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Shell’s Covert: Bobwhite Battle Fronts

While I grew up around farms and bobwhites, I have officially been working with quail since 1992. At that time we were just realizing the order of magnitude of the quail decline. Some predicted that bobwhites would be extirpated through vast portions of their range by now. Like firefighters during a 5-alarm fire tone in the local station house, quail lovers scrambled to action. There has never been a time in history when more was done for bobwhite quail than over the last 20 years. Momentum continues to grow, and there have been large scale successes.

Some of the most notable of these are the successes seen in North Florida and South Georgia in what is known as “The Red Hills” and also as the “Thomasville- Tallahassee Region.” The Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, along with the Albany Area Quail Project and the respective state agencies and regional research universities, managed to piece together over a half million acres of what has been deemed “purposefully managed” quail lands (note the term “purposeful quail management” was coined several years ago by researchers in Texas and Florida – and I am not exactly sure who brought the phrase to common use so my apologies for not being able to give a citation).

The properties in the area tend to be large scale quail plantations under intensive quail management regimes. The landowners involved not only have the desire, but the means to manage on a grand scale. Management here includes supplemental feeding, predator control, relocation of wild quail, heavy timber thinning, widespread use of prescribed fire and adaptive harvest management. These lands now have more quail than at any time in recorded history. Even if a landowner does not have these kinds of means, they should take heart in the fact that it can still be done.
And in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas in areas where vast landscapes still have quail habitat potential, hunters have experienced one of the best seasons in memory this year. New methods of pasture and rangeland management, recognition by landowners of the value of quail cover over immense portions of these states, and dedicated research along with favorable weather (rainfall) has led to this boom. In these areas, some of the resurgence has been due to purposeful quail management and some has been due to favorable circumstances…the most notable being low human population density and a more quail conducive climate.

Multiple pockets of smaller scale success can be seen in other states where purposeful quail management is being done. Virginia is not exempt from these. Several hunters have noted to me in the past couple years they are experiencing a resurgence in quail. I know many will disagree, and I am not trying to paint a rose-colored glasses image, but these comments have become more common in recent years. Just last week, in a county where substantial habitat work has been done, one hunter found 9 coveys in a single day, in another county further north, a hunter found 7 coveys in one day. Our team has dozens of examples where, when landowners have done good quail habitat management on a substantial number of acres, bobwhites have returned. Even in areas west of the Blue Ridge and in the Northern Piedmont, we have examples of quail showing up again after substantial habitat projects have been completed. Purposeful quail management works, not in every case, but in many.

That’s the good news…now for the bad…there are two fronts in our battle to bring back bobwhites. There is the front where we encourage as many landowners as possible to conduct “purposeful quail management” and then there is the front where we battle to bring back what was termed long ago “by-product quail” – those that occurred on the landscape because things that were being done, or not being done, in agriculture, forestry and land management were accidentally favorable for quail. We keep chipping diligently away on the purposeful front and I think we are making some progress, but an enormous marketing / outreach campaign is needed to truly reach the masses about the value of thickets, weeds, wildflowers, and native grasses.

But on the by-product battle front…demand continues to increase for agricultural and forestry products, while acres on which to produce those products declines. This can only mean one thing, to meet human needs these activities must increase in intensity. The future to the wide-scale recovery of bobwhites and many other species using similar habitats is to try to find cracks in the way things are being done where some wedges of gains can be made for these animals, which include pollinating insects. The battle throughout human history has been one between short term gains versus long term losses. Many times we seem not to have a choice between meeting our immediate needs and thinking ahead 50, 100 or more years. I am not complaining or pointing fingers at anyone for this – it is part of our human existence.

What to do? 1) Keep encouraging purposeful quail management on as many acres as possible; these areas will serve as source populations through time. And document and promote successes in every possible outlet 2) continue to look for ways to incorporate gains for wildlife into agricultural and forestry systems to bring back some by-product quail, and encourage those things via innovative incentives programs.

Hope continues to thrive: we are seeing renewed interest in the use and promotion of prescribed fire, an increase in the appreciation of the habitats created by timber harvest and management, and widespread recognition of the value of pollinator habitats. Future solutions lie in working side-by-side with forestry and agriculture industry professionals to find common ground.

February 2, 2016

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.