Shell’s Covert: Pictures on my Memory

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words…but I think what they are really worth is 1,000 memories. These days they’ve gotten so easy to come by. The digital world has improved some things, but I still miss the feeling I had back when I turned in a roll of Kodachrome and went to see them “again for the first time.” The end of the year is a time for reflection, and I am actually writing this on December 30th, 2016.

The office is quiet today and I am able to look around my small portion of it at some of the photos that clutter my wall. I had a fellow tell me one time, “Wow your office is like a monument to you.” I don’t think he meant to insult me, and if he had looked closely he would have seen all the other people and pets in those photos. I did not bother to try to explain to him that these photos are like my “Linus blanket.” These office walls and this job can close in sometimes and it is hard to explain the suffocating feeling I get from time to time when I feel like all I can do is never going to be enough. So I surround myself with people and places that take me to someplace warm.

Grace’s Trout Painting (My present this Christmas)

I see friends when we were young. Like that time we went to Santee-Cooper South Carolina and caught enough catfish to fill two big coolers with fillets. One night we fished through a violent thunderstorm. Those were the “bullet proof” days. We were fishing two poles each until the storm hit and as the rain pelted the water, the fish began to hit so fast we had to reel in one pole and focus on one. We caught them up to 40lbs. The next day we took these pics, hauling them in a wheelbarrow to the cleaning table.

I see a picture of me and a friend back in 1983 on a rabbit hunt while I was home on leave from the service. I am holding a rabbit and I’m wearing a pair of blue coveralls my Mom gave me for Christmas and a white toboggan – back before blaze orange became mandatory. Yes, luck sure plays a role in our continued existence sometimes.

And there is a photo of most of the core members of the 5 Bs Hunt Club posing in front of our deer hanging tree with 7 deer in the background and all of us striking a pose like we had just conquered Normandy. Of the six of us in that picture, two have now gone on to hunting grounds in the sky and our club as a whole has seen seven members pass on since its heyday. We visited the old cabin this November on the anniversary of one of those lost. The old Catalpa tree that hung our deer had also succumbed to time. But those memories hung on the fall air like wood smoke and, if you listened real close, you could hear feet falling on the old cabin floor.

I see a photo of an Oregon license plate from 1994. It was the year a good friend and I cut two weeks of grad school classes to fly to Oregon and hunt for 13 days. I killed a grand total of 13 game birds on that trip – one for each day, I spent a thousand dollars I did not have and probably sunk my chances of graduating with honors, but one thing I did not do was acquire any regrets. I don’t remember a single thing from any of the classes I cut, but the memories of that trip are a wonderful tattoo on my mind. In one photo the mountains slant to the right, the hunter stands straight with his gun slanting upward, and the clouds in the sky slant to the left, and it tells the story of that land of angles. The only flat place in that country is the bottom of a well. Like the author Cormac McCarthy said “It’s no country for old men.”

There’s a picture of when I first started working for this outfit. One of my co-workers and me posing with two nice jakes during spring gobbler season. We got ribbed pretty hard for killing jakes, but we didn’t care. I have hunted turkeys all over, and I have been defeated by wary old long beards way more often than I have won, but those two jakes…what a hunt. Long story short, my friend taught me a lesson about teamwork that spring. We hunted as a team and in this case we had been after these birds for a couple days, we had a decoy set-up and we sat about 2 yards apart with our backs to a downed stump ball. Over the hill they came running to the decoy, both like high school boys at their first dance. Our shots rang as one sound and the two birds dropped within feet of the decoy. I have never been more proud of a turkey.

There’s one of my wife before we were married. She was learning to fly-fish, but this day we used fly-rods and bait to fish for stocked brook trout on the South Fork of the Piney River in Amherst County. Of course, I was trying to impress her with my skills and she caught the biggest brook trout to date either of us has ever caught. Life gets crazy and we don’t fish together much anymore. It seems to me relationships have a way of going around some bends, but then coming back someday. Her smile that day raised the temperature along that chilly creek by 10 degrees.

One is a classic “tailgate” shot of bird hunters after a day afield. Some kind friends took me to a preserve one day. There’s Raymond, Bill, John and “Grunt”, Raymond’s son who was about seven at the time. He is well into his twenties now. And in front of them is Shell, grungy as usual, her woolly fur holding every bur, twig and clod of dirt she rubbed up against. And she is looking up at the hunters, tired but not out, and seeming to say “You done good.”

I could keep on for many more hours talking about these memories. I hope you have many of your own. I hope every day you wake up you say to yourself, “Let’s go make some more.” The last one I’ll mention today is of my daughter and me at a fee trout pond in Nelson County. When she was young I took her to a place I knew she could have success. The trout were expensive, but she didn’t know that. She had a ball. But what I remember most when I look at this picture is not that day itself, but a day a couple years later when I asked her, “Do you want to go back to the trout pond, or do you want to try fishing for them in the river?” She said “Daddy, I think I’d like to earn my trout, let’s fish in the river.” I think I’ll sit here and look at these pictures a while more…and just keep the thoughts for myself.

Shell’s Covert Blog — Quail Harvest: Regulation Versus Education

‘…with so few quail hunters, they simply are not having a negative effect at a statewide level.’

Our agency is currently implementing our biennial hunting regulations review and amendment process. We have been taking public comments for three months. The initial online commenting period closed November 30. More comment periods will follow as regulations are proposed. As a project leader, one of my duties is to lead discussions with our small game committee on public comments and ascertain whether any small game seasons or regulations need modification. We take this process seriously and all public comments are presented to the committee. As a member of the public it is important for you to note that having your comments heard does not mean all comments or suggestions will lead to the changes requested.

Much of our small game committee discussions revolve around whether the quail season and bag limits need adjusting. To be frank, we get very few comments on quail seasons. But we agonize over this issue as dedicated staff wanting to do what is right. I have stated many times that biologists generally believe quail hunting has not been the cause of the quail decline. And quail hunter numbers are at historic lows. We had almost 145,000 quail hunters in the early 1970s and we are now down to less than 9,000. Most of those are incidental quail hunters, meaning they do not pursue quail purposefully, but generally encounter them while hunting other species.

In spite of our very best efforts over the last decades, outside of pockets where quail numbers have increased or remained strong, and off properties where landowners have done significant quail management, Virginia’s quail population continues to decline (as well as those in most states). This leads some to question why we continue to allow statewide quail hunting with a bag limit of six per day. On the surface it seems easy. Simply close the quail season until numbers rebound when environmental factors and increased habitat line up to support recovery. But it is not that simple. One major thing to note right away – dozens of species of songbirds and insects that use similar habitats to bobwhite quail are also declining … and they are not hunted at all.

