Shell’s Covert: Applying the Shell Game Theory to Bobwhite Management

It’s A Shell Game Out There

(… Or, These Ain’t Your Grandpa’s Quail)

Thicket Photo_ Resized

All of you should be familiar with a “shell game.” No reference to my old setter, Shell, who played her own games when it was time to get back in the dog box. What I refer to is the simple old shell game. A dozen walnut shells, perhaps painted in bright colors to fascinate kids and hidden under one was a dime, or a quarter – back in the late 19th or early 20th century these weren’t amounts to scoff at.

 These games may have been used to entice citizens at county fairs to come in and then spend money on more elaborate games, always rigged in the house’s favor. (My daughter and I still attend our county fair every fall, and while some may say these fairs have become less than desirable places for families, I still find a magic in them worth sharing. But that’s another story.) However – what follows is a very simple shell game analogy as to how you should view your land and manage it to provide cover for quail.

I hear on almost a daily basis from so many well meaning sportsmen their views on what has been and is causing the quail decline. Predators, pesticides, pollution, mowing, and more top most lists. Some of these things we can do more about than others, and trust me we are trying to address them all every day. With regard to predators – I believe there are more predators now and I believe quail have adapted to some extent to their higher numbers. Quail undergo a new generation every year – thus in terms of evolving, they can change much faster than humans when conditions warrant it. Hence my sub-title, “These ain’t your Grandpa’s quail, Boooooyyyyyy!”

My belief is that they have adapted to using heavier cover than ever before, and that thicket cover is more important now to quail than it was 100 years ago. Remaining quail fly farther, faster and deeper into thickets than their predecessors. I’m also convinced that while we have undergone an enormous quail population decline, there are more quail out there than hunters find and they are in places where what I call “old time bird hunters” don’t really go.

So what about this shell game theory for quail thicket management? If you think of a quail covey as the dime and thicketsas the walnuts they hide under, as a predator would you rather have to look under 2 walnuts, or 20 to find your covey? It is estimated that 25% of your land needs to be in some form of thicket cover to be ideal for quail. I suggest 10% to 15% is a minimum that is more workable for most landowners. The good news is, these thickets do not have to all occur in your fields. They can occur just as effectively within thinned and burned pines or hardwoods. The thickets within your cut-overs also count – which brings me to another point, using less intense site preparation herbicides when preparing to plant pines will help leave a lot of good blackberry and other thickets out in those cut-overs, and further down the road, within those thinned pine stands.

So how do you visualize the arrangement of this cover? It’s best when it occurs randomly and well distributed throughout a property. One way I have illustrated this is to say visualize a checkerboard, with its red and black squares. If you were to number each square, then put those numbers in a hat and draw 15% of them out and paint each square whose number you drew green, you’d see random visualization of how thickets should be arranged on the landscape.

I recall hunting in western Kansas back in the mid 90s – and how perfectly well distributed the plum thickets were. You really didn’t need a dog to hunt quail there (though shame on you if you don’t have one). All you had to do was look under enough of the plum “shells” and you’d find some quail to shoot at … and miss. Those that were missed had vast numbers of other coverts to fly to, thus making an attempt to relocate them harder.

The point is, stop worrying over things you can’t control and go do something about the things you can control. For landowners the number one thing you can control is habitat. (And to some degree pesticides – remember, it is your choice if, how and when you use them.)


p align=”left”>April 14, 2014

Shell’s Covert: Bobwhites & Blizzards

… Or, How do Bobwhites Fare in Bad Winters?

Winter in SW Virginia Photo By Mike Jones  


The topic on everyone’s mind these past few weeks has been, “When will this blasted winter ever end?” Few Americans escaped winter’s effects this year. In my home state of Virginia it has been one of the worst 3 or 4 winters in my 51 years of breathing air on this planet. I do recall back in the late 1970s a couple of winters in southwest Virginia that were severe by most standards. Of course, compared to Wisconsin where quail used to thrive, and where some important early research was done on quail (Paul Errington – Aldo Leopold’s first doctoral student in wildlife), I suspect our winter would not have been considered severe.

I won’t get too scientific on you, partly because I don’t have a great deal of time to really delve into old literature and see what I can find about winter weather’s effects on bobwhite populations. But also because I prefer to take a practical approach whenever possible. I picture a bobwhite covey out there making a snowman of their own, using partridge pea seeds for buttons, of course, lespedeza for eyes and maybe a beggar weed pod for a long nose. Sorry, I’m digressing.

Bobwhites occur in a very wide geographic area – from Mexico all the way into the northern prairies and east through Michigan, Wisconsin and even into southern Maine at one point – though I doubt many occur there now. Obviously, they can adapt to extreme winter weather. Some say, perhaps, that a Texas quail is vastly different from a Wisconsin quail, but in reality those who get into sub-speciation are truly hair splitters –the similarities among sub-species far outweigh the differences.

What we do know about bobwhites, as for just about any other animal, is that when they become stressed by cold they need more calories to maintain their body heat. Guthery (2000) in his book “On Bobwhites” (available in NBCI’s online store at states that at 32 degrees (F) a bobwhite needs 50 kilocalories a day to maintain itself. This equals about 550 milo seeds per bobwhite.

Of course, bobwhites have other ways of mitigating for cold weather. They roost at night in a tightly packed disk which helps them conserve heat, among other things. They also seek areas where cover and terrain gives them protection from winds. During the day they may seek small micro-climate areas on southern slopes where the sun provides some thermal relief. And, of course, they eat more.

All wild animals are extremely resourceful when it comes to surviving, but they can and do reach a point when cold weather becomes deadly…well at least it is the proximate cause. I would argue the ultimate cause is often the fact that they inhabit “sub-optimal range.” In layman’s terms that means their habitat is not adequate.

