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.

Young native grasses and wildflowersA 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 80 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.

One year's growth of native grassesIt 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 source 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.

Shell’s Covert: ‘Working Joe’ Quail Hunters

“Hell, I wouldn’t get up and walk across this farm road to shoot a deer” said dairyman Jack Farmer, Pulaski Co. Virginia, sometime about 1978. I reckon I was about…well, heck, I was 16 and I lived to hunt, fish and trap everything legal. But my big thing was deer. A small group of fathers and sons, our “hunt club” chased rabbits and squirrels when deer season was out, but deer was our “big deal” each year. That is for all of us except a few. I found out one day what they really lived for.

Now don’t start writing me hate mail. The white-tailed deer is a magnificent animal and perhaps America’s favorite. But not everyone lives to hunt deer. Bud Smith was another member of the “5 Bs” hunt club who cared nothing about shooting a deer. During the deer season he stayed at the old cabin, stoking the fire and “partaking” of his “snake bite medicine” from time to time. He was as tough as a 2 dollar steak – a paratrooper in the Korean War and a line foreman for Pike Electric back in the days when they ran power lines through the roughest of the Appalachians. He wore a waxed handle bar mustache on his face and a greasy “Caterpillar” hat on his head. He could knock an ant off a log with a spat of Redman tobacco juice from 15 feet.

Jack Farmer was, indeed, a farmer, and the one who owned the land where our club hunted. He would visit us from time to time and we always showed our appreciation with a hefty, hot, “meat on your bones” kind of meal any evening he’d happen to drop by. Good Lord, I can still smell those old cast iron long pans heating up on the Coleman!

One evening the subject of quail came up. Now you’d think these two tough old weathered workmen would laugh at a quail, but when several of us mentioned we’d been flushing a couple coveys while walking to this spot or that, their eyes lit up and reflected a lot more of the fire we sat around.

“You say ‘quail,’ boy?” Jack asked. “Yes sir, must a been 15 or 20 of ‘em in a covey up by the pine thicket in the brushy field to the left of the old house,” I replied. “Yep, and I flushed another bunch back behind the barn along that old fence line yesterday” David added, “Come to think of it, there may be two coveys in there because I found another bunch up in the chinky pin patch Monday.”

Bud looked at Jack, and Jack back at Bud…”How’s about 1 o’clock?” “It’s a plan,” Bud replied. Nothing more was said. Shortly after lunchtime the next day Jack showed up in his hunting coat and brier pants. Bud went into the back room of the cabin and soon came back in his Carharts carrying his beloved Browning “Sweet Sixteen.” I always wondered why he brought that shotgun. I soon came to know it was built for birds.

Jack looked at all of us and said, “Now y’all hunt all you want this afternoon, but you stay away from those quail coveys on your way in and out.” Jack and Bud set out, no dog, just the two of them, both looking years younger. All afternoon from about anywhere any of us hunted back in the woods, we could hear the occasional “pop, pop” of those shotguns.

As we returned one- by-one after dark that evening, each of us was greeted by the sound of laughter filtering out with the lantern light through the cracked cabin windows. Bud and Jack had been back since about 4:30. Their quail, about 6 or 8 of them, were lined up on the front porch rail for all to see. And inside they sat glowing and telling bird hunting stories and laughing like teenagers who’d gotten away with something. I was only 16, but even I knew something special happened that day. And I knew there was something special about those little birds.

Bird hunting was already on the beginning of the down slope in ’78. And it was the age I call “the rise of deer.” Today, I often hear people say of bird hunting it is “a sport of the rich, only doctors and lawyers and wealthy entrepreneurs hunt birds anymore.” One recent new bird hunting magazine described itself as “an elegant lifestyle magazine.” Well that may be true, and I have nothing against money or people who have worked hard to earn it no matter how much they have. But I do want to convey that there used to be a lot of “Working Joe” bird hunters. And there still are quite a few. And if you have never hunted wild upland game birds like grouse, or quail or woodcock on their turf, let me tell you there is nothing dainty about it.

One look at Jack or Bud and you would have known better than to ever say that, too.


