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Courtesy Marc Puckett
Idle field with mixture of grasses, partridge peas and native plants ideal brooding and nesting habitat for quail
Thursday, March 14, 2013
It is going to take a massive effort to bring back quail, and that includes gobs of money and lots of workers who believe it can be done. But sportsmen did it with deer, turkey, bear and geese. Why not quail?
In last week's column, I addressed questions to Marc Puckett, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' biologist who heads the quail restoration program in Virginia. This is Part II of that exchange:
Q. Can you name me one or two places in Virginia where the quail restoration program has been successful in putting birds on the ground?
A. We are seeing some success in the middle peninsula, King and Queen County, for example, and also in Southern Sussex County. Folks are finding pretty good numbers of quail and enjoying bird hunting in those areas. Is this totally due to the quail recovery initiative? No. These areas have a long-term history of conservation programs and also natural events that have helped. We are also seeing progress in portions of Halifax County where landowner projects in close proximity seem to be working. Our goal now is to further focus in those areas and see what can be done to continue the trend.
Q. How about the western part of the state?
A. Admittedly, the farther west in Virginia you go, the harder restoration becomes, but we have not given up on the mountains.
Q. Are you aware of success stories in other states?
A. Yes. Missouri has been perhaps the largest success so far. That state has 40 private-lands wildlife biologists; we have five. Kentucky, Georgia and North Carolina all have significant success stories.
Q. I have a neighbor who has spent considerable time and money in quail restoration efforts on his land. He has developed beautiful food, escape, nesting and brood habitat. Yet he hasn't heard or seen a single quail, which is contrary to the often quoted principal if you have habitat you will have birds. Why aren't his efforts working?
A. All due respect to landowners and their hard work, many times the habitat that looks wonderful to the landowner is not judged to be as good by a quail biologist or by the quail themselves. The components you list are indeed all necessary. The need for good thicket cover cannot be overstated. Thickets - clumps of things like blackberry, greenbrier, sumac, plum, hawthorn, viburnum, and others - have to be well scattered throughout a property, making up about 15- to 25-pecent of a covey's range. It is this component I see lacking most often. It is like a shell game with the thickets being the shells and the quail being the coins. If predators only have a couple shells to look under, it does not take them long to find the prize.
Q. Some sportsmen say that wild quail could be restored through stocking and feeding techniques, but biologists often say that won't work. Do you think it might be time to test these so-called radical techniques?
A. I would not call them all radical. Studies have shown that stocking pen-raised quail by various methods is not effective in restoring wild populations. But there is new research ongoing that shows promise with new hatching techniques. If these methods prove to offer hope, we certainly have not ruled out trying them.
Feeding is another matter. Some studies in Florida have shown that supplemental feeding can positively affect quail reproductive ecology, but studies in other regions have shown feeding did not help. Dollar for dollar, I believe landowners are still better off spending their money on habitat. If you truly provide good quail habitat, it will provide the feed.
I feel there is a place for stocking pen-raised quail in helping to continue interest in bird dogs and bird hunting. I think it has been clearly shown that if landowners want to hunt repeatedly on relatively small acreages, they can use preseason quail releases to help them do that. It won't restore wild quail and it is not exactly the same as hunting wild quail, but it can certainly help maintain some interest.
Q. What do you see as the biggest deterrent to the quail restoration program?
A. Lack of long-term will. There is nothing easy about it. The volume of habitat that is needed is daunting. We don't need thousands of acres, we need hundreds of thousands of acres, and there is not enough money in the state treasury to buy quail back to the landscape. People have to want quail. More than that, the masses of people out there have to come to see thickets and weeds and briers and grasses not as something in need of a bush-hogging, but as valuable wildlife habitat critical to the long-term survival not only of quail, but of the human species itself.
Q. How many landowners do you have actively involved in the quail restoration effort, and could you use more?
A. We have worked directly with over 1,000. Not all enroll in a habitat program, but many do. About 250 of those we consider our most dedicated. And yes, indeed, we are always looking for more. In every case where we are seeing success, it is based around a locally respected key landowner who can rally his neighbors. These landowner leaders are especially cherished. There are only a handful of us biologists, and we can't be everywhere. Local landowner leadership is the key.
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