Shell’s Covert: A Burning Controversy…Fire During the Nesting Season

A May 3, 2017 prescribed burn on a WMA in Virginia. Goal was to reduce rapidly encroaching sweet gum and red maple understory, a task which cannot be accomplished with winter burning alone.

“I understand the need for fire, but when you are burning in May, you are burning up quail, turkey and grouse nests and that can’t be good. Why don’t you burn in winter, or early spring before nesting begins in earnest?”

I am sure many of us who practice prescribed fire have started to hear this more often. And it is partially our fault…as we have not done enough outreach and education about why we sometimes burn in late spring. I have also had it expressed to me that some believe this “growing season” burning occurs primarily due to fear of lost money. Meaning that if an agency has set a budget for burning, and winter weather delays it, if they don’t burn in late spring, they’ll lose the funds.

I’d like to first say that I have seen prescribed fire professionalism increase year-after-year-after-year for over two decades. With increasing public scrutiny, and more and more human encroachment surrounding public lands, the need to be completely professional in the use of prescribed fire has increased. Everyone I know in the profession of wildlife management and forestry use prescribed fire for all the right reasons. With regards to the funds…it is true that in many cases they can’t be carried over from one fiscal year to another, but, in most cases they can be redirected to other appropriate uses during that same fiscal year. The money does not evaporate if not used.

From an economic standpoint, nothing in our wildlife management tool box can treat more acres faster and at a lower cost than prescribed fire. I once helped bush-hog some heavily overgrown fields on one of our Wildlife Management Areas. It took two of us working all day for three days running two 75 horsepower tractors to complete 40 acres of mowing. That same acreage could have been safely burned in 3 to 4 hours. But we had fallen behind on burning…and the vegetation had reached a stage where fire would no longer set it back to the desired condition. And this is one key reason growing season fire is sometimes applied. It can be the only time during which fire will have enough impact to set back plant succession to the desired condition to favor, quail, grouse, woodcock, turkey and many songbirds and pollinating insects.

Let me explain a couple things. First – it is good to mix up the timing of burning. A good practitioner would never want to burn a particular tract only in the winter, or only in the late spring, etc. Fire practitioners often use winter fire to reduce heavy fuel loads after a thinning operation. Winter fire can also top kill some young pine and hard wood competition, help scarify native plant seeds to increase germination rates, and remove duff making foraging easier for some wildlife species. But if managing for quail, grouse or turkey is your goal, some growing season fire is going to have to be applied. And sometimes that may be later in the season…into May. This may seem counterintuitive, but let’s stop and think a minute.

Suppose we can’t burn a timbered tract (either thinned pines or hardwoods) in late winter because it stays wet and cold. It stays wet into spring, and then we finally get some good burning weather in May. We have choices. We can delay and perhaps try again in fall. Or we can delay a full year, hoping for good conditions in early spring, or we can burn it now…in May and risk losing a few nests – though studies show percentages of lost nests are low (Kilburg et al. 2104). Given that most entities using fire have limited budgets, staffs and time, and given that we cannot predict the weather in two weeks, much less months…many good managers would choose to burn in May. If we don’t burn in May, and then we can’t burn the following year…for all practical purposes that block of habitat is going to be “lost.” Meaning we have no real way of managing it now until it is clear-cut, replanted and reaches thinning age again in 20 to 25 years. What we have done is traded a few nests this year for potentially far more nests in subsequent years if we had been able to stay ahead on the management of the unit.

It is also funny as humans we tend to use rationalization when it benefits us. How often do we make decisions based on short-term gain that could lead to long-term loss…debt comes to mind…go ahead and buy that boat and worry about paying for it later. Right? You only live once. But rarely do we use the counter-equation – “Short-term loss for a long-term gain.” Such as “I don’t really need a 64” flat screen TV to watch the Superbowl…let’s save that money for a trip this summer.” In the case of growing season fire, we make a very well thought out decision based on short-term loss traded for long-term gain. I think if you asked most of the tax-paying public…they’d appreciate our use of that view. I am not sure why when it comes to prescribed fire they don’t seem to.

I stated all the above as a seasoned professional, and I know these things to be true after 26 years in this profession reading about fire, practicing fire and observing the results of fires on a variety of landscapes. My colleagues and I will continue to make decisions about the use of fire based on science, knowledge and practical experience with wildlife’s and the public’s best long-term interests at heart.

