot of the skills I had acquired over those 50 years for granted. I started to believe there really were useful things I could teach this new hunter.
Scouting for hunting locations is half the battle, and is becoming a lost art. There is no substitute for getting a map of an area and getting in your vehicle and driving to it and actually putting some boot tracks in the dirt. Wanting this new hunter to have a great experience, that’s exactly what I did. I have not squirrel hunted in 25 years, but I used to cherish it.
As I scouted it only took a faint breeze to lift the dust off those old skills. I recalled what signs to look for – fresh hickory cuttings, white oak acorn fragments, “squirrel chews” on tree trunks, leaf nests and dens, to name a few. I also recalled all the little sounds squirrels make as they go about the day, like their first alarm chatter, or the distant drawn out caterwauling they make when truly annoyed, along with how their claws sound on scaly pine or hickory bark as they scurry up a tree. And there is no mistaking the sound when they start cutting a new hickory nut, acorn or walnut – take two quarters, hold them perpendicular and scrub one rough edge over the other quickly…a pretty close approximation is emitted.
The morning arrived and our mentors and hunters met as planned. It was as good a morning for squirrel hunting as one could ask for. Still, cool, and slightly overcast. The hunter I mentored was a former Marine. He had great safety and gun handling skills…he’d just never had anyone show him a few things about “woodscraft.”
We were into squirrels quickly, and he easily picked up on the sounds they make. But I was also able to point out similar sounds made by blue jays, cat birds, woodpeckers and other animals. I was able to show him white oak, versus hickory, versus beech. I pointed out fresh cuttings versus old ones. I was able to let him know not to shoot too close or too far, and he quickly developed the ability to know when to shoot. Lots of things I took for granted were useful knowledge to him. He learned that while squirrels can be easy to see, they are wary, and don’t hold still very long. He learned not to shoot until they stopped moving to insure a good clean kill.
Ultimately he harvested four nice gray squirrels before 10 that morning. We all reconvened and found that everyone had some success. From there the hunters learned about knives, game shears (makes cleaning much easier and safer), and how to dress squirrels two different ways. And that evening, compliments of the Hunter Ed chef – they got to eat some of squirrels from their hunt.
Hunters are declining across the board…and it’s not due to lack of game (not even in bird hunting). It’s due to changes in society…and also due to older hunters taking it all for granted. If every active hunter now took it as a life challenge to recruit and mentor – that is the key, mentoring — one new hunter, we could double our numbers and insure a new generation of skilled outdoors people existed. That’s going to be my new saying “One for One” – whether it’s gray squirrels with a pellet rifle, or grouse with a .28 gauge –make it One for One…you and someone new.
“There are now 21 states participating in the [CIP] program and the future of bobwhite recovery may rely on how well these efforts document habitat’s effectiveness and how well those positive effects are marketed.” K. Marc Puckett, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
Learning from mistakes of the past can improve the future; failing to learn and adapt is simply irresponsible and a guarantee of future failures. The NBCI Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP) combines lessons from the past with the science of today to create the largest and best network of bobwhite restoration demonstrations in history. The CIP is more than just a focal area program; it may well be the gateway to the future of bobwhite restoration.
Ultimately, the CIP is envisioned as the springboard toward the NBCI vision of widespread huntable wild quail populations that can lure young and old alike outdoors with bird dogs to enjoy time-honored outdoor traditions.
Typical bobwhite management of the past—opportunistically adding undocumented small patches of habitat scattered haphazardly across vast landscapes—may boost bird numbers on a field or site, but the effects were usually unmeasurable at any larger scale, while overall populations continued declining. To improve on that approach, managers began trying to concentrate habitat efforts and improvements into defined focal areas to restore and document a critical mass of habitat at a scale sufficient to produce measurable population-level results.
Yet, without strategic vision and clear guidance in place, many focal area approaches have suffered shortcomings, such as:
- focal areas too small to affect or sustain a population, or too big to manage in the near term;
- poor landscape context, with low chance of successful management;
- inadequate agency leadership, commitment, or concentration of resources;
- no population goals, habitat objectives, or timelines;
- no consistent, scientifically valid monitoring;
- unrealistic expectations for “success;”
- weak coordination of partner support and landowner participation;
- lack of patience, perseverance, and follow-through.
