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Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough

Unsprayed hardwood buffer on left, recently sprayed

clearcut on right – beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Photo by Marc Puckett

            Years ago, I completed a leadership development course offered by my employer. It was intense, useful, and rewarding, but not fun. Stressed throughout the course was the idea that “good was the enemy of great” which was the title of a book I long since tossed into the round file. The term “good enough” was frowned upon. There are several schools of thought on this subject. I understand that some folks believe perfection is desired in everything they do. I have heard them say life is too short for anything less. My view is that this approach, while good some of the time, leads to not being able to “see the forest for the trees.” Further stated, I believe that perfect is the enemy of good enough (and I doubt I am the first to use this phrase). You can spend your life any way you wish, but for me I can’t imagine the fun I would have missed out on if I lived for perfection.

            Several examples come to mind. The first is my wonderment at how many hunters out there forgo ever trying to train a bird dog because they believe that no less than the perfect dog is needed to hunt upland game birds. Hey…again, that is your business. If you desire perfection from your dog…steadiness to wing and shot, perfect in holding a pointed bird for the longest time, making the perfect retrieves, having the perfect form, a high tail, a high head, a nose to the wind always…power on! I have nothing but respect for you. However, I can assure those of you who desire to bird hunt but fear you don’t have what it takes to participate are dead wrong. I have never owned a perfect bird dog, largely because I am not a prefect human (find me one and I’ll give you my house and land). And I suffer as a bird dog trainer of low ability. I mainly want a dog that loves being outside running, loves being with me and finds a few birds from time to time. I have found that if I spend a lot of time with my dog, allowing them to have fun, too, and forgiving many mistakes, I end up with a dog that hunts because it loves me. It is happy to see me every day. It checks in with me, not wandering too far. It listens well to simple commands. And as time goes on, my dog learns many things on its own. I hunt alone a lot – just me and my dog, or with folks who don’t stress too much over an imperfect friend’s dog (and vice versa). Afterall, it is supposed to be fun.

            The second example that stands out to me is that quail habitat does not have to be perfect. Quail like an ugly mess of weeds, briers, and forbs with a few bunch grass clumps tossed in, and some bare ground under it all. When you examine the range of the bobwhite it must strike you that they occur across vastly different ecoregions. Why is this? Because habitat structure is more important than plant species composition. In parts of Texas broom snake weed, western ragweed and cat claw acacia fill the bill, while on the prairies of Kansas, Maximilian sunflower, lead plant, purple prairie clover and plum dominate bobwhite cover. In Virginia, ragweed, partridge pea, beggar weeds, broom sedge bluestem and blackberry or sumac thickets delight our bobwhites. While many acres of specific conservation work are implemented to foster quail and their weed loving associates, quail remain largely a by-product of land use across much of their range. Timber management in the form of timber stand improvements, thinnings and clear-cutting produce the vast majority of early-successional habitat in our state. Roughly two hundred to two-hundred and fifty thousand acres of timber are managed in Virginia annually. While this timber management does not create perfect habitat, the volume of it, and the quail’s ability to adapt to it, are what is keeping Virginia’s quail on our landscape.

            There are things a landowner can do to improve those by-product acres such as planting their logging decks with a ragweed and partridge pea mixture and either burning or disking them every few years. I paid to have my logging deck expanded by a dozer, and then seeded it as described above. Same for logging road edges. They can also delay their timber re-establishment a year or two if desired. When we clear-cut my 36-year-old loblolly pine, I made some decisions that have kept a quail covey or two on my land for four years now…with at least another three or four years likely. Before I continue, if you are managing your timber lands for maximum profit, do everything your forester tells you to do. There is nothing wrong with that. But if you are taking a long-term view and have bobwhite quail as a primary concern, there are different approaches.

            I chose to do two things that so far have produced good by-product quail cover. Number one, I delayed my site preparation herbicide treatment one full year. This allowed my clear-cut to grow up with weeds and allowed those weeds to drop seeds.  I had my share of horseweed, fire weed and other less desirable plants, but I also had beggar weeds, poke weed, sunflowers, and trailing lespedezas the summer after cutting. I had the herbicides applied halfway through the second growing season post-harvest and chose to plant short leaf pine the following March. Short leaf is a declining pine species that has fallen out of favor for timber production, though it makes very good lumber. It is slower growing, has a few health issues sometimes and is more of a risk for those managing for profit. Because short leaf pine is a species in decline over its range, I was able to successfully enroll in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program which has helped with all costs (inquire at your USDA Service Center with your NRCS District Conservationist).

            From a quail’s eye view, the fact that it is slower growing means that its canopy does not close as fast as that of loblolly pine, allowing sunlight to reach the herbaceous plants and a weedy mess to exist for many years. It’s also more tolerant of fire. If a wildfire occurs on a tract of short-leaf pine, it sprouts back from the root stock to some extent…something loblolly does not do. My goal was to extend the period quail could use my tract and produce a nice mixed pine and hardwood stand that my daughter might be able to harvest in 40 or 50 years. I have had quail on my tract now for four growing seasons. Timeline: clear-cut September 2019, leave fallow all of 2020, apply appropriate herbicides for site preparation July 2021, plant short-leaf pine (half bare root and half containerized seedlings purchased from Virginia Dept. of Forestry) in March of 2022, watch pines grow, enjoy habitat and the perfection of a quail’s call all summer long. I have two coveys in fall of 2023. I look forward to taking my imperfect dog out in my imperfect habitat this winter in search of the perfect game bird.

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.