During the mid-1990s I was a field crew leader on a  Virginia quail study involving numerous bobwhites with radio-transmitters affixed during February. We were actually able to track them through 2 substantial snowfalls during the first and third weeks of February that year. We found  they shifted their range and moved into pine forests where heavy cover limited snow depth and also where numerous greenbrier thickets occurred. We did not do a food analysis, but assumed that they were feeding on abundant greenbrier berries, as grouse often do. There were a couple of occasions when we did believe quail died due to exposure. These were  instances when the weather changed rapidly, going from very warm to very cold overnight in late winter – similar to some conditions we have seen in Virginia this year.

In Oklahoma, during a study in the early to mid-1990s (Peoples et al., 1994 – Progress Report Packsaddle Northern Bobwhite Mortality Study), researchers found that as much as 19% of winter mortality was due to severe weather. However, when averaged out over all seasons and areas, weather only accounted for 2% of annual mortality. When an average quail population suffers 80% to 90% mortality annually – which is a now a known, well-accepted fact throughout much of their range – it would seem that winter weather overall is a minor mortality factor. I believe that to be true here.

This winter’s weather probably did kill a few quail. But quail are adapted to high mortality rates and if they have adequate habitat and a good nesting season, they can bounce back faster than a super ball coming at you off a brick wall. Our primary problem here in Virginia has been, and continues to be, too little good quail habitat. Other factors compound this problem. New research on neonicotinoid (nicotine based) pesticides suggests they could play a role.

Regardless of other factors, quail can’t survive on concrete, asphalt or fescue. Every landowner’s best insurance for having quail year-in and year-out is to have excellent quail habitat. And as much of it as you can stand.


p align=”left”>March 21, 2014

Shell’s Covert: Time for a Little Less Talk and a Little More A.C.T.I.O.N.

                Action – a simple word and one that so many know, but so few take to heart.  A “little less talk and a lot more action” as an infamous country song states so emphatically is what many circumstances need.  In his book “We Are Soldiers Still” General Hal Moore wrote in his chapter on leadership that every day you need to answer two basic questions: 1) What am I not doing that I should be doing to influence the situation in my favor, and 2) What am I doing that I should not be doing? General Moore was a famous leader of soldiers in Korea and Vietnam, most noted for his book “We Were Soldiers Once and Young.”

                In a much less dramatic context, I use the word A.C.T.I.O.N. as an acronym for how landowners should approach their wildlife management projects.

“A” is for ASSESS

You — and that means you landowner — need to have an aerial photo, or access to aerial imagery that allows you to see your land from the “helicopter’s” perspective. And not just your land, but how your land fits into the landscape around it. It should be as up to date as possible and with today’s technology it is not hard to find an image no more than a year old.

Assess also represents assessing your goals – what do you want out of the management? With regard to quail, do you want a few coveys to see from time to time or hunt occasionally? Do want enough quail to hunt routinely? Or would you be happy just having one resident covey of quail? These questions will have a bearing on your actions. In some cases your goals may be unrealistic based on the land you have. In those situations – maybe you can manage for another species.

“C” is for CONSULT

To further your assessment, bring in the professionals. Consult with your private lands wildlife biologist, your forester, your Natural Resources Conservation Service specialist and others if necessary. The more you prepare before their visit and the more you know about your goals, the more you will get out of their visit.

In some cases I have shown up to a property, asked the landowner about their goals and the reply was “We just want to do something for wildlife.” I have grown better over the years at asking subsequent questions to help the landowners determine their goals. But the bottom-line is you need to think ahead about what you want from the property. There is nothing at all wrong with buying a piece of property and simply walking through and enjoying it … and not managing anything on it but your time. This won’t get you any quail, though. If you want quail and their species associates, some actions will be required.

“T” is for TACTICS

How will you produce the desired habitats to bring onto your land the types of animals you’d like to see more of? How will you maintain those habitats? What tactics, otherwise called management techniques, will you use, when will you use them, and how will you make them happen to produce your desired outcome?

Your consults with professionals and personal research should lead you to the answers. This is a big part of the job for our private lands wildlife biologists, and for our district wildlife biologists in some cases. Tactics begin with some broad brush, general situations that occur throughout much of Virginia, such as how to convert fescue to better wildlife habitat, how to properly manage pine or hardwood timber for certain wildlife species. From here things become more specifically tailored to your property.

Once this general overview and basic outline for managing your property is determined, this is where an agency biologist, or a private contractor if you prefer that option, can prepare a long-term wildlife management plan for you. It is important to note that it is impossible to get every detail into a written management plan. Much of the future management and maintenance of habitats depends on conditions that change, weather patterns, etc.,  so don’t try to plan every detail.  Base your future management on the “O” in our acronym.


Short and sweet – Without initiative none of the above will happen. The laws of physics apply – things at rest tend to stay at rest. Same with people. Get off the couch, put the laptop down and get outside. And what about taking the kids with you? I have said before and at the risk of being repetitive – the government folks like me can help, advise, recommend, teach, help develop favorable policies, and encourage, but there are too few of us to show up and get it done for you.

“O” is for OBSERVE

 Observe your management efforts. Evaluate the results. Re-assess every year, and modify management as needed to continue to keep the habitats you want. Don’t hesitate to bring the professionals back in to help observe and re-assess. I personally prefer relatively general management plans that require landowners to be engaged and to actually learn how to assess and modify management based on existing and expected conditions. The old adage about giving a man a fish versus teaching him how to fish applies. This leads us to our last and maybe most important letter.

“N” is for NEVER (as in NEVER giving up)

The first thing a landowner has to do is learn to love the management. If the work becomes something you enjoy and look forward to, you’ll continue to do what is necessary. But if the work required is something you loath…chances are you will not be able to keep the management up.

 In my Army days the training sergeants and later our platoon sergeants had a saying “You have to love the training men; you have to make friends with it.” I also recognize that not every landowner is in the physical condition to do the work on their own. In this case, private contractors can be used to help continue the work. In many cases, cost-share programs help pay for these efforts.

Like any other worthwhile goals in life, wildlife management goals need long term commitments of time, funds and energy. But it can and should be fun!