Citations and further reading:

Lightning Season Burning: Friend or Foe of Breeding Birds? Cox, J. and B. Widner. Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, Miscellaneous Publication 17/ http://www.talltimbers.org/images/pubs/FireBreedingBirdsBooklet-small.pdf

Kilburg, E., C. Moorman, C. Deperno, D. Cobb and C. Harper. 2014. Wild turkey nest site survival and nest site selection in the presence of growing season prescribed fire. Journal of Wildlife Management 78(6): 1033 – 1039.

Restoration in the Southern Appalachians: A Dialogue Among Scientists, Planners and Land Managers. Eds. W.T. Rankin and Nancy Herbert. U.S. Forest Service: Research and Development Southern Research Station. General Technical Report SRS-189.

Shell’s Covert: Bridging the Gap with Cut-Over Management BMPs

I have been known to say the following: “If it were not for cut-overs, there may not be a quail left in Virginia.”

Some may want to tar and feather me for making such a statement. It is not entirely true, because there are a lot of landowners, non-governmental organizations, corporations and other entities who are doing “purposeful” early-succession species management. But timber harvesting is one of the few activities on our current landscape that creates between 200,000 and 250,000 acres of early-successional habitat annually in Virginia. That acreage dwarfs those purposely created specifically for wildlife. It is one of the few examples of things that occur on our landscape from which quail can still be considered a by-product.

I also believe that modern cut-overs, or clear-cuts as some call them, do not produce wildlife habitat like they did 40 or 50 years ago. Many attribute this to the intense herbicide treatments required for production forestry in many cases. I agree that this is part of, but not the only reason. I also want to state what I am saying is not criticism of the forest products industry or forestry in general. Modern timber management relies on more efficient harvesting methods and equipment, and more on herbicides and less on mechanical disturbance and fire for site preparation. This has pros and cons from a wildlife standpoint. There is no argument that modern forestry makes much more efficient use of the wood harvested. Which means that there is less debris left over on cut-over sites, and mechanical windrowing and site preparation burning is a thing of the past. Those old unsightly windrows made some excellent hedgerows for quail and that mechanical soil disturbance scarified seeds and produced ragweed, partridge pea and poke weed in abundance. But it also contributed to soil erosion and reduced water quality. So gains made on those fronts offset the losses in other areas. Regardless of whether we all agree that cut-overs are better or worse for wildlife these days, that is not what I’ve set out to address. I’d rather focus on the things that landowners can choose to do to give their modern cut-overs a boost from a wildlife standpoint.

Clear-cut, or cutovers, can be managed effectively for quail and other wildlife. (Photo: Marc Puckett)

First – assume it is a given that herbicides are going to be used in the reforestation of a clear-cut…at least east of the Blue Ridge. Clearcuts in the mountains may still be allowed to regenerate naturally. What can be done prior to any herbicide work, or after it, is the widening of logging roads and the expansion of logging decks to create wildlife corridors and clearings. You might even be able to work with your logger to gain some help. They often have a dozer on site and may be willing to do some of this work for you as a side job.

Identify logging roads you may wish to continue to use to get around your property. Widen each edge out 30’ feet or more if you can afford the lost future timber income (it’s easy to do the math to figure out how many acres of future timber you are giving up – length times width in feet divided by 43,560 = acres). By doing this you allow sunlight in to keep your roads dry during bad weather. You also create long corridors that can be managed by periodic disking or mowing to keep them open. They can also be planted with wildlife friendly mixes depending on what species you want to help most.

Logging decks can be expanded in much the same way as road edges. It’s OK to leave a few slash piles around a deck, but debris piles should not surround the deck. It’s best to spread the slash back through the timbered area evenly, leaving only a few piles to form thickets on the deck edges. Even quail do not like to be completely surrounded by slash piles. Once the deck has been cleaned off, a sub-soiler, or ripper, which is usually pulled by a dozer or very strong tractor, can be used to break up the compacted “hardpan” soil before it is disked. If this isn’t practical for you from a financial standpoint, you can also top sow a cheap cover crop like browntop millet or buck wheat. Success can be achieved even without disking. The dozer work to clean off the deck leaves nice track prints crisscrossing the ground. These track marks capture seed and, more importantly, hold water when it rains. This allows good plant germination. These plantings immediately start to help rebuild the soil. Use a cheap cover crop when planting because herbicides have not been applied yet. After herbicides have been applied, more options open up.

The key to planting after herbicides is to make sure you know what was applied. Some herbicides used in forestry have quite a lengthy soil residual period. This means that they continue to control plants for 90 to 120 days or more after being applied. Make sure you work with your forester and understand what was applied and when it will be safe to plant.

