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An Unnamed County-Wide Quail ‘Success’ in Virginia

The old adage “success breeds success,” is rooted in truth.

Success builds confidence and credibility, no doubt. Much debate has raged among the scientific and managerial quail community about just what it takes to be declared a quail success … and then what to do with it once it happens.

There is a great deal of pressure being generated to better document and publicize quail management successes. Well – not pressure like when you don’t have enough money to pay the light bills – but perceived “job” pressure. (If your stomach is not growling so bad you can’t sleep, or if perhaps bullets are not whizzing over your head, you really don’t know what pressure is.)

And while no one has defined the exact criteria yet, the best verbalization of what it means is large scale quail population recovery that you could “stand in front of a group of quail hunters with a straight face and report.” I buy that. Agreed.

In Virginia, as in many states, we can report numerous quail successes on a landowner, or individual property scale. And while I am not a betting man, I’d bet a month’s wages that if you come to us with 500 acres of land and you manage it the way we tell you to manage it anywhere east of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, you will develop a wild quail population.

Will it be huntable? Yes – but on a limited basis. No wild quail population on a limited, isolated acreage can sustain heavy hunting pressure. Nevertheless, you could go from no quail, to 8 to 10 coveys of quail in 3 to 5 years. Problem is this takes a bunch of work to make it happen on purpose.

Back before I was born (pre-1962), most quail habitat was not isolated and much of it occurred by accident. When the quail coveys broke up in spring and started scurrying about looking for mates and nesting areas, they were likely to wind up somewhere pretty good no matter which direction they went.

Not anymore.

I could show you a bunch of pictures, some taken in 1951, some in 2009, that would make this apparent to even the most hardheaded “… man, nothin’s changed on my farm in my lifetime” knucklehead in the country.

Sadly, comparing today’s landscape to that of the 1950s is even worse than comparing apples to oranges. More like apples to anvils – maybe. The modern bobwhite (picture a fashionably clad bobwhite tweeting on their G4 IPhone) needs even more contiguous acres and heavier cover than ever before to survive. This is why you hear or read about state agency, NGO and national efforts to restore quail referring to  ”focus areas,” “ priority counties,” “ target areas,” etc.

Landscape scale quail recovery does not happen one property at a time – it will take multiple properties and much concerted effort before it can occur.  And it needs something else – a little luck, or a little help from Above – depending on how you choose to view it.

In Virginia we have a county-wide “success story”.  In fact, our recent surveys show we have between a quail per 3 and 5 acres across this county’s landscape. Using an average 12 birds per covey (yeah, yeah – I know sometimes there are bigger coveys but through a year’s time, 12 is right) at a bird per 3 acres yields a covey per 36 acres – a very huntable density. And this county is being hunted for quail. Last year, one “old time bird hunter” found 141 coveys and killed 247 wild quail there. Our surveys show that populations are trending upward – though detection probabilities of small changes are low.

So why have we not written articles, gone on the Today Show and generally tooted out horns? The answers lie in why this county has quail and why we’d like to protect them.

This county, which will remain unnamed to protect the innocent and the guilty, exhibits every quality you would expect from one chosen as a high priority for quail recovery.

  • First – it is still rural with a row crop agriculture and pine forestry- based economy.
  • Second – the county has a long history of farmer and landowner participation in habitat cost-share programs like CP-33, CREP, and WHIP.  A large portion of Virginia’s allocated CP-33 acres are in this county.
  • Third, there are several large private landowners who manage for wildlife using prescribed fire. One is perhaps the largest contiguous acreage of purposefully applied prescribed fire in Virginia.
  • Fourth – there has been resurgence of interest in planting and managing long-leaf pine.
  • Fifth – a well known NGO is managing a large property in this county for red-cockaded woodpeckers – again with fire.
  • Sixth – this area has been hit by several severe hurricanes in the last decade – leveling large acreages of pine timber and increasing acres of clear-cut.
  •  And lucky seventh – due to factors I don’t fully understand, most site-preparation herbicide treatment for pines in this area uses Arsenal™ alone (imazapyr based – legume friendly), rather than more comprehensive (broad spectrum) mixtures used in other parts of the state.

All this adds up to a quail per 3 to 5 acres – as much accidentally as on purpose. So is it right to declare a success?

I’m not comfortable with it for several reasons. While it is true we have promoted wildlife conservation programs in the area for years, they are not the primary reason for the “success.”  And, though we have had some influence on the landowners involved, they were largely conservation minded before we came along. In addition – this county did not start at ground zero.

Declaring success here is kind of akin to switching your favorite team to the Super Bowl Champion right AFTER the Super Bowl is over. But most difficult for me is the idea of attracting too much attention to a recovering quail population. The idea that the only reason we want to have success is so we can kill more of them is somehow troubling to me. If that is all these millions and millions of dollars we are spending is adding up to, God forgive me. Whether it is ever declared a true success or not, it is still encouraging to know that even in Virginia places like this can still exist.

Marc Puckett

Photo by Meghan Marchetti, VDWR

Marc Puckett is a Small Game Project Leader with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR).

Marc has worked with VDWR for 25+ years. He currently serves as the small game project co-leader. He was involved in several quail studies, including for his master’s degree at NCSU. He served his country for four years in the US Army’s Airborne Infantry. Marc resides with his family on a farm in central Virginia.