February 5, 2014


Shell’s Covert: An Appeal for Support of NBCI


I am writing this during the season of Thanksgiving and celebration. I am thankful for so many things, family, job, the ability to live in a free country and practice the religion of my choice, my right to keep and bear firearms, my access to millions of acres of public lands managed in trust for all of us, an open society where we can criticize our leaders without fear of retaliation, and a strong military which allows us to keep all these things – the list goes on.

I am also thankful we have a National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative and an NBCI staff. As Chair of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee’s Steering Committee, I have been intimately involved in the discussions regarding state use of a small portion of windfall Pittman-Robertson (Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration dollars- excise taxes on firearms and ammunition) funds to provide increased support for NBCI staff in the short term. I have been involved with the NBTC and the NBCI since only a few years after their inception in1995 (my involvement began in 1997). I have seen the group grow from a relatively small, southeastern-based Southeast Quail Study Group, to a 25-state range-wide entity (NBTC) with a parallel core group of “quail dedicated” staff (NBCI) – currently at very little cost to the states, and no cost for some. No growth comes without pain, trial and error and soul searching.

I think we are at a crossroads for bobwhite recovery and the next 3 to 5 years will be pivotal for bobwhite conservation.

When we moved to enlarge the SEQSG to become the 25-state NBTC I guess we knew that perhaps not all states would be fully on board. I understand that and I want to say in advance, whether a state is on board with NBCI or not, I appreciate their dedicated field staff and all they do on behalf of quail and so many other species every year. I will also say that we should appreciate good quail work whether it is done under the flag of NBCI or not.

But I also believe that if we could all work together under the umbrella of NBCI, we could be more effective nationally and within our own states. With regard to current NBCI staff funding, with the exception of Director Don McKenzie, they have been funded largely by annual grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) or the Multistate Conservation Grant Program. So every year NBCI staff not only has the fear of a short-term funded job hanging over their heads, they also have to work hard to find funding for subsequent years. This obviously detracts from their effectiveness – though they have been remarkably effective in-spite of this, in my opinion.

Our recent plea to states has been to request for a 3-year period significant use of Pittman-Robertson (P-R) funds to support NBCI staff. The intention is to allow the NBCI staff time and resources to thrive and reach their potential value and productivity, without having to spend inordinate time annually looking for money.

Simultaneously, the Bobwhite Foundation, an entity designed to eventually provide private funding through an endowment to support NBCI Staff and operations long term, would have those years to organize and develop a funding base to offset the need for annual grant writing. The amounts per state if all 25 participated would range from $20,000 to maybe as much as $75,000 annually, based on a state’s proportion of received P-R dollars. These amounts are significant to you and me, and should not be sneezed at, but as a portion of a given state agency’s annual budget, represent a very low percentage.

Well, first why do all this? Can’t each state manage its own quail recovery without NBCI?

At the risk of sounding ungrateful for all that state agencies do –and it is a ton – our record over the last 25-40 years with quail recovery is not great. This is not for a lack of trying. Many states have labored valiantly and had some successes along the way. But large scale success has been limited.

But when you compare us to “the duck folks” who have a National Wetlands Conservation Act, the federal Duck Stamp and a federal agency with significant portions of its resources dedicated to their recovery – (not to mention a very effective NGO in Ducks Unlimited) it’s not hard to see why they have had more success. There are other factors involved, but the bottom-line is – states need help.

I would argue that all NBCI is trying to do is to be that umbrella group that develops momentum at the national level for quail recovery. Much like Ducks Unlimited worked along side the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies, the quail NGOs (Quail Coalition, Quail Forever, Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, the National Wild Turkey Federation and more) work alongside NBCI, NBTC and state and federal agencies. NBCI is not trying to usurp anyone’s power or ability to do what they do. Rather they hope to become the force multiplier for quail recovery. The eventual goal is for NBCI to become a “giver to states” not a “requester of state funds.” But if this effort dies on the vine before that can happen – in my opinion one of the greatest opportunities for quail and early-succession wildlife in our lifetime will be lost.

Right now many states are supportive whole hog and they see the long term benefits of a strong NBCI. Our quail NGOs are also supportive and also careful to help NBCI see its role and stay within it. But some state agencies are not sold on the idea yet. And I understand where they are coming from – money is crucial to many of their programs and they do not yet believe their return on investment in NBCI will be high enough to justify the cost. It seems some states are saying “show us the results and we’ll show you the money,” and NBCI says “show us the money and we’ll show you the results.”

I personally believe in NBCI. A saying our agency senior staff uses quite often when field staff are too quick to criticize management decisions is “assume good intent” meaning “please do not be too quick to judge managers as having some subversive agenda – we have your best interests at heart.” I assume good intent from NBCI. Having known these people for years, some of them for over 20 years, I only see that they are struggling with how to do what is best for bobwhite quail range-wide…and without any authority at all.

Leadership is best defined as “the ability to get things done without any authority at all.” And that is why great leadership is one of the hardest things to achieve in life. NBCI is trying to provide great national leadership for bobwhite recovery and I for one hope states will embrace the P-R funding concept and give the NBCI a chance to show us what they can do. If the NBCI ultimately fails, I’d rather the states have first provided NBCI a real fighting chance to succeed than deny it a meaningful chance to try. 

I caveat all this by saying I have worked for a great state agency (VDGIF) for almost 18 years and recognize how many issues they all face, with quail recovery being just one of hundreds. For this reason, as much as any other, this is why I believe we need NBCI.



p align=”left”>- Marc Puckett – NBTC Chair – VDGIF Small Game Team Leader

Shell’s Covert: On Science, Pen-Raised Quail & Hope

I felt compelled to write this post about pen-raised quail, in part, because in Virginia and I suspect elsewhere, stories are becoming more common about landowners using pen-raised quail in an attempt to restore wild bobwhite populations.