You might also choose to create some additional openings. Tall Timbers Research Station’s work has shown that, depending on soil quality, as much as 30% of the timbered area should be in well distributed fields 2 to 5 acres in size. The lower the soil quality, the more important the fields become. This will, of course, cost you in future timber income, but should be based on your goals and financial situation. These fields are called “brood fields” by the TTRS folks and their goal is get a high amount of ragweed on them. Many times this can be accomplished by fall disking and sowing of winter wheat, then simply leaving fallow. As with logging decks and road edges, don’t plant these fields until after all herbicides have been applied and the safe “plant back date” has been achieved.

Lastly, you might also consider marking some mast-producing leave trees within the cut-over. In the mountains this can be especially important for grouse. Grouse in their southern range eat a lot of acorns. They love the cover produced by regenerating clear-cuts, and more of that cover will also provide food if some good mast-producing trees are left. The edges of the cut-overs and all streamside management zones should have plenty of oak, cherry, dogwood, etc. available. But, on larger clear-cuts there will be a dearth of food-producing trees out in the cut itself. In the mountains where follow-up herbiciding is not as common, the leave trees won’t interfere with herbicide applications. But in the east, they might. Work with your forester to plan ahead and identify areas within a clear-cut where some leave trees will not adversely affect competition control.

These were just a few ideas you might choose to implement after timber harvest on your land. As always your best route is to work with your local forester and wildlife biologist together to come up with a plan best for your land.

Shell’s Covert: Coyotes & Quail – Good, Bad or Neutral?

Much debate centers on whether coyotes are good or bad for populations of deer and turkey (This also may depend on who you ask … hunters, farmers, ranchers, or the general public.) I’ll leave those questions to folks who are experts on those species. But I also hear a lot of discussion about whether coyotes are good, bad or neutral for bobwhites. Admittedly, I have not had time to do a comprehensive literature review on this subject. I did some research and made a few phone calls, so this is not totally opinion based.

In food habits studies done on coyote scats, quail remains are never found in high percentages. You might be asking yourself, “Well…is that because the studies were done in areas that had no quail to begin with, or were the studies done in areas where quail were abundant?”

That is an astute question because if one were to study coyote food habits in central Pennsylvania, you would not find quail in their scats because there are not any quail there.

Luckily, there have been studies done on coyote food habits where quail are abundant. Perhaps none more so than in the Rolling Plains of Texas back in the early 1970s. The study by Meinzer et al. (1975) looked at both scat and stomach content. They did find a few quail remnants, but less than 1% by volume in scat and stomach analysis. What they found, like many other subsequent studies, was a very large volume of fruits. Nine species of plants made up 46% of the coyotes’ diet. Like most other studies I have read they also found a lot of rodents and rabbits. And there were only trace amounts of other predators found (opossum and skunk). Coyotes in Virginia eat a lot of fruit, too, especially blackberries and persimmons. Grasshoppers are also high on their summertime list of preferred foods.

The most recent predator scat analysis work done in western Virginia by Morin et al. (2016) shed some light on validity of scat analysis alone in determining coyote, bobcat and bear diet. These researchers used mitochondrial DNA analysis to positively identify all scats found and compare the results to how researchers classified the scats based on visual evidence. They found that the accuracy of visual identification of scats was low for bobcats (57.1%) and coyotes (54.0%) with each quite often being mistakenly identified as the other.

What’s this have to do with quail?

First it says that older studies based solely on visually identified scat analysis for coyotes may be inaccurate (go back to my first paragraph and note the study I cited used both scat analysis and positively identified stomach content – making it more accurate). They found very few bird remains in either coyote or bobcat scats, but more bird remains in bobcats than coyotes. And, in both cases some mesopredator remains were found in their scats, with bobcats’ apparently consuming mesopredators slightly more than coyotes (don’t mess with no bobcats, Man!).

Though not identified by species in the paper I read, it does point to their occasionally eating other predators. In each case their primary mammalian foods were deer (some killed, some carrion), squirrels, rabbits and voles. Based on all the work I have read over the years, on personal conversations with noted biologists and trappers, and on my own personal observations, I feel comfortable saying coyotes are not directly harmful to quail populations. But could they be beneficial?

Like many such questions, the answers are not always easy, and many out there get mad at biologists for saying things like “it depends.” But it does depend on many factors, such as what is the local prey base? What is the local suite of mesopredators – animals like armadillos, opossums, raccoons, red and grey foxes, and bobcats? Add other predator pressures such as raptors and reptiles and you quickly have a system that is complex.

