The Bobwhite in Virginia: A Conversation with Quail Restoration Leader Marc Puckett

The surprising flush of a covey of quail is a thrilling and welcome sight, but one that is not as common as it used to be.  Unless you are a farmer,  hunter, or a rural landowner, quail are rarely encountered–although just about everyone has heard their distinctive “BOB-White” call from a distance.  What has become of this endearing round bodied, buff and brown colored bird?   Where have Virginia’s quail gone, and what can we do to bring them back? 

Restoring a species that’s traditionally been in decline is a daunting task, but one which also offers ample opportunities to make a difference. Just what is DGIF doing to manage the quail population in Virginia?  Marc Puckett, the Department’s Small Game Project Leader, knows a little bit about quail in Virginia.  Marc, along with Research Biologist Jay Howell, leads the quail recovery efforts for Department.  I had a chance to catch up with the hard-working biologist to find out how quail are faring in our Commonwealth, to reminisce about the old days, and find out what landowners can do to help bring quail back to their fields.  Here’s a little bit of our conversation.

Q: What does “good” quail habitat look like?

Marc: “I joke with people all the time, good quail habitat looks like the first thing most landowners want to take the bush-hog to come fall. To many good quail habitat looks unsightly, though it does not have to. One of our biologists Justin Folks coined a phrase ‘It’s not ugly, its home,’ which sums up its appearance and its value. But in short – remember the 3rd Rule developed by Tall Timber Research Station. Quail need about 1/3 in thickets of briers, and shrubs, about 1/3 in cover comprised of 30% – 40% native bunch grasses like little bluestem and broomstraw, and about 1/3 in weedier first and second year growth comprised or ragweed, partridge pea, beggar-weed (desmodium), etc. Also note – if a person has to mow, do it in late winter not fall.

“Our peak year in number of hunters was 1973, when we had 143,000 quail hunters who killed almost 1.2 million quail.”

Q: How would you describe Virginia’s quail population today?

Marc: “Our broad-scale surveys still show quail declining, though at a lower rate than before. We do have pockets where they appear to be making a modest recovery, but it is not enough to reverse the statewide trends. However – it does give hope – we see when habitat is created in enough quantity, quail still respond even in places where we have written them off.”

Q: When was the quail population in Virginia at peak levels and what was this like for hunters?

Marc: “I think the quail population peaked in the south in the first couple decades after the Civil War – millions of acres of farmlands were fallow or poorly tended. Quail thrived. They began declining in the mid-1900s, but there was a resurgence after World War II as many farms started to go fallow with an increase in suburban living and urban jobs in America. Our peak year in number of hunters was 1973, when we had 143,000 quail hunters who killed almost 1.2 million quail. Today we have about 8,000 quail hunters who kill about 12,000 wild quail. Back in the heyday quail hunting was fantastic, but competition was also high. Hunters tend to remember the days when they found 8 coveys before dark after work, but they tend to forget there were bad days then, too. So hunters still had to work for quail. But land access was also much easier then, which helped create the ‘glory days’ of upland bird hunting.”

Q: Why has the quail population declined so drastically?

Marc: “The number one factor is habitat loss through development, sub-urbanization, intensive agriculture – we have to feed the increasing human population on fewer acres, reforestation –because much of our former agriculture land has been reforested. Other factors can contribute such as disease, predation and weather, but the biggest factor is still habitat loss.”

Marc encourages landowners to “Mow in March” instead of in the fall. This allows pollinators like bees and butterflies to utilize habitat like this goldenrod in the fall when they need it most.

Q: Why do you need private landowners to get involved with this effort?

Marc: “Most of our lands are privately owned. Even if our agency managed every single acre we own for early-succession species, it would not be enough land to reverse statewide trends. Private landowners we hope will begin to change their views of “weeds.” There are bad non-native invasive weeds, but many great native weeds exists that quail need, some are beautiful like partridge pea, some not so much like ragweed, but quail, butterflies, bees and songbirds need them. And to have enough habitat, private landowners must be a big part of that.”

Q: What is the significance of the “bob – white” call of the quail?

Marc: “The bob-BOB-Whiiiite! Call is the male mating season call. He sings to find and attract female bobwhites, and also to stake his claim to turf.”

Q: What gives you the most satisfaction on your job?

Marc: “For me – it is when I see a landowner who “gets it” – the light bulb moment goes off for them. They begin to understand the habitat needs and how to make management decisions to get what they want, and then they get quail, or monarchs, or prairie warblers – and the look they have when that dream of theirs becomes a reality. It is priceless.”

More from Marc:

  • Our ‘Quail Team’ as we have maybe over-branded ourselves, is so much more than that. We should more appropriately be called the ‘Private Lands Habitat Assistance Team.’ What we are truly about is habitat for quail and the dozens of species of other animals that use similar habitats, like field sparrows, prairie warblers, native bees, butterflies and more.
  • We have 5 private lands wildlife biologists hired in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Conservation Management Institute of Virginia Tech (CMI/VT). These biologists work out of five USDA Service Centers with many of our partner agencies. These service centers are the “one-stop shopping centers” for landowners interested in wildlife, soil or water quality cost-share programs and assistance.
  • Our team has visited with over 3,600 landowners in Virginia so far, who collectively own over 420,000 acres of land.
  • We have worked with and have the support of over 30 conservation organizations in Virginia.
  • We are also one of 21 (one of the original 7 actually) National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative States to have implemented a Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP) Model Focal Area– the CIP will help pool data across multiple states with regards to the effects of habitat creation on quail and many songbird species.
  • Our latest revision of our Early-succession species recovery plan can be found online.
  • The best way for landowners to contact a private lands wildlife biologist if they are interested in creating habitat on their lands for quail and a variety of wildlife species is simply to email me: Puckett@dgif.virginia.gov or call Marc Puckett – 434-392-8328, tell me what county you live in, and I will get you in contact with the biologists who cover your area.

This article was written by Ron Messina, Media Manager, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

  • October 8th, 2017