I’ll start by saying that as I age, the more humble I become. I am not as arrogant a person now at nearly 51, and that is somewhat due to the fact that in my arrogant youth I ate a lot of humble pie.  I also know that landowners, farmers in particular, are very resourceful people used to solving their own problems. So when someone tells me they have used pen-raised quail to re-establish wild quail populations I do not immediately scoff at their claims.

I will start, though, by saying science has not documented long-term, viable quail population recovery based on pen-raised quail release. By that I mean, my definition of true success would be a situation where the original released pen-raised quail reproduced successfully, and their offspring reproduced successfully as did the next generation and so on –without the need for annual supplements of more pen-raised quail. That is now a “self-sustaining” population of wild bobwhites. I personally believe that most claims of “success” using pen-raised quail are much shorter term, meaning some released during fall make it until spring and are heard calling, or perhaps occasionally even reproduce.

This may be seen as “success” but to me more is required. My heart goes out to landowners who are desperate to see and hear bobwhites. No one has worked harder to bring back quail in Virginia than me and my colleagues. And like these well-intended people, we love quail. I think two things we all agree on – 1) we love bobwhite quail and want them to come back, and 2) regardless of methods used to restore quail, you have to have great habitat to start off with.

Let me take a minute to mention science. I fear we are living in an age when folks are starting to believe science is not necessary. I hear it often said, “common sense is what is lacking in America, not science.” Well, in my humble opinion, perhaps the best example of common sense is the recognition of how important science is.

For example, suppose someone says they have invented a vaccine for the common cold, but it has not been scientifically tested, they just know it works. Nothing is known about side effects, or effectiveness of the vaccine. Will you be first in line at your pharmacy to get that vaccine? Or how about this scenario – a brash engineer designs a new bridge-building technology, but doesn’t test it before building a bridge – will you be the first to drive across? Extreme examples maybe, but we owe the vast majority of advancements in our society to sound science (and hard work and faith – they are not mutually exclusive). Saying something is so, just because we “know” it is so, or believe it is so, is not enough.

What do we know about pen-raised quail?

First, there is a wide range of quality in pen-raised quail … how they are hatched, raised, bred, etc. If you are going to release pen-raised quail, you owe it to the environment to use the highest quality, healthiest quail you can obtain. In Virginia it is the law that to import quail from another state requires a certificate from the supplier that 20% of the quail in the flock being sold have been disease tested within at least 10 days of being shipped. Further, if you are planning to buy quail eggs to hatch and raise, or if you plan to breed and raise your own quail, you need a Propagator’s Permit from our Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (at this link: ). This permit helps us keep track of who is raising, selling and releasing quail in Virginia. This is particularly important when you consider the vast poultry industry in Virginia and the economic implications of potential quail diseases to poultry producers.

What else can we say? Are fall pre-season release methods using pen-raised quail being used to provide longer term survival and more realistic hunting for bobwhites? Yes, but not without annual, if not semi-annual, supplementation with further releases and also supplemental feeding.

Are pen-raised quail being used to maintain interest in quail among young and old? Yes they are, and as long as the right message is used – that these are not wild bobwhites – that use is a good one.

Are pen-raised quail being used effectively to train bird dogs? Yes, so much so that I heard one trainer say she did not like wild bobwhites because they would not hold for the dogs. Seriously , it would be hard to train bird dogs today without pen-raised quail.

Are pen-raised quail being used to maintain a tradition of bird dog field trials? Yes. No argument there. Our country has a long and proud tradition of bird hunting and field trialing heritage and it is worth maintaining.

Even though I have been working with wild bobwhites for over 20 years, which included studying them for my Masters degree in Wildlife Ecology and trapping and radio-tracking over 600 wild bobwhites on various quail research projects, and even though I have talked to hundreds if not thousands of landowners over the years, and have raised and trained my own bird dogs and have talked to dozens of game bird breeders – I certainly do not know everything there is to know about quail, wild or otherwise.

I also believe if done properly, releasing pen-raised quail does not harm wild bobwhites and in some ways continues to offer us hope. But I do worry that if we start to accept pen-raised quail as being wild – after all their calls sound just like wild quail and they look just like wild quail – that maybe we will begin to devalue wild bobwhites. I mean if you can buy them for $3 or $4 dollars apiece, or better yet raise your own for less, and release some every year – maybe we will start to feel like we don’t need real wild quail anymore? Maybe we will develop an almost “pet mentality” when it comes to quail. I hope not. I hope we will always value and try to restore truly wild populations of bobwhite quail – one of the most gallant, gamey and tough little birds ever to inhabit Virginia.

Shell’s Covert: ‘Don’t Wait on the Government!’

… Remember, Only YOU Can Create Quail Habitat!

Today’s existing situation with the federal government brings a story to mind.

A couple of years ago we were conducting a requested quail management workshop in eastern Virginia (county not named to protect the guilty). We had a good crowd of about 80Young native grasses and wildflowers or 90 and when it came my turn to speak I said, “Don’t sit around and wait for the government to come do it for you, only you can create quail habitat. (That was my “play” on Smokey the Bear’s “only YOU can prevent wildfires.”)

A middle-aged lady in the back of the room responded by jumping up and shouting “YEAH!!! Don’t wait for the d**n government to do it! Get up and get it done yourself!!!”

After which followed a lot shouts of “Amen!” and  “You tell ‘em sister,” along with applause.  

As a government employee  working in this field of conservation, I’d first like to say no one works harder, or is more dedicated, than the thousands of government employees who perhaps forgo higher paying jobs in the private sector to lead a life of community service. The government employees I work with don’t refer to their work as “jobs,” but rather as “careers,” or vocations to which they are called by heartfelt passion. 

That said, in our role as wildlife biologists there are too few of us, too widely scattered to come to your farm and do the work ourselves. Our role is that of the enabler, the facilitator and the educator. We provide the landowner the know-how, the tools, the means and sometimes the funds to get habitat work done on their land. Ultimately, whether or not quail and their habitat associates make a meaningful return to the landscape is up to the landowners whose properties — big, medium and small — make up the bulk of our country.

