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Bringing Them Back to When?

My daughter is about to turn eighteen…and I just turned sixty. As I drove towards Strasburg on my 60th birthday in route to helping work chronic wasting disease deer check stations, on a Friday afternoon no less, I had a lot of time to reflect. The first thing I asked myself was “Why are you spending your 60th birthday driving to work? You should know better by now!” Earlier that day I stood in my yard looking at the playhouse and swing set I built for Grace years ago. My wife and daughter both ask me from time to time when am I going to take that old stuff down and make way for another flower bed? But I can’t find the strength to say, “I just don’t have the heart to admit those days are never coming back.” Maybe with a little maintenance they will survive long enough for grandkids?

                I’ve been working hard trying to bring quail back since 1992 when I began my master’s project in eastern North Carolina. At that time, I never questioned whether it could be done. Three decades later, I realize it can’t be done…at least not in the sense some think it can. I am sure all of us naturally long for the days in our lives that were as close to perfect as they ever were. For those “old time bird hunters” those days were the fifties, sixties, and early seventies. But if you asked quail hunters a few generations before them it would have been in the decades following the Civil War. Of course, where I sit writing this in my office in Farmville Virginia, about ten thousand years ago, there’d a been 5 feet of snow outside and I’d be living in a boreal forest…the closest quail about a thousand miles south.

                In the mid-1990s the quail “powers that be” decided we’d try to restore them back to 1980 densities across the entire landscape. Now we realize how much the landscape has changed even since then. Yet I continue to hear calls for restoring them back to the good ole days. Why can’t it be done? We did it for deer? We did it for turkeys? We may have sped population recoveries along a bit, and not withstanding all the hard work done by many, those species “came back” largely because they were better suited to the landscape that existed right then. As were resident Canada geese and coyotes. I wish I could tell you we could turn the clock back to a time when phone booths, drive in movie theaters and Carside food service dominated, but those days are likely as gone as covered wagons and cattle drives.

                The good news is in substantial parts of many states (and other countries), quail are still doing great. Much like the evening news, in the quail world the good stories aren’t the ones we hear most often. Many of you may not know that quail, either bobwhites, or several other species that are similar occur well into Mexico, throughout Central America and even into northern South America, not to mention Cuba. And in parts of states like Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas quail still occur in good numbers because everything is there for them in enough quantity – that being rural landscapes supporting more cattle than people and just enough rainfall to make weeds and grass grow without growing trees.

                Further, the managers and scientists of the Tall Timbers Research Station and the Albany Area Quail Project in north Florida and South Georgia have shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that intentional, intensive quail management, on large contiguous landscapes even in the humid south can still produce phenomenal numbers of bobwhites. Though what they have done is beyond the budget of most landowners, it clearly demonstrates that concentrated effort of the right kind can restore quail to significant portions of a state.

                While it is true many things beyond habitat affect quail populations (as well as insect, amphibian, songbird, and you name it populations), where we find great quail habitat in substantial quantities, we find quail. Even in the piedmont of Virginia, there are numerous examples of landowners creating quail habitat and having quail return. And in some parts of Virginia’s Coastal Plain, I believe we are seeing a modest recovery. Our private lands team has made nearly 6,000 landowner site visits over the past 13 years. The combination of continued, targeted conservation efforts, a strong timber and agricultural economy, and some adaptation by the quail themselves suggests all is not lost.

                So, rather than continually focusing on the past and trying to recreate “the glory days”, focus should be on the future and working in ways and in areas where we can be impactful. The approach must become a more general ecosystem health model. More use of rotational, soil and grass building cattle grazing and haying systems, more reliance on crop rotations and cover crops and less reliance on pesticides, more emphasis on natural pollination through native bee conservation, more promotion of local agricultural products, and more education of consumers who must realize that if they desire a more natural food product, they should expect to pay a little more for it. And I wonder what might happen if wood products were certified as having come from an area where prescribed fire is used? These boards are “Certi-fired.” It works for grass fed beef…why not try it for other conservation adapted products?

                The paradigm began to shift a decade ago for many in quail conservation. The National Bobwhite and Grasslands Initiative’s Coordinated Implementation Program is one example. The CIP, as it is known by many, focuses habitat work around core focal areas at the local and then regional scale. It recognizes that restoring quail to an entire state is not practical and seeks to find areas of high potential for success, and then build upon those by adding more and more landowners expanding the footprint. This is fostered by continued monitoring to document success and outreach about those successes. In conjunction with the NBGI’s CIP, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife Program, recognizes that rather than taking valuable crop or timberlands out of production, the goal is to incorporate practices within working lands that have a higher probability of being in place long term. Now-a-days the idea is not so much how to “bring them back” to a set of conditions that will never exist again, but to figure out how to “move them forward” into the future conditions we will realistically have.

Photo is Marc and daughter Grace with her then new treehouse (around 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.