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.

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.