Marc Puckett, Virginia’s Top Quail Crusader (Roanoke Times)

<p><a href=””>Virginia state quail coordinator and National Bobwhite Technical Committee Chairman Marc Puckett and his work to restore wild quail populations is the subject of a recent article in the Roanoke Times.</a></p>

Shell’s Covert: Landowner Guide to Estimating Bobwhite Quail Populations

I undertake this topic with some trepidation. We discussed quail population management two blog posts ago and I hope I gave everyone a basic understanding of the dynamics involved within different levels of quail populations.

Of course, it’s hard to know how to manage a quail population without some knowledge of just how many coveys you have, or to carry it even further – what your quail density in birds per acre is. This discussion can quickly devolve into one that’s like trying to talk about tree density versus trees per acre versus basal area with a forester – none of it means anything to a landowner unless they can visualize what is being said. I struggle with how to best convey a practical method of quail population estimation suitable for the average landowner.

Several levels of population estimation need to be addressed:Male bobwhite quail

1) you simply want to know if you have quail at all

2) you don’t plan to hunt your quail, but you would like to know if the habitat work you are doing is leading to a trend of increasing quail numbers and quail use of your land

3) you own a relatively small property (250 acres or less) and you would like to hunt it occasionally

4) you own a larger property and want to have an idea how many coveys you have and how many quail you should harvest annually

5) you manage a large quail plantation and it is critical to have a pre-hunt fall density estimate for your population.

We could come up with many more variations of these scenarios, but these will address most of your needs.

Case 1 – You simply want to know if you have quail:

For the complete bobwhite quail novice, you first have to become familiar with their songs and calls. Go to the Cornell University Ornithology Lab’s website at the link here . Familiarize yourself with each of their calls. They’ll come in handy regardless of how intensely you want to get into population estimation. In case 1, you can determine if you have quail by listening for singing male bobwhites during June. They call well between sunrise and about 9:00 a.m. typically. Listening on days with nice, clear, still mornings is best.

Case 2 – Is your quail population trending in the right direction?

First,  face some cold hard facts. If you own a small piece of land, perhaps less than 50 acres, maybe even 100 acres, there are only so many quail coveys you can pack into that area. It can vary based on what type of landscape your property exists in, but by-and-large once you reach a covey per 25 to 50 acres, you’ve done about as good as you are going to do. So if you started off with no quail, and you now have 2 coveys on 50 acres, you’ve done well. Your goal now is to manage and maintain the coveys you’ve developed.

The “June Call Count” is one way state wildlife agencies keep track of quail population trends over large areas (such as entire states).  A “trend” gives no true estimate of quail density (coveys per unit of area, or quail per acre, etc.). A trend is an indicator of whether a population is increasing, decreasing or stable. For example, you purchase 1,000 acres of land and want to manage it for quail and other early-succession species. You’d like to track the population trend through time. This is relatively easy to do by setting up a June whistling male bobwhite call count. Get a good aerial photo of your property and set up listening points periodically in easily accessible areas. Try to keep the points at least 600 yards apart to avoid double counting (generally during summer a bobwhite song can be heard up to 250 – 300 yards).

Begin your count at sunrise on a good, still, clear morning. Listen for 5 minutes at each stop. Record the number of different males heard making the “bob, bob, white” call at each stop. It is best to run the route several times each year and get an average of the number of bobwhite males heard at each stop. The first year serves as your baseline. It will take several years to establish a trend. Through time you will be able to tell if your population is increasing, decreasing or stable. Do not let one “bad” year throw you. Anomalies occur in nature. Plot your numbers through time and focus on the overall trend.

Baby BobwhiteCase 3 – The owner of a small property who would like to hunt it occasionally:

Some consider “small” properties for quail those being less than 2,000 acres. That is not practical for many. I use 250 acres as my criteria. On properties of this size, and maybe even up to 500 acres, I believe landowner “familiarity” is a relatively reliable way to track the number of quail coveys each year. By this I assume you are a landowner who spends a great deal of time on your land. You manage it, you know the cover, you develop a feel for what quail need and where they are and during any given year you have a good feel for productivity.