“Remember, only YOU can create quail habitat!”  And on that note, what follows is a description of my own small contribution.

I conducted my own little habitat project this spring and summer. Last year, we had our pine timber thinned. The resulting logging deck provided an opening of about ¾ of an acre, maybe an acre, upon which to try something.

The loggers did a good job of cleaning the deck off and helping me prevent erosion, but the resulting surface would have made for a nice clay court tennis match. As soon as the loggers cleared out last summer, I broadcast-planted a cover crop of brown-top millet and buckwheat to help prevent erosion, to provide a little food and cover for wildlife and to start rebuilding the soil.

Small area I planted in native grasses. Road was planted in fescue, which failed.It did better than I expected. The impressions left by the dozer tracks seemed to hold seed and moisture and by fall I had a nice stand that was attracting doves. By spring, however, the plantings had thinned down and little cover remained. I decided to try a native warm season grass and forb planting in an attempt to create my own small wildlife meadow.

Now, I have no equipment other than hand tools, and can’t afford a tractor or disc, so what could I do with what I had? As my Dad has always said – “do the best you can with what you got.” For me that meant planting with a standard walk-behind broadcast lawn seeder. I obtained a 25lb mix of “floor sweepings” from a reputable native grass company with a guarantee that there were no invasives or other unwanted seeds in it.

I could identify many of the seeds, but not all. I saw indiangrass, switchgrass, big and little bluestem seed, along with some partridge pea and then a few wildflower seeds I didn’t recognize. Since I expected poor germination, I planted the entire 25 lbs on March 7, just before a forecast rain. And since I had no way of working the seed into the soil, I also covered the entire area with wheat straw – about 30 to 40 bales total — spread at a moderate coverage level to help hold the seed in place and hold moisture for germination. And then I waited.

Initially it appeared the stand would be a failure – well, at least a failure of what I planted, because there was plenty of ragweed and other plants resulting from the soil’s native seed bank. And since this was a wildlife planting, I was happy to see those native weeds that quail need to thrive. This is an important note to all of you who are considering a planting of native grasses and wild flowers for wildlife – you do not want a pure stand of grasses. You need the mixture of annual forbs and legumes along with the grasses to be truly successful for quail.

Well, as the summer progressed I began to notice that germination had actually been pretty good and I started to see a good bit of partridge pea, some black-eyed Susans, a handful of cosmos, lots of native tick seed sunflowers…and a bunch (pardon the pun) of native grasses popping up through the ragweed. The area ended up being almost perfect from a quail’s point-of-view. There is a fantastic mixture of native grasses, legumes and forbs, and there is 40 – 60% bare ground underneath it all. As you know – quail need this bare ground to increase their mobility and their ability to find seeds and insects. Throw in some nearby thickets for escape cover and all my patch lacks is size.

It is already loaded with pollinating insects and many songbirds, and I’m hopeful  a quail covey might someday find and use it at least part of the year. This area will serve as a seed One year's growth of native grassessource as I expand my habitat by conducting understory burning in the surrounding pines (hopefully – pending funds).

So can small landowners help? Absolutely! And don’t forget the sheer enjoyment of a project like this. There is nothing like some physical labor that you can see the results of to cure those “office desk jockey blues.”


–October 3, 2013

Shell’s Covert: Guest Blog

We Need More Grimsteads and Farinholts

To Help Us Redefine Bobwhite Success

By David Bryan

Private Lands Wildlife Biologist,



In the field of wildlife biology, conservation success is often measured quantitatively. As quail biologists, we may be interested in the amount of acres that have been successfully converted to native meadows or perhaps how many acres of contiguous longleaf pine forest have been burned by prescription. More importantly, we survey to see how these newly created or managed habitats lead to responses in the populations of Northern Bobwhite quail and other early successional wildlife species such as rabbits and songbirds.

Nancy Grimstead in Classroom SettingWhile any good biologist will tell you that true restoration success depends upon habitat creation and management at a landscape scale, this simply is not possible in all areas of every state in the Northern Bobwhite range. We should certainly focus on the areas where habitat work has the potential for the greatest success, but what about the other areas of our states? Essentially we have two options for these cases — give up altogether, or find other ways to influence the future for quail. And since quail folk aren’t quitters, we keep trying and trying.

While our ultimate goal will always be the rebound of quail populations via habitat restoration, on rare occasions we encounter situations where we find success via other avenues. Case in point are the efforts of landowners in Gloucester and Mathews Counties, Virginia, where several citizens are leading the charge for quail … and in so doing are redefining success.

Nancy Grimstead is a retired school teacher who owns a small family property in Mathews County. After a career of service through education she came into contact with the Virginia Quail Team in 2011, signing up for the Quail Management Assistance Program run by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Having been in Mathews for years, she remembers the days when quail were plenteous. When asked for her opinion about quail declines in the area, she likes to target riding lawnmowers. She realizes that humans just have to have everything clean, and on an agricultural or residential scale, this is bad for the quail. When we made the initial visit to her residence, we did not have any idea what door was being opened for us. With a small property, she would only be able to do a relatively small amount of quail-benefitting habitat work (which she has done). But unlike most folks she decided to try to help the quail in other ways.

As it turns out, Grimstead grows and sells native wildflowers at a local farmer’s market under the heading of “Weeds & Company.”  She says that 12 years ago when she started her little business, there was no demand, but through time the public has become more receptive to the native species that she sells. As a native plant specialist, the fit with quail made perfect sense so Grimstead began distributing brochures and spreading the word about quail conservation.

More recently, she developed a three-fold display reviewing everything from quail habitat needs to debunking the notion that pen-raised birds are the answer to our problems. She hasNancy Grimstead with Partridge Peas also helped spread the word by giving a quail presentation to local 7th graders, teaching a wildflower-oriented class at a local summer camp, and re-adapting her business’ outreach materials – stickers, bumper stickers, and bookmarks – to say “Think Habitat: Weeds and Company” with a quail logo.