I have already mentioned that with so few quail hunters, they simply are not having a negative effect at a statewide level. Further quail hunting tends to be self-regulatory in some ways – meaning when quail numbers are low, hunters stop pursuing them. It costs a good bit of money and takes a great deal of time to be a bird hunter. Very few people are willing to purchase a bird dog, all the associated equipment and put in the time to become a “real bird hunter” when quail populations are poor.  However, there are places in Virginia where quail are at “huntable” numbers, and hunters still do well. I wonder who will champion quail when the quail hunters are gone? As a colleague of mine said to me “Quail will never be ‘every man’s’ bird.” I can only think that closing the quail season would hasten the extinction of our remaining quail hunters.

I proposed a few potential changes this year early on and offered them to some of our avid quail hunters for feedback. One such idea was the possibility of limiting the number of female or hen quail harvested. This should increase the number of females able to contribute to nesting in the spring and summer. Limiting female harvest has been done effectively with mallards, pheasants, turkeys and whitetail deer. But the females of those species are readily identifiable, and while there are a few quail hunters who can distinguish between male and female bobwhites on the wing, most cannot.

Feedback was negative on this idea. It was pointed out that it may be hard to enforce and that a person could violate the law accidentally. For example, if we said the quail bag limit was reduced to three per day west of the Blue Ridge with no more than one female allowed, a person shooting at a flushing covey could kill two hens without knowing it and be in violation. The same thing could occur east of the Blue Ridge if we left the bag limit at six but allowed no more than two hens and three hens were killed on a covey rise.

My take on all this is that perhaps we ought to consider education before regulation. I propose a set of “Bird hunter best management practices” or BHBMPs. These may include a self-imposed limit on the number of females harvested. For instance, if you find a nice covey of quail, kill two and they are both hens, how about considering moving on and not pursuing the singles and risking killing even more of the females. You could also consider that if you kill more than 3 or 4 quail out of a covey, you might want to leave that covey un-hunted the rest of the winter.

Further, as the law requires in many mid-western states, the pursuit of upland gamebirds should end at sunset. We could make that a law here, but in reality it comes down to an honor system and I’d like to think most bird hunters already adhere to this practice. No bird hunter that calls him or herself sporting can make that claim if they are still shooting quail near dark. The coveys need time to regroup and form a roosting disk before the night cold sets in.

Lastly, I’d say in the back of every bird hunter’s mind, they should value every quail, grouse and woodcock as much as they value turkeys, ducks and deer. Why would anyone consider a quail less valuable than a turkey? Is the size of the quarry the determining factor in how we should judge our success in the hunting endeavor?

Before I make a few comments about quail hunting on public lands, I want to point out that all private landowners have the ability and the right to limit or prohibit quail harvest on their lands. And while as a whole quail hunting is not causing the quail decline, local quail populations, particularly on small properties, can be reduced or eliminated if over hunted. Private landowners should consider determining the number of quail they believe they have before the season starts and limiting harvest to no more the 20% – 25% of that. This takes effort and would require hunters of their land to report their kill.

As an example, suppose you believe you have four coveys of quail on your land, each about 15 birds going into the fall season. You would close the quail hunting on your land when 12 – 15 or so quail had been harvested.

Concerning public lands, our department is going to begin making an attempt at getting a better idea of the quail harvest on lands we own. We want to provide opportunity, but also want to insure our policies are not hindering quail recovery on your public lands. Quail hunting on public lands may be having no negative impact at all, or it may be limiting recovery – we simply do not know. And we hope our quail hunters will support us in our efforts to make a fair assessment and modify our approach to public lands quail hunting if it is determined changes need to be made. I hope you all have a wonderful Holiday Season with your friends and family, and your bird dogs. Just remember with family or with bird dogs, it is the quality of the time you spend that is most important.

Shell’s Covert: My ‘Quailucation’

Author’s note: I got long-winded again. I guess I could have used 40 mimes, or 100 tweets to try to convey this, but I am old school. I write for people who still like to take a few minutes and read. I have been lucky to spend the last 24 years involved with some of the best quail researchers in the world and also some of the best people. Here are a few recollections of that time.

I gave a talk to a distinguished group of local landowners and bird hunters last Friday evening at Lowry’s Restaurant in Tappahannock, Va. It’s one of the few places I know of that has “all you can eat” deep fried quail on the menu. I can’t say I ever saw so many farm raised quail consumed in one sitting in my lifetime (I had a turkey sandwich – you ever try to eat fried food before giving a talk?). It was ironic my talk was on quail nutrition, since quail were the nutrition of choice that evening. I began my talk with this statement: “You can learn a lot about quail by hunting them behind a good bird dog, but there is a lot you don’t learn that way, too.” Lately I have looked back over what I term my “quailucation” – my quail education, and I realize it has been a pretty darn good one.

Quail research continues to be important ... we either keep learning or fall behind

Quail research continues to be important … we either keep learning or fall behind

It was as a kid rabbit hunter back in Pulaski County, Virginia that I first started to develop a search image for what gamey cover was. After a few years of chasing bunnies, even a boy gets to know where not to waste time. I recall a number of quail coveys flushed in those pursuits and I can see them all flying away as clear as a dew drop to this day. Many were using “old home sites.” There were sagging fences, overgrown with brambles, old hog lots with rich dirt and diverse plant life, and collapsing cabins whose old yards could hold rabbits, quail and even grouse. I’d have laughed in any person’s face back then who said to me “That’s good early-successional habitat.” What!? It was just thickets and brush to us. And there was a lot more of it then, along with chinquapins, bumble bees, butterflies and migrating birds (and a lot fewer of us).

Later in life, when I was about to complete my undergraduate degree, a good friend of mine saw me walking down a hall at Virginia Tech and he had a flyer in his hands. He said to me “Marc, you ought to put in for this project on quail in North Carolina.” I’d always wanted to be a bird hunter, but had never figured it out. I took him up on the idea and long story short, I ended up being accepted to North Carolina State University working under the tutelage of Dr. Pete Bromley and in close concert with Bill Palmer, now CEO of Tall Timbers Research Station.

Dr. Bromley made me a professional and Bill made me a bird hunter…along with Frank Howard, a tobacco farmer and “old time” bird dog man of great ability who battled Parkinson’s disease as he shared his knowledge of bird dogs with us. I did not realize then how lucky I was to have these three men continuing my quailucation. Frank told me once, “Marc, I have trained enough bird dogs in my life, if you hooked them all to a harness, they could pull a 747.” I began to learn quail from several new angles. I saw how quail behaved when surprised. I began to learn when, where and what they fed on. I learned how they called to one another, and also how to stay very quiet in approaching a dog on point, so quiet you could sometimes hear the soft calling of the quail and be a little less surprised at where they flushed. I learned that in some circumstances they’d hold so tight they’d literally come up between your legs, and in others they’d run ahead and come up out of range. And I began to see why…the closer you came upon them before surprising them the tighter they held. They can hear as well as turkeys.