Was it a good hatching year? Did you receive good rainfall during June, July and August? Or did you suffer extreme drought? Did you experience any heavy flooding events during peak times when young broods would abound (late June, July and into August)?

By early fall, you probably have an idea about how many coveys are on your property and perhaps even have a feel for the size of those coveys. The one thing you have to use care to avoid is double counting coveys. Coveys do move around, so when you see coveys on different days in different locations that are relatively close to one another, you can’t be sure they are not the same covey. In your case, though, as long as you do not want to hunt frequently  you can safely take some quail off your land during all but the worst years.

Estimate the number of coveys and use an average size for each, generally 12 to 15 birds, calculate the total and use 20% as a general guide on the number that can be safely harvested during all but the worst years. And by “worst years” I mean those summers during which you believe reproduction was slim to none.

Recent research suggests that harvest of adult bobwhites during seasons following years of poor productivity could slow population recovery (Miller et al. 2012). If you want to get any more precise than this, you might consider using the fall covey count method I will describe for Cases 4 and 5.

Cases 4 and 5 – Larger properties that will be hunted moderately or frequently:  

I lumped these two categories because they involve either large properties where intense familiarity with the entire property is unlikely, or larger properties which will be hunted moderately to frequently.

For my purposes I consider 1,000 – 3,000 acre properties as “large” relative to most others in the mid-South. But the fall covey count method I refer to can be applied to larger properties up to 15,000 or 20,000 acres if resources and time are available.

The fall covey count method was tested and perfected by researchers at Tall Timbers Research Station in Florida (Wellendorf et al. 2004). I will not try to describe it in detail here. But it basically involves assessing your property, developing a series of listening stations designed to cover as much of the property as possible without too much overlap, and then using them to listen for morning covey calls in early fall (mid to late October usually).

As with many surveys, it is best to run the survey at least 2 times and preferably more if resources allow it. In my opinion, the fall covey call count is the most reliable way to accurately assess fall pre-hunt quail populations on larger land holdings. If properly applied, it can allow a property owner to practice “adaptive harvest management,” meaning that harvest rates can be modified annually based on pre-hunt fall population levels. It is applied extensively on some of the premier quail plantations in the Deep South, and has been used to assess the effects of large scale government habitat cost-share programs across multiple states. The method is described in great detail on the Tall Timbers website at .

I’ll wrap up by saying the more you know about the quail population on your land, the better you’ll be able to manage habitat and harvest. I hope this has at least provided you a place to start.


Miller, R.S., W.E. Palmer and S.D. Wellendorf. 2012. Age-specific nesting performance by northern bobwhites. Proceedings of the National Quail Symposium 7:229-233.

Wellendorf, S.D., W.E. Palmer, and P.T. Bromley. 2004. Estimating calling rates of northern bobwhite coveys and measuring abundance. Journal of Wildlife Management 69:672-682.

Shell’s Covert: Bobwhite’s Ode to Landowners

Thickets, weeds and brush
Please do not rid your farm of us.
And in the fall when your bush hog is itching for a ride,
Within your barn let it continue to reside.

Else it will be to no avail
The Bobwhite will cry and wail:
“Where else am I to hide
When by the predator’s beady eyes I’ve been spied?”

“And, alas, where will I loaf about
When July’s blazing sun comes out?”
“Without these wonderful and diverse plants
My fragile bones will soon be picked clean by ants.” 

Happy New Year to all of you! 

Please excuse me the brief foray into poetry. I heard Dale Rollins, communicator extraordinaire, recite a similar verse about Broom Weed in Texas this summer at the annual National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting. Sometimes a few simple words can have an impact. 

I start off the New Year again emphasizing that the importance of thickets to the long term survival of quail (and dozens of other organisms) cannot be overstated. Lack of thickets is consistently what I find glaringly absent on most farms where “quail management” has occurred. I also find that many landowners believe they have done a ton of work and should have more quail, but what I often see is that they simply do not have enough habitat to support many coveys. 

And while on the subject of thickets, hunters participating in Virginia’s annual avid quail hunter survey last year reported that 58% of their covey finds occurred in cut-overs (clear-cuts). Indeed, cut-overs often provide the only good thicket cover in many landscapes. 

