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Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Quail experts from across the country are scheduled to gather at Hotel Roanoke July 23-26 as part of an effort by the National Bobwhite Technical Committee to restore this game bird that has declined precipitously over the past 30 years.
Participants don't have to look far to detect one of the major problems.
A couple miles up the road, there was an abundance of coveys in the 1960s, and I used them to train bird dogs on what now is Valley View Mall. This is an example of the loss of quail habitat as open agricultural land has grown up or been paved over.
All this renders restoration efforts difficult, but there will be people at the committee meeting dedicated to making it happen. Job one, in the opinion of many, is to restore habitat.
But there are other views about what needs to be done and how to accelerate the recovery. I want to talk about a couple of guys dedicated to them:
Bill Wilson is a lawyer and former member of the House of Delegates (1974-89), a quail hunter for 65 years who lives in Covington, an area where the call of a quail is seldom heard these days.
He believes contaminants - pesticides, acid rain - are a primary culprit in the rapid demise of quail, and would like to see researchers pay more attention to that through a baseline study.
Habitat is important, he agrees, but if quail are sucking in mercury when they sip the morning dew, then there is little benefit "to create a bed if there will be no birds to sleep in it," he said. "If habitat loss is the sole reason for decline, how do we explain the scarcity of quail in the many thousands of acres of cut-over land in Virginia? It doesn't make sense to me."
"I know Marc Puckett's patience is about at an end with me because I keep pestering him about the mercury poisoning issue," Wilson said.
Puckett is the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' head quail biologist. He is chairman of the quail technical committee's meeting in Roanoke. He is a strong advocate of good habitat and is one of the authors of the Virginia Bobwhite Quail Action Plan, the state's guideline for quail restoration.
"I personally believe habitat explains between 80 and 90 percent of the decline, but certainly not all of it," he said. "It does, however, represent the thing we can try to do the most about."
Wilson believes the General Assembly needs to appoint a legislative committee to probe the issue. Such a body could draw information from a broader base than the DGIF, he said. It could involve agriculture interests, VDOT, the forest products industry, utility companies and scientific organizations such as the Biodiversity Research Institute.
"If you are going to do something about this issue, you have to do it big and from the top down," Wilson said.
Charles McDaniel says you can't overemphasize the importance of habitat in the quail restoration effort, but he takes the process a couple of steps beyond that. The former chairman of the DGIF from Stafford advocates stocking birds, supplementary feeding and predator control, something many mainstream biologists have crossed off as futile.
So what does McDaniel do? He invites people to his 1,500-acre holding in King and Queen County to listen to the calls of cockbirds and to count the coveys flushed. Sometimes the count reaches 25.
"You can have the best habitat in the world, but if you don't have birds you don't have fun," he said.
The key to his success has been releasing high-quality, disease-free birds raised in isolation and purchased for $3 apiece from a source in South Carolina. Hunting these hard flyers is about as close to pursuing native birds as you can get, and it keeps the tradition of bird dogs and bird hunting alive during the lengthy restoration period.
You gradually build up the quail culture and at the same time wild birds will increase, he said.
McDaniel has high regards for Puckett and works with him as a member of the Bobwhite Quail Action Plan.
"The problem with the Game Commission people, they think like biologists and not like program managers," said McDaniel, who is a businessman. "They emphasize habitat but don't tell people how to jump-start things by putting out birds in a controlled situation."
What McDaniel advocates shouldn't be mistaken for the quail and quail hunting you find on many shooting preserves. These birds often are kept in barns or cages. They don't fly well when released and can't survive the rigors of a wild setting.
McDaniel said his quail "covey up and roost like wild birds. You still can find six to seven coveys in an afternoon of hunting at the end of the season."
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