Simultaneously, I began attempting to trap quail for my research project. My study area was the contract farming units on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in the coastal plain of North Carolina. My first few weeks of quail trapping were a lesson in humility. I had trapped a lot in my youth, but I found catching quail to be more difficult than trapping raccoons, muskrats and foxes.

Quail don’t rely on their sense of smell to locate food, thus they cannot be lured to a trap with scents. I started to realize that you had to put the traps where the quail were…not 10 feet away from where they were. I learned how they “stage” in edge thicket cover before moving out to feed. And it was in these staging areas that they could be captured with some success. I also learned their affinity for shrubby cover and brier thickets. If I was not battling thickets when setting traps, I caught few quail.

Something else I noticed was that they did not always walk to where they wanted to be. I witnessed on more than one occasion their flight to a feeding area and then back to cover. These flights were fast, only a few feet off the ground and in complete concert with one another. Up in a split second, buzzing out to the feeding area, and then after feeding quickly up and back into cover in a matter of seconds.

One morning as I was hunkered under a blackberry thicket re-setting a trap, a covey flew into the thicket within 10 feet of me. I lay still and listened. They were calling softly to one another and they knew something was amiss. I listened for a time and then started sliding my way out of the thicket. I managed to get out without flushing them and I later caught that covey. I had found their covey headquarters for sure.

Something else I saw them do on more than one occasion…just at dusky dark, they flew out into the wide open soybean stubble fields to roost. I confirmed it by looking for their roosting disks during daylight. I suspect in their case, if not spotted by an owl, they were safer out in the stubble than along the field edges.

The quail were especially difficult to catch on one portion of the study area. It was wide open and windswept, and the only cover existed along drainage ditches. Bill Palmer visited almost weekly, as my study was nested within his larger study. He was depending on me to catch quail. We were both perplexed by this section and then Bill had a spark. The wind brought the Northern Harriers, and the harriers cruised those ditches back and forth all day long. The only place the quail felt secure was down in the big drainage canals at the end of each field.

So down we went, excavating trapping sites eight feet down the steep banks of those canals. I later borrowed a canoe from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and put in at one end of the canal. It was still cold so no worries about gators or moccasins. And, low and behold, as I canoed around these canals I gave many a quail their first glimpse of a human in a canoe. The look of surprise they exhibited as I came up almost eye to eye with them was priceless. But they held tight as I paddled by. This was a lesson for me in their adaptability.

I later also learned how nature interacts. The harriers came for meadow voles, not quail, and when the vole population crashed the Harriers did not tarry. Low vole populations meant less harassment for the quail of ARNWR. We also found that incorporating field borders along drainage ditches running through crop fields helped quail, but were not a complete substitute for larger blocks of fallow land. Ideally, farmed landscapes will incorporate a variety of fallow fields and borders, and maximize “weedy areas” whereever possible.

During those days we also raised quail in captivity and hatched eggs, thousands of them. Other students were studying different aspects of quail ecology offering more learning opportunities. We ran sweep nets for insects to feed the young quail. What predators they are! To observe their foraging habits, many were imprinted on humans after hatching, and it was a fun sight to see a student walking along “cheeping” at the little quail as they fed. Grasshoppers, crickets, beetles…they jumped on them with a raptor’s zeal. In one case a chick grappled with a praying mantis as large as it was and was unable to kill it. If you look at a quail chick up close, its head is all mouth. The shape of their young mouth reminds me of the nightjars (Chuck-Will’s- Widows, Whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, etc.) which have such large mouths for night foraging on insects.

Upon coming to Virginia I was lucky to work with several more fantastic people: The “Old Timer,” Irv Kenyon, who wrote “Beyond the Foodpatch” and had forgotten more about quail than most people will ever know; Steve Capel (our leader, now retired but still going strong for habitat); Patty Knupp “Sister” who kept us all in line, now with NRCS in Colorado; and Mike Fies who was responsible for some of the best research ever done on quail in Virginia or elsewhere. In conjunction with NCSU researchers, we helped study predator effects, translocation of bobwhites (back before it became “new”), survival of pen-raised quail, and more.

We found that predator control only made sense if a person had first invested in fantastic habitat, and then if done, it had to be done every year. The best dollars spent are on habitat first. We found that translocated wild bobwhites did survive much longer then pen-raised quail, averaging 39 days versus the 2 to 3 for pen-raised, but there was no substitute for managing habitat to produce locally hatched and raised wild quail. We found that having a quail brood is tough on the parents, with 39% of the hens hatching eggs dead within 40 days.

And we set up remote cameras on hundreds of hatched or depredated quail nests. This led to close to 5,000 photographs of nest depredations. We found that raccoons, opossums, skunks and foxes were the main culprits. Out of all those photos we had one case of a deer eating a quail egg, one groundhog and a couple crows. We never had a single photo of a turkey depredating a quail nest. Or a coyote.

Before we did this study many people assumed that if you found a quail nest with all the eggs gone and no broken shells or other evidence, then it must have been a snake that ate the eggs whole. Not so fast! We also used remote video cameras and guess who else steals eggs leaving no trace? Mainly red foxes – we assume they carry the eggs off to feed young, or cache them for later use.

Research over the years has also shown many surprising things about quail. They move more than once believed. We found quail after losing a nest to predators almost always moved a long distance, 1,000 yards or more, before re-nesting. Studies in Oklahoma found a covey moving over 100 miles in fall. I saw quail in Virginia move almost a mile in a single day (they do know how to fly). Though many stay close to home, enough move to help keep genetic diversity alive even at low densities. We also now know that monogamy, once thought to be the “norm” for bobwhites, is not the case. As many as 25% of quail nests are incubated by males. Some hens leave nests with males and go have another nest. There is a lot of mixing and matching going on in “quaildom.”

We continue to try to stay on the cutting edge of quail research. We have been fortunate to have had Dr. Theron Terhune, Tall Timbers Game Bird Research Coordinator, visit with us multiple times, as well as Dr. Chris Moorman, Wildlife Unit Leader at NCSU, another fine quail program with ongoing research into quail ecology.

For those who may not understand the job of a state species project leader, one big aspect is to stay current on recent research on your species. I believe we are doing that in Virginia. We have not let “moss grow.” I continue to read every wildlife journal and newsletter I can find to insure we do not fall behind and grow stale. We continue to look for opportunities to start new quail research. Dollars have been tight for it, but we hope to continue to look for funding so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking we know all there is to know about any species. Conditions change, species change, and we are either learning more about them, or we are falling behind. We have a new quail team now full of bright, enthusiastic biologists who are making their names known and we continue to strive to do our best for Virginia’s quail.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Shell’s Covert: The Charismatic Bobwhite

Way back when, at one of our quail team meetings, a member of our distinguished crew mentioned, “We’ve been using these same quail photos forever. We need to get some new ones.”  Admittedly, nearly two decades had passed since our former quail team gathered some pen-raised quail and did our best to get some “realistic” field photos of bobwhites.