The CIP strives to rectify such shortcomings. In simplest terms, the CIP is a habitat-based focal area program designed by quail researchers and managers using the best current science and hard-knocks lessons. In reality, it is much more. The CIP aims to visibly demonstrate one of the most basic concepts of wildlife conservation—that bird populations respond to management of suitable habitat. Here’s why the CIP matters so much:
- Consensus approach – Dozens of researchers and managers from many states, organizations, and institutions—under auspices of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee—spent two years developing the CIP as the best compromise presently attainable for implementing quail focal areas successfully across the diverse breadth of the bobwhite range. Perfect? No. A milestone advancement? Yes! Adaptive and improvable as we learn more? Absolutely!!
- Turnkey package – The CIP is designed to provide guidance and support to states and partners from the beginning to the end of designing and implementing a bobwhite focal area, with clearly defined expectations, procedures, and outcomes. It features:
- minimum acreage and habitat standards for sustaining a viable quail population long term;
- a scientific experimental design with treatments and reference areas;
- population goals and habitat objectives, set by the states;
- required standardized monitoring for quail, songbirds, and habitat suitability;
- technical assistance, plus database storage, management, and reporting services provided by NBCI;
- active data analysis that complements an adaptive resource management model.
- Designed for success in near term – The nation’s bobwhite conservation community is backed against a wall. We need success stories sooner than later, and cannot afford continuing disappointments. The CIP is designed to optimize the chances of documenting and showcasing restoration successes over a defined 5- to 10-year time-frame.
- Understand shortcomings – Even following the best guidance, some CIP focal areas may not perform as hoped. But, the CIP design standards and required monitoring of bobwhites, songbirds, and habitats on both treatment and reference sites will provide vital data needed to begin understanding varied outcomes and illuminating needed habitat improvements. The bobwhite community will benefit from such experience and knowledge, and thus will be able to raise our game at a faster pace.
- Tangible “shiny thing” – A CIP focal area is a definitive project that offers numerous practical ways for partners to get involved and feel a valuable part of something bigger. Thus, the CIP has proven to be able to attract, coalesce, and motivate varied partners such as national NGOs, local sportsmen’s clubs, researchers, landowners, federal agencies, local college biology clubs, as well as various state conservation agencies.
- Bigger than bobwhites – The CIP provides a monitoring protocol as well as firm expectations that several priority grassland birds (as determined by each state) be monitored along with bobwhites, to document songbird responses to focal area habitat restoration and management. Being inclusive means CIP is bigger than just bobwhites, and thus is even more important; it also helps boost and diversify partnerships.
- Restoration path for extirpated areas – CIP provides the first clear roadmap toward and standards for restoring bobwhites in regions where wild bobwhites are extirpated. That need is increasing in several states.
- Defining “success” – CIP requires a bobwhite population goal be set as a benchmark, thus forcing biologists to confront the difficult and long-debated question of defining a successful bobwhite restoration. A biological success is presently defined in the bobwhite literature as sustaining a fall population of 800 birds over 99 years, a yardstick also referred to as a viable population. A cultural success may be something more, such as a huntable population, or one capable of serving as a source population for translocations. The specific concept of a huntable population is widely variable, depending on state, region, landownerships, and expectations.
- Attract new funding – The tangible, turnkey CIP package promises quantifiable metrics, reliable data, and measurable outcomes from defined management prescriptions. This uncommon complete package offers the compelling prospect of return on investment, and is already starting to attract new interest and new funding to bobwhite and grassland conservation.
- Commitment – The CIP expects a minimum 10-year commitment to its focal areas, which is longer than innumerable failed quail focal areas received in the past. Bobwhite restoration at the scale envisioned by NBCI is a generational endeavor; thus, 10 years still is a relative blip, but a longer, improved blip.
- Competition – The CIP can introduce a new, constructive element—and maybe even some fun!—to bobwhite restoration: a healthy competitive spirit among states, and among CIP focal areas and their partners.
- Public interest stories – Each CIP focal area is a story with its own unique combination of landscapes, histories, landowners, partners, personalities, successes, and lessons learned. Each successful CIP story provides another compelling marketing opportunity for native grassland conservation, bobwhite restoration, partnerships and reinvigoration of the treasured bird hunting recreation.