But as with agriculture, forestry has become more intense to keep pace with an ever- growing demand for wood products. And as it has intensified, the value of the wildlife habitat that cut-overs provide has declined. I’m not pointing fingers at an industry – we all play a role as consumers, too. What has long been termed “clean farming” is now being seen more often in forestry.

Pine Savannah

Pine Savannah

 In the “old days,” new cut-overs were most often windrowed and burned. Both practices were fantastic for wildlife. Modern forestry rarely uses either technique anymore. Advancements in timber harvesting and processing techniques have allowed cleaner harvesting and more thorough processing of material on site, leaving little debris to windrow and burn. And advancements in herbicides have led to even cleaner cut-overs than ever. This is not in and of itself a bad thing. Soil is conserved, and water and air quality are improved. Better use of material means less waste. I don’t think we will go back to those old ways. What then can be done to improve the modern clear-cut for wildlife?

First – as the landowner you should know that you have options and “a say” in how your site is managed after harvest. I fear all too often the landowner gets a standard forestry prescription and doesn’t know they have wildlife options.

Now please understand … if maximizing your profits from the future timber is your primary concern, by all means listen to, and do, what your forester recommends. They are good people just trying to do a good job for you. But if you have wildlife interests, make sure they know that. Request that a wildlife biologist also be brought into the planning. 

If your goal is to re-plant with a pine species like loblolly, short-leaf or long-leaf pine (or others conducive to fire), consider getting the site harvested with future understory burning in mind. On our own small stand of pines at home, when conducting our second thinning, we let our consulting forester know we would like to do some burning in the future. He laid out our haul roads to double as future fire lines. In addition, he requested that the cutter harvest a strip all the way around the stand so that perimeter fire lines could be constructed easily.

If you’re going to clear cut and you plan to re-plant with pines, consider long-leaf as a good option if you’re in long-leaf range. Long-leaf can be managed with fire at a very early age. In fact, it benefits from it. It is also generally grown at a wider spacing than traditional reforestation pines like loblolly. That means it closes canopy later so provides a longer term for early-successional habitats (weeds and thickets).  Short-leaf pine also offers some advantages – consult a local forester and a wildlife biologist to indicate interest in non-standard forestry applications.

Brood rearing habitat

Regardless of type of pine to be planted, consider the following if at all possible:

1)     Have a site preparation burn conducted – it scarifies (activates) seed long dormant in the native seed bank.

2)     Do not replant pine up to road edges. Leave 25’ or more on each side of all major haul roads. These can be rotationally managed (disking, planting and or fire) to provide good bugging and winter feeding areas as the pines age and close canopy.

3)     Consider planting no more than 435 trees per acre – this is a10’ x 10’ spacing. At this spacing, some manipulation can occur between pine rows (light disking, and or legume planting) until the pines reach canopy closure.

4)     Wildlife clearings should also be made at this time. I know one landowner who cleared 100’ for every 300’ of planted pine throughout his cut-overs. These now serve as excellent summer brood rearing and winter feeding strips within a context of older, thinned and burned pines.

5)     When considering pine release herbicide application, opt for herbicide solutions that will leave more plant diversity (particularly those that are friendlier to blackberry and legumes).

6)     After release spraying has been done this summer, survey the site for residual herbaceous plant survival. If you do not find ample native plants and legumes returning, i.e., beggar weed, partridge pea, native lespedezas, poke weed, ragweed, blackberry and others, you might need to consider planting  these species along road edges on old logging decks and anywhere feasible.

7)     As ground cover between the pine rows begins to thicken and become mostly grass, consider some rotational strip disking between the pine rows. Disking need not be too heavy, only enough to break the soil and bigger clods. This will help maintain annuals like ragweed and many legumes, providing bugging areas during summer and seed gathering areas in winter.

I’ll leave this at the lucky 7. For comprehensive pine management information go to our web link .


p align=”left”>And remember, invite a wildlife biologist to your forestry planning meeting.

Shell’s Covert: Landowers’ Guide to Quail Population Management

I’m often asked, “Since quail are declining, and you are all working so hard to restore them, why do you still allow quail hunting?”