“No problem,” I said. “I’ll get us some pen-raised birds and we’ll see what we can do.” I then sent a note to some of my DGIF friends who edit our magazine and direct art for the agency. I queried “Would you all be interested in working with us to get some new quail pics?” The reply was quick “Sure, we’d love to.” All set, I thought. Nothing to this! We have some of the finest photographers in the world working with us. All I have to do is get some quail. But many of my ideas don’t quite pan out to be as simple as I envision them.

Puckett's modified chicken coop

Puckett’s modified chicken coop

I won’t bore you with every detail, but here are some snapshots of the struggle to get some nice pen-raised quail and properly house them and then get them to the photo shoot: the purchase and assembly (not in the1-hour suggested on the box, which failed to mention metal fabricating skills would be needed) of a nice chicken coop modified for quail (using personal funds – not license dollars); a 5:30 a.m. departure on the delivery date to meet a very generous supporter two and a half hours east in King and Queen County to pick up 26 high quality quail he donated to our cause; the realization that getting these pen-raised quail out of the chicken coop was not going to be nearly as easy as getting them in; the near-dark dash to secure the quail coop in the face of a tornado and hail warning (forgetting about the house I live in and more worried about the quail); the comedic capture of the fine feathered bobwhites using a long-handled trout fishing net; and, once in the field, multiple attempts to get them to pose for photos – which they are not of a mindset to do. There is still a good bit of wild left in these pen-raised pompadours.

My hat is off to the patience exhibited by our professional photographer friends. They did capture some good pics, but I think we all realized the best way to get real wild quail photos would be to find a place with a lot of them, set up blinds, perhaps do some baiting, and plan on spending days in the field. Those places are few and far between north of South Georgia.

In the course of all this I realized something else. I have been too far removed from the animal I work so hard to try to help recover. I had lost my own personal fascination with the quail itself and had forgotten how much charisma these birds have. My life has become about workshops, field tours, meetings, pamphlets and giving talks. How long had it been since I held in my own hands a living quail? My daughter had the answer. She is 11, and upon seeing these cool puffs of feathers said “Wow! They’re neat! I have never seen one before up so close.” She marveled at the soft sounds they make among themselves, as did I, having forgotten many of them myself. She is helping me take care of them.

The pen-raised bobwhite is much maligned by some, especially those of us who are biologists. But I have to think that as wild bobwhites become more difficult to find and see, these pen-raised quail have a role to play in quail recovery. It’s hard to appreciate an animal that you never see. We can debate the pros and cons of stocking pen-raised quail all day, but I think they have a valid place in education. Trout Unlimited™ has a fantastic program called “Trout in the Classroom©” where they expose young people to living trout. I see this as a role the quail non-governmental organizations could play in quail recovery. Maybe by becoming interested in the quail as an individual, a young person may be inspired to create habitat for them someday. I know I have seen the spark of life-long interest ignited in the eyes of many kids who attend wildlife educational events featuring live animals they can see and touch.

I also see the long tradition of quail hunting and bird dog training slipping away from a land where 50 years ago a person could never have imagined it. To help keep the tradition of quail hunting alive, an increasing number of quail hunters who own land are incorporating fall pre-season release of high quality pen-raised quail into their management system. This also helps keep alive the “drive to hunt” lifeblood in dog lines for future generations. It can also provide a realistic experience for grandsons and granddaughters that may not be able to take a trip out West, or have access to good wild quail lands here.

I’m not advocating the establishment of state run game bird stocking programs. The programs are enormously expensive and consume staff and time. And I still do not believe stocking pen-raised quail will bring back wild bobwhites. But I am saying that landowners who really want to create great habitat first – because that is what it takes — and then use some stocked quail to supplement their sport and help keep it alive are not doing any harm, as long as they use well tested, disease-free, pen-raised quail. And they may be helping develop the wild quail managers and bird hunters of the future.

Some may ask “Who cares if bird hunting dies out?” But for those of us who have lived this life that is like saying “Who cares if baseball dies out as our national pastime?” On my end, I plan to keep trying to help wild quail, native bees, butterflies and songbirds come back through habitat creation and management. It is the long-term key, but having a helping hand to keep traditions alive from a few charismatic captive-raised quail can’t hurt. And I know when I talk about quail now with my daughter she appreciates them much more now than before she saw one alive and up close.

Shell’s Covert: A Quail Cannot Live on Lespedeza Alone

 

I hope to share with you this month some revealing — and maybe even shocking — facts about quail nutrition. Such as this …  in order to survive on a cold winter’s day, a bobwhite quail would have to eat 18,639 Kobe lespedeza seeds to meet its nutrition requirements for that single day. That means it would have to eat a lespedeza seed every 2 seconds for 10 hours!!! Hope I’ve hooked you into reading the rest of this, because there is a lot more!  Much of what follows I derived from the book “On Bobwhites” by Dr. Fred Guthery – University of Texas A&M Press. 2000. (Many inexpensive paperback versions are available on the internet.)

Many things go into an animal’s survival and nutrition is huge. But as you will see, like with humans, quail nutrition goes beyond calories alone. As biologists we have our share of inside jokes. One revolves around a seemingly long-held belief among some deer hunters that deer can feed on acorns year around. And that as long as you have an oak forest, the deer will be fine (try telling that to a deer in west Texas). The same is true for quail hunters. Many seem to believe that as long as you plant some lespedeza for them, things will be fine (try telling that to the quail that were around well before the lespedeza was). These long-held assumptions could not be further from the truth. One of the first rules of providing for animals is that you have to consider all their life stages and all seasons of the year.

Let’s begin this “lesson” with a simple chart on some common seeds and the calories they provide. A note on calories – on a cold winter’s day, meaning below freezing, a quail needs about 60 calories (kilocalories for those perfectionists) to sustain itself. To put that in perspective, think of a pack of “Nabs” – six to a pack, a pack being about 280 calories, meaning each Nab has about 47 calories. That should give you some perspective on the size of a food item with about 50 to 60 calories.

Seed Type

Seeds per ounce

Calories per ounce

Switchgrass

21,875

53

Partridge pea

4,081

68

Kobe (common) lespedeza

19,375

62

German millet

13,705

98

Ragweed

7,187

110

Corn

75

109

Soybeans

188

109

 

This chart reveals several things. One is that there are a lot of small seeds in an ounce. This also means that just because we find a quail’s crop stuffed with a particular seed it does not mean it is their favorite food. In fact, it may mean it is about all they can find.

