Week 16. Marc Puckett: Virginia Bobwhite Quail
Picture your typical Eastern Shore or Northern Neck farm in December. It’s cold and windy, and a field of harvested corn or soybeans is cleanly cut all the way to the tree line, where a canopy of mature hardwoods begins. You can almost see the Canadas tolling in and sense that big whitetail abound in the woods.
But what’s missing from this picture is good bobwhite quail habitat. There was a time in the mid-Atlantic, between the Civil War and WWII, when that farm wasn’t mechanically picked (it was a bit scragglier) and that hardwood forest was an annex farm plot separated by a fence-line briar patch. It wasn’t as good for geese or whitetail, but it was great quail habitat!
Marc Puckett has watched quail habitat disappear, and along with it, the quail population, and has worked through his career to revive ole Bob White and the opportunities for hunting him. Marc is probably the foremost expert on quail in the region and has been working with quail for over 20 years — managing the state’s hunting seasons, working with private landowners, and generally promoting quail habitat. He oversees the species and heads the Small Game Project for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and served as a member of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee’s Executive Committee for six years.
I reached out to Marc to learn more about quail in our region. Marc is a big booster of quail hunting and a big believer that a greater awareness of the right quail habitat among landowners will lead to a better quail population. Below are my questions in bold, followed by his answers.
What’s the ideal habitat for quail?
The best way to think about it is the “rules of thirds.” Roughly speaking bobwhite quail need habitat that is comprised of about:
1/3 weedy new annual growth consisting of plants like ragweed, partridge pea, and beggar weed mixed in with a small component of native grasses like broodsedge and little blue stem,
1/3 in habitat that is a bit grassier for nesting, basically second to third year growth, and
1/3 should be in thicket cover. Thickets, sometimes called coverts by quail hunters, should be made up of things like blackberry, greenbrier, sumac, wild plum, or similar shrubby growth.
These habitats can be found in young clear-cuts, fallow crop fields, and old fields. They are maintained by prescribed burning or disking in a rotational fashion through time. Within a typical covey’s range of 30 to 50 acres, these components need to be well distributed throughout.
Where’s the best place to find that habitat in our region, both historically and currently?
Bobwhite quail used to be abundant across the region, and I’d say the peak was the first few decades right after the Civil War. Millions of acres of farmland in Virginia and across the region was abandoned and unkept, and the quail population really flourished.
Even through the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, the quail population was excellent. Generally speaking, the further east you got, the better the population. They did very well in the coastal plain and well in the piedmont, and historically, quail also did well in in the mountainous region.
Today, there are very few quail west of the Blue Ridge. In the piedmont, from Route 29 to I-95, there are still some pockets of reasonable quail habitat. The best part of the state is still the southeast corner, east of I-95 and south of I-64, where there is some good timber harvesting and conservation efforts.
What happened to the population?
Mostly habitat loss. In 1900, 80% of Virginia was agricultural, but farmland went out of production. Today, farmland is only about 30-35%. There has been urban development but also a lot of reforestation — the reforestation is not necessarily a bad thing and is very good for a lot of species, but hasn’t always been good for bobwhite quail. Properly managed thinned pine stands can make excellent quail habitat when prescribed burning is added in. So there is still a lot of potential for bobwhites in our reforested landscape.
One question we get a lot is why do we still allow hunting if the population has declined, but there is strong evidence that the loss of habitat is the problem. Hunting did not cause the quail decline. A lot of species that are not hunted and use habitats similar to quail have declined in similar numbers to the bobwhite. Hunters are also somewhat self-limiting, because if the population falls below a certain density, hunters don’t go after them. Some folks have pointed to other issues like intense agriculture and uses of various herbicides and pesticides, and also predation of quail, but there is strong scientific research and evidence that the underlying cause is habitat decline.
Private landowners of course can always manage the land more restrictively and limit the harvest as they choose. Some states in the Deep South choose to keep the season open later, but we do have some evidence that the later season hunting can be detrimental, and so we chose to close the season on January 31.
What’s a yearly lifecycle look like for quail and its hunters?
In the winter, quail form up into coveys, of about 10-15. In the coveys they’re dependent on each other, and roost together and keep each other warm. They’ll also travel and feed together.
In the spring, when it starts to warm up, the coveys start to break up and the pair bonds are formed. The coveys are largely broken up by April or May. There may be some singles around, and that’s when you start to hear the first calls.
The nesting begins in May with the incubating of eggs, and its takes 23 days for the eggs to hatch. The peak of the hatch is in the later part of June. The calling peaks in June and we’ll do summer call counts throughout June.
The pairs will breed again in August and nest in September. Most of the reproduction is finished by August or early September.
In the fall, there occurs what we call the “full shuffle.” The family units with broods tend to break up and mix and match. They’re really hard-wired to move, which is probably a good thing because it helps them find new habitat.
In late fall, they’ll start to settle in their covey area. During the fall, we’ll also conduct our fall covey counts — for a landowner trying to assess their coveys, October is a good time to do that.
The season then begins in early November, and runs through January.
What are some of the other programs on the state or federal level that will help revitalize the population?
There is no substitute for a site visit on their land with a person who can help them evaluate and then plan their quail management. There are multiple financial assistance programs to help those who are interested, some federal and some state. Examples of these include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program operated by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. EQIP as it is called, offers many practices such as prescribed fire, field border and hedgerow planting, pollinator plantings, and many more conducive to quail. EQIP is available statewide.
We also have a Forestry and Wildlife Best Management Practices program we offer in partnership with the Virginia Department of Forestry that is available in our 15 quail focal counties which include Augusta, Culpeper, Rappahannock, Orange, Madison, Greene, Essex, King William, King and Queen, Sussex, Southampton, Greensville, Halifax, Wythe and Bland. These special practices are paid for by Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and administered by VDOF. The practices include logging deck and road seeding, pre-commercial pine stand thinning, reduced impact herbicides, planting of diminished pine species and prescribed burning. Rather than trying to figure all this out on their own, landowners should call us and let us help.