Are coyotes in some way limiting the populations of, or the behavior of, animals that are detrimental to quail? Henke and Bryant (1999) studied the removal of coyotes from an ecosystem in western Texas. They demonstrated what they termed “mesopredator release” – an increase in the abundance of smaller sized predators like raccoons, skunks, badgers, gray foxes and bobcats with the removal of the dominant coyote. This phenomenon occurred after just one year of coyote removal.

Sovada et al. (1995) showed that coyote removal led to an influx of red foxes, which resulted in a greater loss of waterfowl production in the Prairie Pothole Region. Data in the east on this subject is hard to come by, but in a paper by McVey et al. (2013) where researchers studied the diets of coyotes and red wolves in northeastern North Carolina (where they co-occur), they used DNA analysis to positively identify 228 scats (179 red wolf and 64 coyote). Rabbits, white-tailed deer and rodents were the most common prey for both species. And raccoon remains were only found in 4 out of the 179 red wolf scats, none in the coyote scats. No other mesopredators were found in any of the 228 scats. Great, perfect…what a mess. What does this mean?

It could mean that there was such an abundance of preferred prey that coyotes and red wolves had no reason to kill other predators. It could mean that after several decades of coyote and red wolf predation pressure, populations of these mesopredators were very low in the study area.

I spent a year of my life over a two-year period studying bobwhite quail in northeastern North Carolina on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, where in spite of all the dirt roads I walked, and countless hours I spent out in the field, I never saw a raccoon (not even a track), fox, and rarely an opossum. What I saw a lot of were bears, red wolves and bobcats. There were also a lot of quail…though our quail nest survival rates were no better than the average reported in most quail literature (about 33%).

So, I conclude that…

1) predator control should only be considered if you have maximized your habitat efforts and you still do not see the number of quail you’d reasonably expect to see on the number of acres you have. If there is a covey of quail for every 25 acres of quail habitat you have in Virginia, you will be hard pressed to do much better than that even with predator control. But if you have several hundred acres of excellent quail cover and you only have two or three coveys of quail, chances are control of mesopredators will be beneficial,

2) In Virginia where quail are not that abundant, and where many nest predators are abundant, and where we don’t see people hunting or trapping like they used to, my opinion is that coyotes are beneficial for quail. They are helping to do what hundreds of farmland trappers used to do in a bygone era. I do not have the direct data to support that. But if I were trapping to try to help quail, I would not focus on coyotes.

Literature cited:
Henke S.E. and F.C. Bryant. 1999. Effect of coyote removal on the faunal community in western Texas. Journal of Wildlife Management 63. 1066-1081.
McVey J., D. Cobb, R. Powell, M. Stoskopf, J. Bohling, L. Waits, and C. Moorman. 2013. Diets of sympatric red wolves and coyotes in northeastern North Carolina. Journal of Mammalogy 94(5): 1141-1148.
Meinzer, W., D. Ueckert and J. Flinders. 1975. Foodniche of coyotes in the Rolling Plains of Texas. Journal of Range Management 28(1): 22-26.
Morin D., S. Higdon, J. Holub, D. Montague, M. Fies, L. Waits, and M. Kelly. 2016. Bias in carnivore diet analysis resulting from misclassification of predator scats based on field identification. Wildlife Society Bulletin 40(4):669-677.
Sovada, M., A. Sargeant, and J. Grier. 1995. Differential effects of coyotes and red foxes on duck nest success. Journal of Wildlife Management 59:1-9.

Shell’s Covert: Responsible Predator Management for Bobwhite Quail

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

Place 1 fatty acid tablet (FAS) in the center of each station. Researchers have shown that FAS tablets elicit a good response from coyotes, gray foxes and raccoons. We have good visitation rates from armadillos, bobcats and other mammals as well. Be careful handling the FAS tablets (please read the label!). -Courtesy of Tall Timbers Research Station

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.

Shell’s Covert: Seven Years and Counting…

My first blog post here was in February, 2011. That’s over seven years ago. During that timeframe I have probably broken every rule of blogging. Blogs are supposed to be short and frequent. Mine have been long and infrequent. I guess that’s because I am 55, I love to read and write, and I have refused to submit to the “blurb” society where it seems folks have hours to send multiple small blurbs, but no time to write a meaningful message to anyone. It is also because I don’t think my agency is paying me to be a full time blogger. So I have limited it to once a month. I have tried to mix things up in the 85 or so posts I have done.