Though all of her efforts have not been without criticism – for example, one gentleman who has given her a hard time blames Wild Turkey for the decline in quail – Grimstead has brought Bobwhite to the public eye, touched the hearts of many, and truly redefined success.

Though it is hard to say if quail numbers will ever turn around in Mathews, success has been achieved on other fronts and, hopefully, it has only just begun. We applaud her for her efforts and what she has inspired.

Amazingly, in neighboring Gloucester County, once again the Quail Program has found a landowner to take up the cause. In the summer of 2012, we made a site visit along with NRCS District Conservationist Michael Combs to the 488-acre historic Elmington property managed by Blair Farinholt.

Growing up in Gloucester, Farinholt remembers the days when birds were everywhere. Though he has been in the real estate business for over 50 years, his passion without a doubt has been the Northern Bobwhite quail. It makes sense that he was hired over 25 years ago to manage the Elmington property and during this period he has balanced agricultural objectives with a matrix of habitats from native warm season grasses to a variety of shrub hedgerows. He is proud to have multiple coveys on the land, but not satisfied with letting the Elmington property boundaries define his influence, Farinholt looked for more.

When Michael Combs went out with us that hot summer day in 2012, little did the two of us know that our site visit was a “set up” of sorts, for Farinholt had a grand plan to hold a Blair Farinholt in a Partridge Pea Patchquail workshop in Gloucester.  And so it unfolded, with Farinholt working with nearby Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, a well-known local daffodil grower, to plan, organize and advertise a quail workshop largely without outside help.

Though the Virginia Quail Team helped with getting a team of three expert speakers together and some advertising, Farinholt truly took the lead. The result? It was a well-run workshop with over 100 participants from counties near and far, as well as local media representation.

But Farinholt was not willing to quit there. He has targeted local landowners and farmers to set aside field border strips for quail in the fall. And, after getting advice regarding good quail habitat species, Farinholt bought Switchgrass, Coastal Panicgrass, Partridge Pea, Lanceleaf Coreopsis and Black-eyed Susan in bulk and, in partnership with Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, has packaged and distributed packets of the mix to all who want it. Free-of-charge! At last count over 100 packets had been picked up with a second load ordered. The Quail Team’s quail cooperator signs are now popping up here and there throughout the county as more landowners get involved.

We could go on about Farinholt’s efforts. The media blitz regarding quail … the outreach efforts to a local Garden Club and Rotary Club … the Virginia Nursery & Landscaping Association’s Field Day and Summer Tour. The list will only grow, we are sure, as long as Farinholt is around.

All-in-all, Grimstead and Farinholt are some of Virginia’s best examples of landowners who have truly answered the call of the Bobwhite. Though Virginia’s Quail Team, headed by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Virginia Tech Conservation Management Institute, is doing what it can for Northern Bobwhites in Virginia, government alone cannot restore quail to their native range. We need more landowners who spearhead local success. Whether they are in areas of low, medium or high habitat restoration potential, we need more Grimsteads and Farinholts.  Period. Their efforts are contagious. Once one landowner gets excited about quail restoration, others follow.

For example, we’d be remiss if we did not mention Beverly Holmberg who has, in turn, picked up the torch from Nancy Grimstead in spreading the word about the Quail Program in Mathews. Accordingly, we have been able to hold multiple quail-oriented events in the county, including a lecture and field tour.

Yes, while biological response will always be our greatest goal, hopefully we’ll all agree that landowners like these are truly redefining success.

Shell’s Covert: Reflections on Roanoke

NBTC Steering Committee MeetingI am behind in my blogosphere. We’ve been very busy this summer preparing to host and then hosting the 19th annual meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee. Soon after the meeting I was e-mailed a series of questions about it from well known outdoor writer and blogger Bill Cochran (Roanoke Times and World News – Roanoke VA). The biggest factor to note about the meeting is it was a huge team effort. Our crew came together and got it done. My answers to Bill’s questions I thought would serve as a good post this month. We will have a guest blogger in September – one of our Private Lands Wildlife Biologist, David Brian, will share a success story with you.

“Bill thanks for inquiring about the 19th Annual National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting that VDGIF along with our many partners and sponsors hosted at Hotel Roanoke this past week. The meeting was a big success. The NBTC represents 25 states that have signed on in support of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI). The NBCI is a comprehensive undertaking that results from efforts ongoing since 1995. This was Virginia’s second chance to host. We hosted back in 1997 at the 3rd annual meeting and we will not likely host again for 15 to 20 years. This gives every state a chance to host and spreads the financial burden, as well. On that note, our sportsmen and women need to know that 95% of the meeting is funded by registration fees and sponsorships, so our sportsmen are not footing the bill.”

How many people did the conference attract, and how does this compare to past years?

We had about 125 this year, and 23 of the 25 NBCI states were represented. This compares well to the past several years, and is especially good when state and federal travel budgets are somewhat reduced. The meeting revolves around a series of working sub-committees and it is our one chance to all meet face-to-face each year to continue to move quail conservation forward. You can accomplish a lot by phone, e-mail and Skype, but without at least one person-to-person meeting, we’d have a hard time operating across so many states.

What would you say was the most defining thing that occurred?

To me it was that so many different entities were represented. We reached out to many with a message that we needed to unite for early –succession species conservation. Our theme was Appalachian Overlap: Where the Ranges of Quail, Grouse, Woodcock, Turkey and Golden-winged Warblers Overlap. The US Forest Service, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Quail Forever, the Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, The Ruffed Grouse Society, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Virginia Dept. of Forestry, the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture, and many others were either in attendance or actually helping with the meeting. We all feel we need to unite around a central message that young forests, weeds, thickets, native grasslands and other habitats we deem early-succession habitats are just as important to wildlife and ecosystems as are wetlands and mature forests. We are kind of saying “let’s not focus on our differences, let’s focus on what we can agree on.”