This question often comes from landowners who participate in our quail recovery efforts but do not hunt. However, even some hunters question us. Books have been written on the subject of wildlife population management. It can be made to sound real complex in a hurry, but that is not my goal. In this article I want to give you a basic understanding of quail populations, and how to view their management at different scales. To do this, I need to lay some groundwork.

Let’s think about populations. They occur at widely varying scales. In descending order we can refer to the quail population as the entire population of bobwhite quail throughout their native range, or a population within a given region – such as the Southeast, or within a given state (in our case Virginia), or within a physiographic region of a single state, or within a single county within that region, or within a few thousand acres within a county, or on one single property of say 500 acres … and then we could even state “the quail  population within a single quail covey’s home range (let’s use 50 acres – a good average range size for a covey in moderate habitat). So to say hunting does or does not affect a “quail population” depends greatly on how you define the population.

To answer the original question, I will use the quail population within Virginia – the entire state. At that level I can safely say hunting has no impact on the quail population. Why? Because there are so few remaining quail hunters in Virginia – about 8,000, that they cannot possibly harvest enough quail to affect a population that large (we estimate between 300,000 and 400,000 quail in Virginia – based on NBCI Biologist Ranking Information and habitat interpretation).

We also know that hunting is not the driving factor behind the quail decline. We know this because many other species that are not being hunted at all, birds like field sparrows, prairie warblers, grasshopper sparrows, Logger-head Shrikes, Henslow’s Sparrows and many, many more, are also declining rapidly. And while other factors may be contributing, habitat loss is the number one reason for the declines.

Further, we can say that when quail populations decline beyond a certain level, interest in hunting them declines even more than the species itself. It is the law of diminishing returns, below a certain threshold, hunter success is low to non-existent, thus in this way quail hunting can be loosely called “self-regulating.”

I will say that I believe, and some may dispute me, but I believe this logic is valid right down to the level of a group of properties comprising a few thousand acres within a portion of a single county. Or down to the level of one large property of a couple thousand acres. And I believe that once you are considering a quail population below that level, hunting can indeed have a negative effect on local quail populations over the short term, and even over the long term if combined with random events during the reproductive season like drought.

You might ask then, “Well, if that is true, that quail hunters cannot impact the quail population in Virginia, why have a season or a bag limit at all?” Public perception is one reason. It would be viewed negatively to be trying to restore a species with a perception of “unlimited” hunting. And the seasons and bag limits can protect quail at the local level.

For example, suppose a group of two quail hunters hunts a single property repeatedly. During mid-season they encounter two coveys of quail, each containing about 8 to 10 quail. Let’s say for some reason they shoot exceptionally well and they harvest 6 quail out of both coveys (I know some hunters who can do this – 3 each out of 2 coveys).

They have reduced these individual coveys down to such a low level that their survival chances are poor. The daily bag limit of 6 per hunter in Virginia in this case would limit the number of additional coveys that could be “shot down” in numbers that particular day. And at the local level – by ending the season before late winter – it’s possible to insure the survival of good numbers of quail entering the breeding season in early spring. A quail that is alive at the end of January has a much greater chance of surviving to reproduce than a quail alive at the beginning of November.

And studies have shown that the later in the season quail are hunted, meaning the closer to the breeding season they are removed from the population, the more negative the effects of hunting can be. And I believe this is particularly true at a local or small property scale and perhaps most true on small parcels of state game lands with no special quail management regulations in place (hunting is not more restrictive than general state guidelines).

For example, say you are managing a modestly sized wild quail plantation – 2000 acres. Your best bet will be to take a conservative approach to harvest with regards to what is allowed by state regulations. In your case, state regulations should be thought of as the most liberal side boards available. As a landowner, you are not allowed to set regulations on your property more liberal than those allowed by the state agency. But – you are allowed to set regulations as restrictive as you like – up to and including not allowing hunting. I am a proponent of hunting, and am not advocating the elimination of quail hunting. So let me explain where situations might merit more restrictive harvest.