Another is that some native seeds have as many or more calories than crop plants. Witness ragweed at 110 calories per ounce. Taking this a bit further, to make 60 calories a quail would need to eat 41 whole corn grains, or 103 soybeans, or 670 milo seeds, or 1160 sunflower seeds, or 3,605 partridge pea seeds, or 27,690 switch grass seeds. Taken on the surface, one can see where the “food plot” mentality came from. After all, if a quail can get its fill off 41 grains of corn, all we need to do for quail is plant corn plots, right?

Dr. Guthery referred to this as “the Thanksgiving Syndrome.” The human fixation on food led many well-meaning people in the early decades of quail recovery to believe that all that was necessary to quail recovery were grain food plots. And many times a goodhearted landowner set aside a ½ acre “patch” back next to a mature woodland or near a hay field, of something like corn, or milo.

Little islands of food popped up everywhere largely surrounded by a “sea” of useless cover for quail. And folks were mystified as to why “the quail never came back.” I am not knocking food plots. They have a place, for deer, for quail, for many things, but they have to be part of an entire package that addresses food, cover, nesting areas, brood-rearing areas, and relies first and foremost on native plant diversity and abundance. Food plots, and even supplemental feeding (as studies in the deep South have shown), have to be woven into a functioning ecosystem in order to be truly beneficial.

Let’s delve a little further by recognizing that fat and carbohydrates are but one aspect of nutrition. Enter the common black cricket. A rather mundane looking fellow at first glance, little would anyone know that as far as the total nutrition package – he is the “end all” for a bobwhite quail. He has, in fact, 30% more calories per ounce than corn. And as with many insects, he also contains the proteins and amino acids that are critical for feather development, egg development and many other things a quail needs beside calories. Insects average about 40% – 50% protein and contain key ingredients like methionine and cysteine without which a quail cannot persist.

I bet as you have read this you might have thought to yourself, “If partridge pea and lespedeza seemingly are not the best quail foods, why do these biologists recommend them so often?”

Very astute question, my friends. Guess what? Many legumes like these are rich in proteins and key amino acids. They help make up for the lack of insects during cold weather. I admit that I am guilty of recommending them too often, and I have perhaps been part of the problem. However, they are very reliable seeds, they often are recommended in ecosystems that have been depleted of many native legumes, and for two other big reasons…they draw insects by the gazillion in summer. And they tend to provide the type of plant structure quail, especially quail chicks, need to forage in. But, in truth, in order for these plants, or any others, to be helpful to quail, they have to be part of an entire system that includes thickets, weedy areas, grassy nesting areas, and night roosting areas – all in close proximity. A quote from Guthery’s book: “Energy costs rise with increasing foraging effort, increasing disturbance, and decreasing quality of cover.”

What a simple little quote, but it says a ton. If you desired to plant some milo strips for quail, weaving them within their thickets and weedy winter feeding areas is best. This decreases foraging effort, decreases exposure to predators and makes disturbance less likely. Just make sure that the milo strips don’t destroy the integrity of the natural cover. This quote might also make the more thoughtful hunters recognize that repeatedly hunting an area during cold weather and disturbing quail there could add to mortality beyond those killed by shot.

To wrap up, quail eat a huge variety of seeds, nuts, plant parts, greens, berries, and insects. To manage for them means to provide a rich, diverse, healthy plant environment that also attracts insects and provides escape cover. Keep the simple “Thirds rule” in mind. Manage for a third thickets and escape cover, a third weedy, fallow areas with a good vegetation canopy over some bare dirt like ragweed, partridge pea, beggar-weed etc. , and a third in areas a bit more grassy for nesting and night roosting.

Lastly, keep this old adage in mind “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”  That same wingstem, or stick weed (verbesina), that farmers hate so much – turns out to be a great quail food plant, and provides pretty good structure. So think before you bush-hog.

Shell’s Covert: Thoughts from the ‘Heartland’

Next month I promise to return to a topic that may be educational, useful and less philosophical – expressly quail nutrition and food habits. But this month, I wanted to share a few thoughts from the heartland after our recent National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska.

I have visited the “plains states” several times and I love it “out there.” Some folks refer to the heartland as the “flyover states,” insinuating there’s nothing there to interest anyone not from around there. And from 35,000 feet you see lots of squares and circles representing crop fields, and very few homes or towns. On the ground one of the first things I felt was that there’s very few places to hide from the weather … or hide from anything else for that matter. And it has created a people without pretenses. More than anywhere I have ever visited, it is a place where “what you see is what you get,” take it or leave it.

In winter the wind is relentless, as well as the work … and it leaves little time for fanciness. Homes look worn, but the people in them don’t and in every country café I visited, people were friendly and welcoming. “You guys bird hunting?” would be a frequent question as we sat eating fresh hamburgers. Often followed by something like “Well, if you get over by Clay Center, I have a piece of land there you are welcome to hunt.”

There's farmland all around

There’s farmland all around

I remember back in 2008 registering for a hotel one evening in Clay Center and I asked the lady behind the desk “What county are we in?” She looked at me like I was about the stupidest hunter she ever saw and said, “Why do you think they call this town Clay Center?” That’s when it hit me, most everything was surveyed in squares on the plains, and each square county had a town surveyed and laid out right at its center…hence Clay Center was at the geometric dead center of Clay County. When you are from the convoluted Southeast like me, there is something refreshing about that simplicity.

And not to disparage our Nebraska friends, but some things regarding quail are just easier out there than they are here. For starters, it’s rural, and that alone makes life easier for quail and all sorts of other critters. I am talking so rural in places that on our field tour last week the tour buses just parked right in the road while we went about our guided stops. And if a car did come along, they’d just go around us (maybe one or two cars all afternoon).

Next, farmland out there is everywhere – there is so much of it that it makes it easier not to farm every acre of it, and that again helps the bobwhite along with many plants and animals. Perhaps most importantly – it takes trees years and years to grow out there once any distance from a waterway. Sweetgum there is found in a pack, not growing from the ground. Red maple? Pine? Poplar? Not there. Plant succession is slow and thus the need for active management is not quite as urgent as it is here in the humid East. Another little something I noticed, non-native invasive vegetation has not had nearly as long to take hold out there as it has back here. It exists and does cause problems, but the native seedbank of plants seems to respond fairly well when given a chance. Wild plum still seems to grow on its own there, too, and I saw many a good thicket of it along roadsides, much like Kansas back in 1997 when we did not really need a bird dog to find quail. We simply hopped from plum thicket to plum thicket relying on the dogs mainly to help us chase the birds out (those quail would run around and around in circles within those thickets hating to fly out).

They have their share of problems, too, and I don’t want to make it sound easy. Winters can be severe, drought can have negative effects and as the human population increases they’ll be expected to squeeze every soybean out of their farmland. But it is nice to know that given good weather, a little passive neglect and some active management with fire and cattle grazing can still produce a bunch of bobwhites somewhere in America.