Did participants appear to have enthusiasm that the job of restoring quail can be accomplished?

I think participants would be the first to tell you, yes they feel quail restoration can occur. It is occurring on modest levels in several areas. But I also think they’d tell you to roll up your sleeves for a long fight. We have talked before that deer, bear, turkey, geese, ducks – none of those species came back in 20 years, it was more like 75 years from the beginning to the end of their recoveries and quail will be no different. Yes – we have been working already for a number of years, but I’d argue that only in the last 10 to 15 years have the quail recovery efforts reached the national capacity to start to promote meaningful recovery. This is a motivated “glass half full” type of a group, though. Those that show up believe, those that don’t – they fell out years ago. I do not believe there is any quit in this group.

On a side note… On a side note, I’d ask folks to stop and wonder what could be done for quail if we had the entities behind us that waterfowl have behind them. Over 6 billion dollars have been spent collectively on waterfowl conservation in the last 75 years. The duck world has the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the National Duck Stamp behind them, not to mention the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Wildlife Refuges System. This is largely due to the fact that ducks and geese migrate and quail and upland game birds do not – they fall under different jurisdictions. Hence for many years states have been left to function on their own, doing the best they can to face multiple challenges for many species. What NBTC / NBCI is trying to do is to provide a collaborative national umbrella for all states and non-governmental organizations to work together under. We are much more optimistic having an entity like NBCI.

Shell’s Covert: ’17 Years, Cicadas, Kids & Bobwhites

It’s summer, at least for the kids who are already out of school. Earlier this week I was transporting my daughter, niece and nephew to various summer day camps before work. TheyPhoto of the head of a 17-Year Locust range in age from 8 to 13 and it’s always interesting to spend 20 minutes on the road with them. Topics of conversation vary from American Girl dolls, to playing tight end on the football team. Since they all know I am a biologist, occasionally a subject even “old Daddy” knows something about comes up.

Here in central Virginia we have been in the midst of a “hatch” of Brood 2 of the 17-year cicadas. For the uninitiated, it’s quite a spectacle. All you need to do is type the number 17 into your Internet search engine now and it will immediately go to “17-year cicadas.” In a nutshell, they are not in the locust family, as they sometimes are mistakenly identified. They are in a different order – Homoptera, as opposed to the Orthoptera order for locusts (grasshopper-like).

There are 3 sub-species that hatch (emerge is a better term) on a 17-year cycle, and 4 sub-species that emerge on a 13-year cycle. But by the number, far more broods of 17-year cicadas are extant than are 13-year. Once the soil temperature in an area hits 63 degrees they begin to emerge from their underground burrows of 17 years. While they are mostly harmless, their size and sheer number can make them the dominant “wildlife” where they occur. To a small kid they can be terrifying. And their fire red eyes, and black and yellow striped torsos might even scare a few adults (especially when mowing the yard and rounding a corner to have one fly right into your face).

Of course their primary purpose is reproduction. They mate; lay some eggs in the tip of a tree branch, often an oak, then soon die. After a few weeks the rice sized larvae drop to the ground, burrow in and begin their long development up to a foot underground.

To a biologist they are another fascinating example of the vast diversity on our planet, not only of species, but in strategies for survival. The subject came up on our ride in to town. “Uncle Marc, why do these bugs only come out every 17 years? And how do they live in the ground for that long? What do they eat down there?” And on and on.

I can usually answer some, but not all, of their questions. When I get stumped I usually turn the table on them: “Hey, tell me how old you will be when these bugs come out again.” Of course this causes some silence, then a bit of laughter, because most kids have not thought of themselves 17 years older.

“I’ll be 30!” exclaimed Wyatt “Man, that’s old!” (No slack for his 50-year-old uncle).

“I’ll be…twenttttyyyyyyy fiiiiiivvve,!” my daughter said. This, of course, led to more giggling and speculation on many things. “Yep” I said, “Last time these things came out, I had not even met your mother and none of you were even born. And Paw Paw was only 64 years old.” The truck fell silent a while and I suspect even kids as young as these stopped to think about time … for a brief few seconds.

I pondered on it all day. I asked myself “I wonder where we’ll be with quail the next time these things emerge?” Do we have the stomach for the long haul? Or will we throw in the towel? I also had a more somber thought, “I think I’ll make at least one more cycle…hopefully two, but there are no guarantees on anything.”

To see these neat critters two more times I’d have to make it to 84. It made me wonder, too, “what if quail had a similar strategy? They’d burrow in the ground as chicks and emerge say 40 or 50 years after going under?” Would they even recognize the place? For all those people who tell me “Heck, we had quail and ain’t nothing changed around here, so where they’d go?” Well, try thinking about it like a quail that’d been underground for 50 years.

It also made me think of how short a time period 17 years really is. How much can happen over even that short span – good and bad, though. It really made feel like time is short and rather than throwing in the towel we better step it up even more – not just for quail, but in every aspect of our lives.

“Carpe diem (whispered), caaaarrrrrpeee diem lads…seize the day! Seize the day! We’ll all be food for worms someday soon, boys!” That’s Robin Williams’ character’s classic line in one of my favorite movies “Dead Poets Society.” This line has always hung like an apparition in the back of my mind.

How many cicada life cycles do have you left in your time here? And what will you do with them? And it also made me think of my dog Shell for whom this BLOG is named – she was 17 years and 3 days old when she died 2 years ago last Sunday. You can live a lot of life in 17 years. – June 10, 2013

Shell’s Covert: Survival Box Grouse/The 5Bs Hunt Club Finishes Out Season

I guess you’d say the 5 Bs Hunt Club would be an example of an eclectic group. Members included the three core men, and several other fathers (along with their sons) that migrated in and out depending on what they enjoyed hunting.