Some have focused on habitat management, others on quail biology. Still more have focused on upland bird hunting. But my topics have been as diverse as writing about pollinators, 17-year locusts, squirrels and the Civil War…all of which I have attempted to relate back to quail in some way or another. A few have been personal…about loss. And one or two have been philosophical…guilty as charged. But they have all come from the heart and from the caring I have about quail, wildlife, and all of you.

I do not honestly know how many folks read my blog. I hear from a few good friends from time to time that they enjoyed a particular piece. I hope it does some good for someone, somewhere. I have thought about organizing them into a book for lack of a better term, but I never seem to have time. So for what it is worth, in case any of you may wish to go back and look at some of the BLOGs, I am listing the more technical, educational ones below by month. They are all archived on the NBCI website www.bringbackbobwhites.org under BLOGs and under Shell’s Covert. These are not listed in chronological or any other order. I am just going through my list and stating a topic of interest and month and year. For what they are worth…

– Winter’s Effect – March 2014
– Quail on the Cheap (guest BLOG – Justin Folks) – January 2014
– Reforestation Education – October 2017
– Great October Quail Count (how to estimate your quail population) – October 2015
– Pen-raised Quail – November 2013
– Synthesis of Quail 8 Research papers – September 2017
– Value of Protective Cover (It’s a Shell Game) – April 2014
– Value of Weeds – June 2011
– Quail Food Habits (Lespedeza Alone) – August 2016
– Simple Changes in Mowing – November 2012
– Quail Harvest: Education versus Regulation – December 2016
– Golf Cart Quail (how small land changes affect quail populations) – April 2015
– Christmas Quail Management Package (links to multiple DIY sites) – December 2017
– Ring of Fire (history of fire and wildlife) – February 2015
– Housing Development Quail (Arrangement of cover for quail) – June 2017
– Where are They Going to Come From (notes on quail dispersal / movements) June 2016
– Seeing the Light (how to determine if your timber is open enough) – March 2017
– The Prospector (how even small patches of cover can help) – May 2012
– Natives versus Non-Native Plants: Not a Simple Issue – May 2016
– Putting the Sting back in Quail Management (pollinator / quail overlap) May 2017
– Quail Population Management for the Landowner – November 2012
– Quail Disease / Parasite Issues – November 2015
– Cost of Managing Timber for Quail – November 2017
– Quail Translocation Issues – September 2015
– Low Brow Bird Hunting (quail hunting does not have to break your bank) – February 2017
– Bird Dog Training – March 2018
– The Last Bird Hunter (future worst case scenario??) – January 2018

Those were some of the more useful posts. If you have been reading for 7 years – Thank You for sticking with us. If you are a new reader, maybe there is something here you can use. And if you have ideas for future posts send them to marc.puckett@dgif.virginia.gov . Happy Spring to all of you.

Shell’s Covert: Tilley Bell

I thought long and hard before I bought my latest bird dog puppy … as much about  whether to buy her, as from whom. I have watched the decline in quail numbers and the even faster decline in quail hunters for 25 years now. And my number of avid quail hunters has declined on a more personal level. Some have passed on to the great bird coverts in Heaven. If you ever wonder what that might be like you need to read the great story by long ago outdoor writer Corey Ford. Its title is “The Road to Tinkamtown.” I suggest you read it somewhere alone and keep a kerchief handy, because grown men do cry from time-to- time.

Tilbert at Seven Months

Ultimately, I decided that much like when I bought my first bird dog, not knowing much about them, but with a good friend who did, to take the plunge back into puppy-dom. I do not have a knack for training dogs, though this time I do have more patience.

One of the biggest things I learned in training dogs before Tilley Bell was no matter what, always end a training session on a high note. I have also learned a few things about what you want to see in a good bird dog. Some hard-headedness is good because hard-headed dogs don’t tend to be quitters or slackers. Intelligence is very important – and  if you look close enough when picking a pup you ought to be able to see “someone is home” up there between those ears. And they need some drive. This is again hard to tell at first, but it will become quickly apparent.

Tilley Bell (Til for short, but now Tilbert for some reason) will retrieve a quail dummy as many times as I stand there and throw it for her…she seems to have a limitless supply of energy and optimism. She is also a happy dog, not a worrier. So with a dog like Tilly Bell, it becomes a matter of molding that talent into a hunting companion that you can rely on. Time will tell whether I can turn her into such a dog or not, but I can assure you I won’t do it by breaking her spirit. That’s not what a bird dog trainer means by “breaking a dog.” You have a lot of raw talent that any coach would recognize, now you remove bad habits, build good ones and use encouragement, reward and sometimes toughness to allow that talent to reach its potential.