View of Cornhusker Stadium from my hotel

View of Cornhusker Stadium from my hotel

Also, in my opinion, if you have never visited our plains states, you can’t really call yourself an American or a bird hunter. If for no other reason, you need to drive out there during winter, stand out

in the middle of that vastness and appreciate the kind of self-sufficiency and courage it takes to live there.

Ah, yes, and about the NBTC meeting itself…it was fantastic (Thanks Nebraska folks!). I left once again feeling like the NBCI was on the verge of great things. Their list of accomplishments over the past year is impressive. There have been doubters out there and concerns expressed about the use of Pittman-Robertson funds to support NBCI staff.

As I sat looking out my hotel room, I had a magnificent view of the Nebraska Cornhuskers football stadium. A more famous stadium one will be hard pressed to find. The Big Red is everywhere in Nebraska. I thought about how the NBCI had only existed for six years and had only had stable funding for two years and it made me think to myself “I wonder where Nebraska would be if they’d given up on their football team after its first two years?”

The kind of work ethic and dedication I see in Nebraska fans is evident all over our great country, it is what makes us great, and I see it exemplified by the staff of the NBCI.

Shell’s Covert: The Subtle Things

I have been absent from the blogosphere since early June. It has been a busy summer so far. Not to mention a very troubling one with regards to some of what has transpired in our great country and around the world. I made the comment to a friend and colleague last week that I was afraid we ought to just put our American flags at half-mast and leave them there. It seems no sooner than we raise them back to full staff that another tragedy unfolds. I hope the future can return us to some sense of “normalcy,” but throughout history I am not sure that ever really existed for very long.

Pasture / hay field converted to short-leaf pine and pollinator cover

Pasture/hay field converted to short-leaf pine and pollinator cover

One thing I really struggle with sometimes given all that is going on in the world is how do I continue to believe in what I am doing? Some days I suffer from an existential crisis mood. I ask myself – why should anyone care about quail? About bees? About butterflies? About thickets, weeds, wildflowers and native grasses? About wetlands? About forests?

There has never been another species that has had as great a capacity to inflict atrocities on one another as ours. Going back as far in history as one can go, examples of the wholesale slaughter we have leveled on ourselves are limitless. But so are examples of our capacity to survive those cataclysms. It occurred to me as I thought about this that barring nuclear holocaust, we are not likely to bring about our extinction through war. As bad as things get, as horrible as times become…our species can survive those things.

Eastern Tiger Swallow Tail and Sulphur butterflies on butterfly weed in quail planting area

Eastern Tiger Swallow Tail and Sulphur butterflies on butterfly weed in quail planting area

But what we will not survive is the continued erosion of our ecosystems, or our continued loss of what Aldo Leopold referred to as a “land ethic.” It occurred to me that it won’t be the dramatic events that bring about our demise as a species. It will be the underlying, sometimes subtle things that go on around us every day that cause the “bottom to fall out” at some point. And therein were my answers.

I spent a good part of the last two weeks traveling around to various parts of our state looking at habitat projects of differing kinds. All around us was life and positivity on our site visits. Examples of landowners who, while still making income from their property, made decisions reflecting their love of the land and wildlife.

Projects ranged from reforestation of declining species of pines to incorporating wildlife considerations like reduced stocking rates and lower intensity herbicides, to a single project that incorporated hundreds of acres of native grass and pollinator plantings. These landowners counted on our professional recommendations to design and help them accomplish their projects. Many also relied on financial assistance from conservation cost-share programs.

Dedicated conservation professionals helped walk them through the process. At nearly every site we heard the “bob-bob-whiiiittte!!!” call. We saw countless numbers of pollinating insects. Plant diversity was improved at all sites. The only thing that dampened our thinking was the distance between good sites at times. We simply need more landowners inclined to do conservation-minded habitat work. And that is a goal worthy of our work. Our life’s chosen calling will become increasingly critical to the continued existence of our species. Our jobs are not glamorous, we rarely work in the spotlight (good or bad), and in most cases we do not risk our lives unreasonably in our profession. But what we do matters to our future on this planet.

Shell’s Covert: ‘Where are they going to come from?’

My landowner friend of over 20 years and I stood and looked out over almost 900 contiguous acres of clear-cut, or “cut-over” as most folks in Southside Virginia know it. Now please don’t start a

"Found" Bobwhite Habitat

“Found” Bobwhite Habitat on Cut-Over

 letter writing campaign about the wholesale pillaging of the landscape. Most of these acres came from old farm land replanted to loblolly pines years ago. And they have now become a retirement fund. Keep in mind if the land does not pay in crop or timber, it’s likely to pay in house lots sold piece-by-piece. Forestry Best Management Practices were followed in the harvest and what exists now is 900 acres of brand new, one, two or three years post planting pines. In addition to that, my friend is an “old time bird hunter.” He plants most of his log decks, road edges, and power line rights-of-way with legumes.

As we stood looking over the land, I mentioned I was sure quail would return here quickly. My friend was less sure. He asked me “Marc, where are the birds going to come from? There’s none nearby to repopulate the area. We need to bring some quail in.” I made a bet with him … if quail did not show up this spring I’d bring in some quail.

This morning I got up at 4:30, got in my work truck and made it to the gravel road that bisected this cut-over area by 6:50. It was an absolutely magnificent morning with cool, clean skies the likes of which we see few of during summer. I did five “official” points between then and 8:00 a.m. and…I heard 13 different bobwhites calling, an average of 2.6 per point. The points did not cover the entire area. So there may have been many I did not hear. I would say this habitat had been “found.”

Quail move more than many people think. I have mentioned in posts before they are ”hardwired” to move and that it is a genetic mechanism that has helped them survive at low densities for many decades. And it also allows their populations to “explode” when conditions are ideal.

If you picture a covey of 12 quail on April 1, they soon “disintegrate” with some moving very little, some moving a bit and some moving several miles. Thinking of their “radius of influence,” though, it might span several miles in any direction from their winter range. And this increases the chances that they can “find” new habitats and mates.

But, most folks don’t have 900 acres of contiguous habitat. And 50 acres of cut-over within the context of 1,000 acres of more cut-over has a much greater chance of being occupied through time than 50 acres of cut-over isolated from other such areas. So what’s a landowner to do who only owns 100 or 500 acres?

Talk to your neighbors. Develop quail cooperatives. Help each other. Quail cover can be produced on cut-overs, in fallowed crop fields and power line rights-of-way, around field edges, and in a variety of other ways. And the bottom-feather is, the more acres the merrier.