Occupations included: insurance adjuster, teacher and wrestling coach, power company line foreman, auto mechanic, school principal, college professor, and more. The “executive committee” consisted of: my dad, known as the “Virginia Quail,” at that time principal of Giles County High School and “veteran” of a “jerked-up-by-the-bootstraps” McDowell County, West Virginia, upbringing, World War II;  10th Mountain Division veteran Robert ‘Dirty” McGlothlin, aka the “Virginia Skunk”; and Coach Aubrey Correll (played center at the University of Georgia in front of Fran Tarkenton until injured), aka the “Carolina Bear.”

The term “club” really was a misnomer because there were no by-laws (other than no one under 18 could be told what the 5 Bs stood for), no membership fees, and no real meetings…other than we hunted or fished for something nearly every weekend of the year. I hunted so much I gave up on organized sports because I missed hunting too much. (That and I was not very good at most of them).

The hunting “season” began with dove in early September, migrated to squirrel mid-month during what was then the “early squirrel season” (picture those fat grays and fox squirrels raining down shagbark hickory cuttings on foggy late summer mornings – a kid’s heaven), archery deer season followed in October, and in those days snow was not unusual by bow season’s end. In early November, all small game and fall turkey came in. There was no muzzle-loader deer season then, so we hunted small game until the “big event” – the 2-week gun deer season opened. Short, sweet and intense, the gun deer season was followed by 2 months of weekend rabbit hunting. Most of the dads had beagles and, depending on who showed up each week, we might have from 2 to 6 or 8 dogs out.

These rabbit hunts were occasionally pierced by the stumbled -into, terrifying flush of a quail covey…and for an hour maybe, we’d switch to trying to ferret out singles. None of us could hit one at that time, but every now and then we scratched one down and it became the prize of the day. After all this, you’d think that by late January, when the rabbit and squirrel seasons closed, we’d of been tired of hunting and ready for a break. That wasn’t the case.

What followed were two weekends of grouse adventures. Virginia’s grouse season has traditionally stayed open until mid-February. By “hunting” grouse (we really just walked up rhododendron choked hollows in a skirmish line hoping we’d flush one and it would fly past somebody) we cut the time between season’s end until the opening of spring turkey season in early April by 2 long weeks. This made it a mere 8 weeks without hunting of some kind.

You need to understand that our grouse hunts were built around the “survival box” and the chance to use it. Back in those days 4-wheel-drive vehicles were at their zenith. Big, burly vehicles that guzzled cheap fossil fuel like an athlete guzzles Gator Aid…our crew had huge Chevy Blazers or Ford Broncos, some had International Scouts and one had a Jeep Commando. And in the back of each was the “survival box.”

My Dad excelled at carpentry and loved building things that could be made out of 2 x 4s and plywood. I don’t know where the idea stemmed from, but these men were all hearty guys who enjoyed being out in the backcountry … as long as the 4WDs would get them there. Somewhere Dad saw an article on backcountry survival, probably in Sports Afield or Field and Stream, or maybe Outdoor Life – we subscribed to them all.

I joke now that I think you could have dropped one of his boxes off Niagara Falls and it would have survived. The full width of a Blazer’s interior, and about 2 and ½ feet deep and 1 and ½ feet tall, it took two big men giving it all they had to lift a loaded one in or out of the vehicles. Inside these boxes (as every vehicle had one made by my Dad, of course) was an utterly amazing array of “stuff.”

For starters, each carried a small chainsaw complete with mini-fuel can, bar oil and rat-tailed file. On the opposite side of the box, as far from the fuel s fumes as possible, was a compartment that housed cooking ware. The “kitchenette” consisted of two long, deep, cast iron “skillets” wrapped in greased grocery bags to keep them “wet”, and various spatulas, spoons, ladles, knives, forks and more. Another smaller compartment was full of “snack fare” – pork and beans, Vienna sausage, Slim Jims, Nabs, the kind of health food we ate in those days before folks started worrying about cholesterol (I don’t recall ever hearing the term “artery” until I was in first aid training in boot camp). In the center compartment rested the two things that made our grouse hunts complete – a 2-burner Coleman Stove and Coleman fuel can.

Everyone saved at least one deer tenderloin from November’s harvest, and those loins were packed in coolers for the grouse hunts. Our hunts consisted of a long drive to a backcountry spot where some clear-cuts existed and where every “hollow” ran flush with a creek choked by laurel and rhododendron. Teaberry was a common ground cover.

We started at the hollow mouths forming a line of hunters 4 to 8 abreast with one on each side of the creek close to it and the others progressing up each side of the hollow. We’d hunt out the hollows upward until reaching the ridge lines; then we’d cross over a ridge, re-form our line and work down one hollow over. This usually took until lunch, when we convened at the survival boxes and made a lunch of snack food. The process was repeated after lunch in a new hollow.

Hunting grouse without dogs, your nerves are always on edge because there is no warning before that eruption some call a “grouse flush” happens … and for this reason we rarely got a grouse. We flushed plenty, and those hills rang out frequently with “Grouse Dirty…coming your way!!”, or “Heads up Biiiiiillllllllll!!” Quite a bit of shooting was not unusual, but very little killing occurred. Now you know why we carried deer loin.

The whole event was just a way to get outside, enjoy some fellowshipping, and work up an appetite for the real reason we were there – Coleman stove, tailgate cooked, cast-iron greased pan fried deer loin and onions.  Around 3, maybe 3:30, the hunt ended and the cooking began. My Dad usually did the frying and everyone else did the storytelling. He carried a bag that contained flour, salt, pepper, and a bit of cornmeal. He’d dip those loin slices in milk, drop them in the bag of seasoning, shake them around and then toss each into the hot skillet grease that erupted with a gurgling spatter and a rise of steam.

It was usually cold so sometimes we built a small fire to huddle around. The vehicles would be parked in a circled wagon fashion, all tailgates down, and us sitting there with our wet boots dangling and eating deer loin until it was gone and we were stuffed, fat and happy. I don’t want to dishonor other more noble forms of grouse hunting, but as a 15-year-old boy I would not have traded these “survival box grouse hunts” for a vintage Parker side-by-side.