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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.

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.