I named my new dog, now almost eight months old, Tilley Bell, after my Mom. She is now 83 and that was her nickname as a kid. Tilley Bell. And she was a marble-shooting, athletic Tom Boy who has faced down many health struggles now for decades with a smile, kindness, perseverance, faith and love. It’s how we ought to treat each other, and how we ought to train our dogs. A good Mom would never criticize a child without first having built that child’s confidence up with praise. A good coach would never berate a player unnecessarily in a mean- spirited way. And a good bird dog trainer won’t either.

My dogs have always been what some refer to as “meat dogs.” Which suits me, as if I were defined in dogs terms, that’s about what I’d be. What it means is no frills, businesslike, hard-working, not fancy, but always enjoying the hunt and driven to find birds. And I’d also say more steady than flashy, able to hunt all day and not burn out in two hours.

I have great respect for those who run their dogs in field trials. Their skill with dogs and often horses is amazing. Think about how hard it is to train one of these animals or the other – then combine the two. But field trials are not my mug of Joe. I’m not a social person in the sense that on weekends I seek solitude or a few close friends, not crowds and competition.

If you are thinking of getting into bird hunting don’t be scared off by believing your dog needs to be steady to wing and shot, with a high tail on every point followed by a perfect retrieve every time. The only judges you really have to face are yourself, and maybe an understanding friend from time to time (because why have any friends who are not understanding)?

By the way – “setters” were trained to crouch or “set” when they pointed birds centuries ago – because the hunters then used hoop nets, not shotguns, and the nets were thrown over the dogs, just past them, in an attempt to encircle the gamebirds…therefore a high standing dog would have then been a hindrance. I still love seeing some of that trait in a setter today (Tilbert is a Llewellin Setter).

As far as bird hunting in the 21st Century…in Virginia…it is being done successfully by many. Is it back to being the “good ole days?” No. And it may never be. But is it fun? Yes. Is it good? Yes, at times. Does it take extraordinary ability? No. Does it take work? Yes. Does it take perhaps a change in your view of success? Yes. Is it worth getting into now? Absolutely. I would not have bought Tilley if it were not.

Several of my friends and I have noticed what appears to be an uptick in participation. There’s some excitement brewing on upland bird hunting chats. There are pockets in Virginia where quail are quite abundant. Woodcock seem to be fairing OK, though still declining nationally…largely due to habitat loss. And much like for quail and grouse, complicated by other factors like predation and disease. But there IS hope. Once hope is lost, all is lost. If all we focus on is gloom and doom there won’t be any new hunters wanting to find out what it’s like to ease up on a point and feel those bugs churning in your gut, and bracing for that flurry of activity called a flush…and no matter how many times it happens, every time is like the first time all over again. So go forth young men and women, and get that first bird dog puppy.

The Importance of Scientific Wildlife Research

I have heard some folks say, “What do you all need to waste money on studying this or that species for? You know everything you need to know to manage for quail (or grouse, or bears, or whatever it may be). All that money could be going into habitat management.” Well…I am glad the people who discovered penicillin did not declare, “We’re done here. We’ve got this whipped.”

Ecosystems are not static. They evolve, conditions change and the need to continue to do sound wildlife research will always be with us. I have also heard a few folks criticize researchers for always ending their presentations by saying “More research is needed.” Exactly! It most certainly is. Questions are answered, but many times new questions arise and this is how our society has advanced through time…upon millions of building blocks, all beginning with hunches, and ending in discoveries. And… one rule (of several key ones) I have in life, I never trust anyone who claims to know everything about anything.

Scientific research is an ongoing need, even for bobwhites.

It’s been said that the bobwhite quail is one of the most studied birds in the history of wildlife science. I am not sure who counted the studies and compared them to other species, but it is probably high on the list. Regardless, we are still learning and new questions come up routinely. For instance … on our National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative Coordinated Implementation Program Model Quail Focal Area we hear lots of quail during the summer, but we hear very few during our fall counts and the hunters using the area find very few in winter.

Have they died? Are they using the cover very differently than hunters imagine? Do they move off the focal area in search of something they are not finding within it? Are surviving quail simply much better at avoiding hunters than generations past? Have their habits changed over the last decades (meaning 30 or 40 generations for quail) in order to survive in an evolving ecosystem? And, more importantly, can we learn something by studying the situation that might lead us to management decisions that would be good for quail and quail hunters?