By the way, why translocate wild quail to anyone’s property if quail show up on their own? Very good question and one that is still undergoing research, but the short answer is – it might speed up recovery, inject some new genetics into a population, and keep landowners interested in continued habitat management. It may also help existing quail populations to overcome an unknown threshold preventing their recovery.

Much “to do” has been made about translocation efforts in other states. Criteria being used now for those translocations require a minimum of 1,500 acres of contiguous high quality quail habitat before quail will be translocated to those properties, and all the translocations are experimental. In some cases “success” has been declared. To me that is akin to if the Allies had declared success a week after D-Day. In my opinion these projects are showing short-term success and I am optimistic, but long-term success has yet to be demonstrated. We are developing similar criteria for research in Virginia, so start thinking ahead about how to put together habitat cooperatives, something we have referred to in the past as “Quail Quilts.”

Another intriguing aspect of quail ecology is “where do they disappear to in winter?” Many landowners and quail hunters enjoy hearing a good number of quail in summer, only to have a hard time finding these “ghost” quail in winter. Though we do have some older data on winter habitat use by quail in Virginia, we don’t have much from modern times.

We have long theorized that the “modern quail” has adapted to survive and those remaining have become harder and harder for hunters and predators to locate. We have observed from some late winter trapping for summer quail studies, that in late winter during the day quail inhabit the thickest tangles of cut-over or creek bottom canebrake they can find. And they leave it only long enough to feed and quickly return. I caught very few quail in places where I was not getting scratched severely by briers and brush when putting the trap in.

We have a couple places in mind for a study where we hear good numbers of quail during summer and early fall counts, but where hunters struggle to find a covey or two in winter. We’ll be submitting a request for proposals for a research project to help us find some answers specific to Virginia. In the meantime, go enjoy June – get up early and go listen for some bobwhites.

Shell’s Covert: ‘Planting’ Lines in the Sand — The Natives vs Non-Natives Debate

Author’s Preface: I discovered quickly when writing this post that this topic cannot be done much justice in a short article. It is not my intent to imply right or wrong. My main goal is to say the issue is not as simple as some would like it to be and that we ought to refrain from a “one size fits all” approach. I would encourage everyone to delve into the issue more. The book “Invasive Plants: Guide to Identification and the Impacts and Control of Common North American Species” By Dr. Sylvan Kaufman and Wallace Kaufman(2007 – Stackpole Books)would be a good starting point if interested.

I had a great uncle who shall remain nameless. He wore an old hat covered with various pins and medals. After a drink or two on a Friday night my Dad tells me he would walk into a West Virginia backwoods bar, throw the hat on the floor and say “I’m going to whip anyone who touches that hat, and anyone who doesn’t grab it is a coward “ … but using more expressive language. He loved a good fight even though he weighed about 140 lbs. drenched. And there’s no better way to start one than to make a declaration, draw a line and dare someone to cross it.

Hack and squirt_Ailanthus 2_REDUCED

The hack & squirt is a management technique for Ailanthus

Lately, one such line seems to be developing over non-native plants versus natives. On the surface it seems like a simple issue. After all, the first thing a person has to do to get out of a hole is to stop digging…right?  So let’s just make a simple statement – use native plants always, no exceptions ever and be done with it. One thing we might quickly notice if we could make non-natives vanish instantly is that there would be no soybeans and cotton or red, white and crimson clover, along with yellow and white sweet clover would be gone from our continent. Not to mention the European honeybee.

And what about this word “invasive?” Just what is meant by that? I have spent the last 24 years of my life trying to elevate the appreciation for early-successional plants and habitats. By their very nature, they are invaders, which when they invade where we want them to we restate as “colonizers.” It is only when things start to appear where we do not want them that we use the term invaders. If you are a forester in Southside Virginia, you might consider the native redbud tree to be invasive when it takes over a newly planted pine stand. As defined by Executive Order 13112 – 1999: “An invasive species is a species that does not naturally occur in a specific area and whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.”

There are obvious examples of plant introductions that have gone horribly wrong. I heard a biologist once lament “I wonder what’s going to happen when the ‘vine that ate the South’ – kudzu, meets the ‘vine that ate the North’ – mile–a-minute vine?”

There is a long list of early naturalists, scientists and even Founding Fathers who contributed. Thomas Jefferson wrote “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture” (Randall 1994). The list of invaders is long, but some of the more notable in Virginia include ailanthus, Autumn olive, multi-flora rose, Johnson grass, sericea lespedeza, and phragmites. Over 50,000 species of plants have been introduced into North America since the beginning of European settlement. They provide 98% of our crops. Of the 50,000, about 5,000 have become competitors with over 17,000 native plants (Kaufman and Kaufman, 2007).

USFS Autumn Olive sign 1969_REDUCED

Times change as this USFS sign, designating an autumn olive planting for wildlife back in 1969, suggests.

In the case of our Quail Team, we have been criticized for continuing to recommend the planting of the non-native Korean (Lespedeza stipulacea) and Kobe lespedezas (Lespedeza striata). Both are reseeding annuals that typically do not grow above knee high. In the mid-twentieth century hundreds of thousands of acres of these lespedezas were planted across the country primarily for hay. They were often referred to as “the poor man’s alfalfa” being cheaper to establish and maintain. Though I have never personally witnessed it, I am told they can become invasive. While alternative native legume seeds are available, they tend to be astronomically priced compared to Korean and Kobe lespedeza. We often recommend them in conjunction with the native annual partridge peas (Cassia fasiculata and Cassia nictitans). Our goal with all of them is to help provide some quickly establishing legumes to supplement a native seed bank that is often depleted.

Are we inadvertently altering an ecosystem? Or is the ecosystem already so altered as to make it hard to identify? One thing I do know is that during the 20 years I have worked for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, we have become much more conscious of the issue and much more careful about how we approach plantings. “Think before you plant” is not a bad mantra.

Rather than advocating “Natives only,” the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) is advocating “Natives First” – meaning when good native options exist choose them first…whether for wildlife, hay or pasture. And further, they advocate that government cost-share programs should not help pay for establishing non-natives.

Quoting again from Kaufman and Kaufman 2007, “To see the invasive species issue as a choice between the native environment and alien species, between preservation and human meddling, obscures the real issue. All “native” dominants from ponderosa pine to American bison and the Canada goose were all once invaders. The invasive species issue is real, and environmental pessimists can take a major part of the credit for bringing it onto the public stage.

The heart of the matter, however, is not how to restore some “native” ecosystem. To do that would we choose from pre-Columbian, pre-Indian, ice-age or pre-ice age? The choice is arbitrary. We will make intelligent decisions only when the debate shifts from the unsupportable notion that “native” is always better to the all-important question of how do we manage change in that dynamic system of tradeoffs that is our natural economy.”