Example 1 – You manage your own property of 250 acres. You are highly familiar with it and each year, simply by spending so much time on it, you know approximately how many quail coveys you have. You know during severe drought years that hatch can be negatively affected. And you know the years when conditions are perfect and you have a great hatch. You are in a position to limit harvest based on the number of quail you believe you have. You can change the harvest levels every year if you wish. During the worst years, you can allow no harvest at all. During the best years, you can allow more harvest.

“O.K. – well how much?” you ask.  Good question. Various percentages of harvest have been postulated over the years as being “safe” – meaning no adverse affect on the population’s ability to recover. I have seen a range of from 20% to 40% stated in different scientific papers. I prefer to go conservative with harvest, so we’ll use 20%. Suppose you have a good year with 6 coveys of quail on the property. Entering the hunting season you estimate an average of 14 quail per covey. That’s 84 quail of which 16 quail would be 20% – that is about 2 to 3 out of each covey. That level of harvest could provide 2 or 3 memorable hunts. But as you can see, repeated hunting of these 6 coveys over a long quail season would not be advisable. Back in the “good old days” when many farms had at least some quail cover, hunters might have 6, 8 or 10 such farms upon which they hunted. By rotating their hunting effort and paying close attention to the numbers of quail within the coveys, many of those hunters knew how to limit their own harvest. The last thing a good quail hunter wants to do is “shoot out” a covey.

Example 2 – You manage a 2,000-acre wild quail hunting plantation for a small group of quail hunters. The property is very well managed and the quail population is high relative to other properties in the area. During the best years, you may have a quail covey per 30 acres going into the fall hunting season. That is 66 coveys of quail. At 14 per covey entering the season, you’d have 924 quail, and 20% of that could provide a harvest of 184 quail. That is a pretty good bit of wild quail hunting.

Example 3 — Let’s say, though, during a very bad year, perhaps one following a severe winter, followed by a disastrous drought during June and July, and then by late summer hurricanes that flooded out late nests and your production was near zero. You may be down to a handful of small coveys – maybe 15. During years like this you should consider walking behind your bird dogs without a gun, or at most a very limited harvest early in the season. The good news in this case is that quail can bounce back rapidly if conditions the following year are good again.

If you really want to apply what biologists call “adaptive harvest management” – meaning harvest levels are tailored every year to annual conditions and population levels, you can learn how to more accurately estimate your quail population just prior to the fall hunting season. Next month’s Shell’s Covert will address this in more detail.

Busting the “busting myth:” “Say whaaaaatttt?” Well, every quail biologist has heard the following at least once in their career. “You know you got to shoot into those coveys every year to help break them up. If you don’t’ shoot a few birds, especially the cock birds, those coveys won’t break up and breed like they should.”

Never has a more untrue and ridiculous notion been postulated about quail management. Let’s think about this – whether you take a strict Biblical view, or whether you adhere to the Theory of Evolution, or fall somewhere in between, quail have been around for a long time – long before shotguns and bird dogs. Quail are programmed to disperse during spring and breed. They absolutely do not have to be “shot into” for this to happen.

“Tragedy of the commons” – the worst case scenario for quail: One great thing about America, a lot of public land is available for all of us to hunt, fish, hike, bird watch and camp on. We are truly blessed compared to many other nations. But with an ever increasing human population pressures on those lands is increasing. From the standpoint of quail harvest management, let’s think about Example 3 – public lands quail harvest. I will use a 2500-acre public wildlife management area, managed for multiple-use with fair quail cover over about half its acreage. There are no special quail regulations in place on this area.

At 8:30 Friday morning a group of 4 quail hunters and 5 dogs hunts the area, finds 3 coveys of quail and kills 8. They leave for lunch. At about 12:30 a second group shows up, unknowingly hunts the same area, finds some scattered singles and kills a few of them. About 3:30 that afternoon the scenario is repeated, then again Saturday morning and so on until hunters toward the end of the season complain about there being no quail on the WMA. It is easy to see that unregulated harvest on small public lands can be detrimental to local quail populations.

Quail hunting is a great tradition that should continue. And we can all do a better job of managing the quail resource. I will leave you with this – the better the habitat and the more of it you have, the faster quail can recover from population lows regardless of the cause.