Scientists sometimes use the terms “anecdotal” or “ancillary observation” to describe things they or others have observed in nature that are not part of scientific testing. A simple example might be one in which a person observed quail feeding in a partridge pea patch many times. They assume the quail are feeding on partridge pea seeds. But without further examination, it cannot be said with any certainty that is why they are there. They can say “based on anecdotal evidence, I feel quail like partridge pea.” But, many other things grow in conjunction with partridge pea, and it is also a great attractant for insects, upon which quail would rather feed than anything. But this “hunch” can be tested by scientific study, such as trapping quail in the area, and examining crop content and drawing a conclusion that quail do like partridge pea, but as much because it has good structure and attracts insects as for other reasons.

This also leads us to a term called “replication.” In a nutshell, just because you test an idea in one area, or one situation, does not mean what you find there can be applied everywhere. To be truly good, a study requires replication in a wider variety of circumstances.

Scientific ability also evolves and old findings sometimes need re-testing. I can’t recall the class, but one of my professors “back in the day” made a comment that “Mother Nature was very good at fooling people into believing things that were not true.” A classic example of this is the case of the cotton rat being labeled as a bad predator of quail eggs.

Back in the 1920s, using the best techniques available at that time, the famous quail biologist Herbert Stoddard (of Tall Timbers Research Station and prescribed fire fame) stated that cotton rats were bad predators of quail eggs. Managers since that time have worked under that assumption. But recently, researchers at Tall Timbers Research Station, using modern techniques which included remote video cameras set up on hundreds of quail nests discovered beyond doubt that cotton rats do not prey on quail eggs very often at all, they merely clean up egg shell fragments left by other predators that destroyed the nest and eggs before them.

Further, they discovered that cotton rats serve as “buffer” prey for quail and that the higher the cotton rat density, the lower the quail predation – all other factors being equal (this information can be found in the new Tall Timbers Quail Management Handbook available for purchase on their website www.ttrs.org ). Quail managers on modern quail plantations now try to manage to increase cotton rat abundance. A note – Herbert Stoddard was ahead of his time and right about the vast majority of what he studied….but like most of us he was not right 100% of the time.

On our focal area, endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCWs) are the primary species of concern (and rightly so because they are endangered and quail are not). Other questions we have are: How do we tweak habitat management to benefit quail without being detrimental to RCWs? Can we adjust the size of prescribed fire units, making things better for quail without harming RCWS, or reducing the total amount we need to burn each year to sustain the RCW ecosystem? If the quail are staying on the area and not dying or moving away, where are they during winter? And what can be done to increase the critical winter escape cover we find them using?

We have a study proposed to help us answer these questions. We’ll use two other areas for comparison to give our study more “strength.” Time will tell if the funding comes through. No matter what happens we hope that our constituents, and even some in our own profession, continue to see the value in wildlife research. And further – that it will also be recognized that state wildlife agencies are the best liaison between our research universities and our state wildlife user groups. No one understands or works harder for our constituents than we do.

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.”

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!

Shell’s Covert: How Much Will Quail Cost Me in Future Timber Income? (Or … Balancing Timber Production & Wildlife Habitat)

Author’s note: Some of this BLOG is derived from a very recent article published in the Journal of Wildlife Management entitled: “Economic Tradeoffs of Managing for Timber Production or Wildlife Habitat.” The article was written by Phillip Davis, Ian Munn, James Henderson (Department of Forestry, Mississippi State University) and Bronson Strickland (Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture, Mississippi State University). Interpretations of the article and opinions included in this BLOG are mine alone.

A pine stand managed for bobwhites & grassland wildlife

Landowner – “So, if I manage as you say, by heavily thinning my loblolly pine timber, really opening it up, letting that sunlight in, and then using prescribed fire to manage for quail, what is it going to cost me down the road in future timber profit?”

Marc – “Dang it!” I think to myself, “I almost had him.”

In reality, I feel it is my obligation to let the landowners know, whether they ask or not, that there will be economic costs associated with pine timber management that heavily favors the quail side of things. It’s a fair question…that I don’t have a great answer for.

My response usually goes something like this: “Well, I can’t tell you down to the dollar what it will cost. First, you have to remember that initially you will get more money from the thinning because you are taking out more trees. Second, timber markets vary from year to year and it’s hard to say what products will be bringing 10 or 15 years down the road when you prepare to clear-cut. Third, there are “value added” aspects to managing timber for wildlife that it is hard to put a finger on the financial benefits of, but…my guess is anywhere from 10% to 25% of the future timber income.”