- Poised to convince – Among the hurdles confronting the NBCI community is winning over a constituency of sportsmen, landowners, agency administrators, commissioners, and politicians who are skeptical of the usual answer that habitat is the solution to the quail problem, while seeing little convincing evidence. The entire CIP is designed as a massive scientific experiment to answer scientific questions, but also to provide convincing contemporary evidence that habitat still produces birds. For various reasons, the list of those who may need convincing is long, including sportsmen, landowners, outdoor communicators, state agency administrators and commissioners, grantors, state legislators, politicians, and federal agency administrators in DC… and even stressed-out, overworked and underappreciated field biologists.
- Restore hope –The CIP is designed not just to convince skeptics, but also to restore their hope, and thus build stronger foundations of public anticipation, enthusiasm, and support. Without public hope, there is no hope for the NBCI mission.
- Strong first step – From the beginning, the CIP is envisioned as a jump-start means toward a much bigger and more important end: widespread restoration of sustainable, huntable populations of wild bobwhites and vibrant native grassland ecosystems across at least 25 states. Once the modest-sized CIP focal areas have made their case, the stage is set to magnify the CIP effort to create a larger movement that can replicate such successes on larger focal landscapes and eventually across vast focal regions. One solid step at a time, starting with the CIP focal areas.
The NBCI’s CIP is the best and most comprehensive collective effort ever undertaken by bobwhite managers. To date, about 19 to 21 states (depending on how we count) have embraced and are acting on the CIP concept, establishing 24 projects that include 45 focal and reference areas and more than 1,000 bird/habitat monitoring points. Early returns already indicate an average 80+% increase in coveys on managed focal areas compared with the unmanaged reference areas.
Those individuals and states stepping up with resolve to adopt and implement the CIP are the new generation of leaders across the entire bobwhite and grassland bird movement. They are the innovators, the seekers of truth—using a transparent, accountable, and adaptable system—about the linkages between best management practices and bird populations. These state/federal/NGO/private leaders are playing central, coordinated roles in the long-term future of bobwhite recovery and in the resurrection of a cherished, if faded, hunting tradition.
Our Virginia quail team spent the first week of August in Albany, Georgia, attending the National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting (Thanks to the Georgia DNR and a local plantation as well as all sponsors for hosting a great meeting and field tour). It was hot in Virginia but hotter still down there. The quail management we saw was also hot…as in some of the most intensive (or “extensive” as they say – will explain later) quail management in the world – described by one of the world’s leading quail biologists as “The N.A.S.A. of the quail world.” And that is how they manage on the best of the quail plantations – shooting for the moon. They have the highest quail densities found on earth. Some would say artificially high…and I would agree. But it is heartening to know that almost 1/5th the way through the 21st century bobwhites can still be produced in these numbers (densities as high as 3 or more quail per acre).
These privately owned plantations are large – ranging from a couple thousand acres to over 20,000, and over 300,000 acres of them are within an hour of Albany. There’s another 300,000 north of Tallahassee, Florida, and still more in Alabama. The old adage “more begets more” is proven here. For those folks who believe there may be some unknown combination of environmental factors that are causing the quail decline (pesticides, disease, climate change, etc.) this area is not immune to those things. To the north, south, east and west of the plantation country is some of the most intensive center pivot agriculture in the world, rivaling anything found in the mid-west. And if climate change were the driving factor in quail decline…being further south they’d know it before us. There may indeed be environmental factors affecting many wildlife species, including quail…but the basic ingredients for baking a quail cake have not changed. While some of what the plantations do may be the moonshot, most of what they do is not rocket science.
The building blocks of their success are: large contiguous acres, intensive use of prescribed fire, systematic incorporation of disking, good distribution of all cover types, wise use of herbicides, well managed quail harvest, and sound scientific research as a feedback loop. And let me say that you can have plenty of quail by doing all these things and stopping right there. I think these plantations could easily reach 10 – 15 covey hunting days (most Virginians would be happy with 2 to 6 covey days) by using the aforementioned techniques alone. But to get to 20, 30, even 35 or 40 covey days…that is where shooting for the moon begins.
Their research program is an example…they have had radio-collared quail as part of the Albany Area Quail Project every year since 1992. They have had over 30,000 quail radio-collared (including those from Tall Timbers Research Station) during that 26-year period! While some people still scoff at the need to land people on the moon, the technological developments that the moon landing precipitated has benefitted every single one of us in our lifetime (paraphrased from their presentation at the meeting).