For my part I will continue to recommend Kobe lespedeza — but will point out that it is a non-native — and I’ll continue to battle ailanthus viciously, but I doubt I’ll try to do much about Japanese honeysuckle, … and I’ll continue to watch my bees enjoy white clover.

For those of you looking for some alternatives to non-natives here are a few:  instead of bi-color or VA-70 lespedeza, try bristly locust or indigo-bush; rather than sericea lespedeza, try partridge pea or round head lespedeza; instead of oriental bittersweet, use coral honeysuckle, trumpet creeper or American bittersweet; rather than Chinese privet, use American holly; instead of multi-flora rose, use hawthorn; instead of Autumn olive, try Chickasaw and American plum; instead of sawtooth oak, try chinquapin, hazelnut, and white, red or other native oaks; and instead of fescue and orchard grass, use purple-top, little bluestem, and deer tongue (Condensed from Tarheel Wildlife, 2010). But before you plant anything, you might try waiting a year or two and just observing what you have in the local seedbank.

Literature cited:

Kaufman, S.R and W. Kaufman. 2007. Invasive plants: Guide to Identification and the Impacts and Control of Common North American Species. Stackpole Books.

Randall, W.S. 1994. Thomas Jefferson: A Life. New York: Harper Collins.

Sharpe, T. 2010. Tarheel Wildlife: A Guide for Managing Wildlife on Private Lands in North Carolina. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Shell’s Covert: Paw Paw Crosses the River

My father-in-law, Harry Byrd Elam, Sr., passed away last Thursday night, March 31, 2016. He died in the house he was born in back in 1932. From that you might guess he lived an uneventful life, but a lot happened during those 83-plus years between then and now.

Though Mr. Elam was known by his middle name to most who knew him, he was known as “Paw Paw” to his 10 grandkids (one of which belongs to my wife and me). Few people can claim to live in the small community named for their ancestors, but the Elams are from Elam, Virginia, and still own most of what came to them by a 400-acre land grant from King George II in 1745. (We liked to call Paw Paw the “Mayor of Elam” – population about 11).

That too is one line that does not tell much of the story. As with many families, time takes a toll, and land gets divided among siblings. If close watch is not kept, acres soon dissolve and wash away like dirt in a heavy rain. Paw Paw moved back to his childhood home to raise his family back in 1970 and set about rebuilding the land base. By the time he died all the original land, and some more, had been secured.

Paw Paw's Fescue Field_RESIZED

Paw Paw’s Fescue Field

Mr. Elam’s father died when he was a teenager, and one might think options for a young man were limited under such circumstances, but Mr. Elam joined the Army, obtained money for school, and came home to attend Hampden-Sydney College. Though a farmer at heart, he loved math and physics. He graduated with a degree from Hampden-Sydney in physics in 1960.

Though a man of few words, sometimes he would tell us a story or two. He once described to me working towards his degree in physics. By the time he graduated only two remained in the major – him and one other fellow. He told me “the other guy was a lot smarter than me, I got lost in quantum mechanics.” And, this quiet and unassuming farm boy went on to work toward a Master’s degree in engineering studies from the University of Virginia.

Before moving back to his childhood farm, he moved away and began life as an optical engineer. He designed optical systems for periscopes in U.S. Navy submarines and traveled the world over working on them. He also worked for Sperry Rand Space Division at NASA’s Goddard Space station leading design work on orbiting telescopes. But his heart was always back home, and after moving back in 1970 he never left again. He drove an hour and a half each way to Charlottesville every Monday through Friday for over 20 years to continue his career as an engineer. During that time his kids tell me he never missed a ballgame any of the four of them were involved in, always finding time to coach their teams and support his community.

As for me, I knew Paw Paw as a gardener, and most of what I came to know about him was shared in the occasional story he told me while I helped the little bit I could around his garden. He planted what I like to refer to as a “depression era, feed-a-family garden.” In short, it tended to be big. Once he told me, “Come by this evening if you have time and help me set out a few tomato plants” – which to him meant 50 or more. Have you ever seen how many tomatoes one plant can produce? Imagine 50 plus.

When I first visited my future wife’s family farm, all I saw was fescue, as green and pure a stand as ever grew covered the 100 acres of fields – which was hard to take as a quail biologist. But though I have never been known as the sharpest fillet knife in the drawer, I was at least smart enough to know that in the beginning of a new relationship it was probably not the brightest of ideas to start off criticizing Paw Paw’s fescue fields.

As time passed, I learned a lot more about the farm. When Mr. Elam moved back with his wife Joanne (a force in her own right), the farm was in a state of disrepair. The fields where his Dad, a full time farmer, had once grown corn, wheat and tobacco, had grown up into thickets of sumac, sweetgum and blackberry brambles. In his eyes the farm he had always taken great pride in had become unsightly.  So he singlehandedly undertook the transformation of those fields back into productive farmland. With nothing more than a chainsaw, tractor and fire he cleaned up those fields and planted them to fescue. But as with much of Paw Paw’s life, there was still more to the story.

This is what he told me once as we sat by his garden. “When we moved back here, these fields were a mess, Buddy. But I got them cleaned up. It took a while. Sawing, chopping, pushing with the tractor and burning, it was some real work. Once I got them cleaned up, I restored an old wooden-paddled combine of my Dad’s and I combined the last good patches of fescue we had to get seed. Then I bought two electric seed cleaners and between the two of them I got one running good and I cleaned the seed myself. And I planted these fields back with seed from the fescue my Dad sowed here years ago.”

After he told me that story, I had to stop and think about it for a long while. I still think about it often. It told me a lot about Paw Paw and his love of self –sufficiency. He could have run down to Southern States and bought seed like everyone else. It also taught me a lot about how much pride people take in their land. And it made me rethink my approach to landowners.

Yesterday afternoon after Paw Paw was laid to rest, as we gathered with family and friends at my brother-in-law Harry Junior’s home, I found myself sitting on the front porch. As Uncle Emery Wilkerson was leaving he stopped to talk to me. Uncle Emery is 95 now, but he still stands straight as an arrow and looks like he could go bird hunting tomorrow if he wanted to. He is an “old time bird hunter” and every time he sees me, he likes to talk quail. “Marc, I remember hunting up here at Byrd’s back when the farm was grown up. There were quail and woodcock everywhere. We’d park the sedan by the first tobacco barn and hunt all day, maybe cross over onto Buck Phillips’ place, too. We had some shooting in those days.” I just grin knowingly.

By-the-way,  I never had the heart to try to talk Paw Paw into letting any of the fields grow back up. My wife and I were lucky enough to buy land that borders their family farm and to have shared together the last 13 years living on a farm where three generations still thrive. We are thinning our pines and allowing our own place to produce quail cover. As for Paw Paw’s fields, maybe someday we’ll plant some pollinator cover around the edges. While Paw Paw hated a weed, he would have understood the value of wildflowers to pollinators.