And it is a crystal ball “sort of” educated guess…just to be honest. In all fairness to me, if I could accurately predict timber markets, product preferences and prices 15 years out, I’d be in the timber business…and probably retired by now. There’s an old saying when it comes to money, “If you have to ask how much something costs, you can’t afford it.” Maybe managing timber for wildlife is no different, but I’d argue it is not a zero sum game, there are a range of options and you may be a landowner who can see benefits beyond dollars…that are, as the commercial says, “Priceless”…and for everything else there is a not-named-here-for-fear-of-being-seen-as-an-endorsement credit card.

In my opinion, no forester or wildlife biologist can tell you with 100% certainty what the future costs are in timber production if you choose to manage intensively for bobwhite quail. There are simply too many variables and too much can change over the life of a timber stand. You may have it figured to the last dollar and two days before you are ready to sell a category 4 hurricane makes it all moot. My advice to you is that if it is critical to know right down to the dollar how much future timber costs are associated with quail management, stick to growing timber. But if not, here are a few things to consider.

In the article I referenced in my opening note the authors wrote: “Maximizing timber production usually yields the highest land expectation value (LEV) return when compared to maximizing wildlife habitat, but improving wildlife habitat can result in higher hunting lease revenue to supplement foregone timber revenue.”

The authors of this paper used five basic models for evaluation: 1) timber maximization, 2) deer-timber compromise, 3) deer oriented, 4) quail-timber compromise and 5) quail maximized (my interpretation in layman’s terms) with “quail maximized” being the heaviest thinning. Many variables were incorporated into their models too numerous and complex to detail here. But all management scenarios were based on common forestry and wildlife management practices.

As expected, the timber maximization model produced the highest land expectation values (LEVs), but…all scenarios, including quail management, produced positive LEVs (profits). This means that even under a quail management scenario, the timber still made money over the cost to produce it (profit over the costs incurred to plant, spray, manage through time, etc.). The authors spelled this out by saying “Thus, a non-industrial private forest owner can generate an acceptable rate of return from timber harvesting while managing their forest for wildlife habitat.”

Their examination of compensatory hunting lease rates became a bit more complex. The term “compensatory” as it is applied in this study means how much more per acre would a landowner have to charge for hunting rights to offset the lost timber income from intensive wildlife management? One interesting finding that makes sense is that on the land that is best for growing trees (land having the highest potential for pine growth that foresters call site indexes), the opportunity cost for quail management was highest, and vice versa…the poorest pine sites, had the lowest opportunity costs for quail management.

What does this mean to a landowner? If you have large acreages with varying site indexes and are willing to compromise, on the best lands for pines…you could choose to grow pines intensively, and on the poorest lands for pines you could choose to manage for quail intensively.

Regarding hunting lease rates – the authors used $44.91 per hectare (about $18.00 per acre) as the maximum reasonable compensatory lease rate. They found existing lease rates for “Sixteenth Section Lands” (public lands leased to the highest bidder for hunting to benefit Mississippi public schools) in Mississippi to range from $1.69 / acre to as high as $37.80 / acre…essentially demonstrating that it would be possible to achieve the added $18.00 per acre to offset lost timber revenues under certain scenarios. Unfortunately, under the quail management scenario, the lowest reasonable compensatory rate was $20.74 / acre – meaning they did not find a way through hunting rights leasing to offset all lost timber income.

Whew…this all makes my head spin so let’s keep it simple.

Take home messages:
1) It is your choice as a landowner whether to manage intensively to maximize timber profit, or to maximize quail habitat, or manage somewhere in between.
2) There are professional foresters and wildlife biologists that can work together to help you achieve your goals.
3) Even intensive quail oriented timber management still generates a profit.
4) Land well managed for wildlife should bring a higher hunting lease rate than land not managed well for wildlife and these increases could help offset lost timber income.
5) If you own lands that have varying site indexes – you can choose to grow pine timber where it grows best and manage for wildlife where timber doesn’t do as well.

And, I’d like to say on a personal and professional level – forests are good things. Even a loblolly pine stand that is managed to maximize timber income still provides wildlife habitat on some levels. And thinning loblolly pine stands makes sense from every angle. If you follow standard forestry recommendations and then throw some prescribed fire in after thinning – it may not be perfect for quail, but it will be an improvement for wildlife…the glass will be half full, not half empty.
So this article was not meant to criticize those who choose to maximize timber production. It was intended to show that managing timber intensively for wildlife can still generate a profit and that there may be ways to offset some of the lost timber income.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!