Now…let’s talk about “extensive” quail management. I had a tough time at first understanding this…but then realized it just boils down to thinking outside the box, not being afraid to challenge some norms, and being willing to go above and beyond in management. There is some controversy in the quail ranks over some of what the plantations do to achieve their success. And it is in this extensive management where that develops. I consider three major things being applied there to be extensive in nature: 1) supplemental feeding, 2) scientific, year-around, legal mammalian predator control and 3) extra incorporation of brood fields (ragweed galore) to include occasional deep plowing, liming and fertilizing where needed.
Before I elaborate, I’d like to say a few words on behalf of the owners and managers of the plantations. It is easy to sit outside that circle and accuse them of being wealthy elitists having nothing better to do with their money. But they could do anything with their money they wanted to do…and they choose to put untold millions into quail recovery and large scale land conservation. They should be applauded for that. As for the managers…having tried myself just to manage my 40 acres…and having seen how hard our staff works to try to stay ahead of the game on their Wildlife Management Areas…I do not think a plantation manager or their staff know what a 40-hour work week is. I suspect it takes 50 or 60 hours a week, almost year around to keep these plantations in shape. And just try to imagine the pressure to produce results.
Back to the extensive techniques – supplemental feeding. On one plantation we visited there were 115 miles of feed lines evenly distributed through the grounds. Yes…miles. They have perfected the feeding system. In winter they use corn and milo, in summer milo alone. The feed is spread by tractor and feed wagon every two weeks, and they have it figured down to the number of seeds per square foot necessary to last for that time period. Their research has clearly shown within their ecosystem, supplemental feeding increases quail productivity. Research also demonstrated that contrary to intuition, supplemental feeding did not make finding quail easier, in fact, sometimes it made it harder. The way it is done it is not baiting. I am not a fan of it personally…but for them it is legal, affordable, and it produces more quail.
Predator control also continues to raise some hackles, but for the plantations it is legal, scientifically done, and shown to be effective within their ecosystem. They focus on mid-sized mammalian predators (raccoons, opossums, skunks, etc.). Their approach is beyond the means of most, but in Virginia trapping is a legal, honorable and protected form of outdoor recreation. If landowners here wish to employ trapping as a legal form of predator control, I feel it is their prerogative.
The last one is the extensive incorporation of brood fields. As much as 30% of their total land area (heavily thinned pine ecosystem) is made up of well distributed 2 – 5 acre fields. The fields are managed specifically for ragweed. They soil test, add amendments accordingly, and lime where needed. They use fall disking, disking each field every year. And about 1/3 of each field is deep plowed with a bottom plow annually. They have shown that this deep plowing is sometimes necessary to break up the hardpan that develops after years of disking. It is not so much that these methods are new. What makes them “extensive” is the systematic way they are incorporated into the plantations. All these techniques are discussed in detail in the Tall Timbers Bobwhite Quail Management Handbook which can be purchased via their website.
So where does that leave the average owner of 100 or 200 acres in Virginia? I would say first make sure you have maximized the habitat basics before thinking about adding anything more. Within a pine timber system, if it is practical for you, I’d suggest seriously considering adding in more openings next time you thin your timber. It will take time before they can be disked, and will take a long time before they can be plowed, but quail management is a long term endeavor.
Have your habitat evaluated by a quail ecologist. If all agree that the habitat is excellent and should be supporting more quail than are being found, you might consider legal trapping, especially late in the season to see if predators could be suppressing your quail population. And I think supplemental feeding will rarely be of value for most Virginians with one exception, during periods of prolonged heavy snow cover. A landowner might consider providing spread feed (not concentrated feeders) in areas where coveys are known to exist in good cover (when legal – check the feeding laws in our DGIF Regulations Digest or on our website www.dgif.virginia.gov ).
I have been to the “promised land” for quail now several times – Texas, Georgia, Florida, Kansas…duly blessed to have seen it with my own eyes. Life’s fortunes may never take me back there again, but a bucket list item has been crossed off for me. And I am happy to still be a bird hunter here in Virginia after having seen all that. I still enjoy finding 4 or 5 woodcock a day, or seeing a quail covey from time to time. I heard this said somewhere before, something to this effect “It must be sad if, after having caught a lot big fish, you can never be happy catching little fish again.”