Bringing Back Mr. Bob — Tips on re-establishing quail

This Anson County preserve owner has ideas for establishing quail habitat and restoring bird populations.

Craig Holt
January 01, 2013 at 7:00 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Good habitat protects quail from aerial predators, such as hawks.
Chad Mesa
Good habitat protects quail from aerial predators, such as hawks.
Anyone who loves quail hunting — or longs for the days when bobwhites were widespread in North Carolina — is restricted mostly to preserve hunting, if they want a chance to pursue these fast-flying game birds.

A few state game lands contain quail, but they’re exceptions.

Most preserve hunters aren’t interested in the glory days of quail hunting, nor the land management necessary to have property that produces huntable numbers of quail. Instead, they pay to walk behind well-trained bird dogs and a professional handler to see points, flush quail and experience the rush that comes from a covey rise.

For the vast majority of hunters, these birds nearly have disappeared at the family farms, untended fields and woodlot edges that once harbored tens of thousands of quail across the Southeast — and North Carolina is in that category.

Potential problems for quail have been speculated about for years. They include conversion of pastures to fescue, diseases, bad weather and increasing numbers of natural enemies. The problem is doubly perplexing because of success stories of other species, particularly deer and wild turkeys. Whitetails and turkeys have survived and thrived at the same habitats where bobwhite numbers have plummeted.

So why are preserves the main places to find quail today in North Carolina — with the exception of some large private farms and a few game lands?

The answer is clear — lack of habitat.

The South once was dominated by small farms. Farmers rotated crops but allowed some fields to remain unplowed. Natural vegetation growing in untended fields provided excellent food and cover for quail. Field-edge vegetation also was prevalent, creating nesting, roosting and feeding sites for quail.

But after farm machinery became more mechanized after World War II, most farmers plowed their fields annually, eradicated brushy field borders and cleaned out ditches, removing undergrowth such as honeysuckle and briars.

In North Carolina, that left pine forests and open hardwoods — neither suitable for quail survival — and that’s not to mention the conversion of former agricultural land to housing developments, more roads and urban/suburban sprawl.

With their habitat disappearing, quail became scarce. About the only places now with quality quail habitat are found at hunting preserves, managed specifically to provide food and cover by hunting-preserve operators who expend a tremendous amount of capital and work in order to create properties with suitable landscapes for bobwhites.

Once quail hunting could be enjoyed by nearly everyone with a decent pointer or setter, from the poorest kid living on with his family in a share-cropper’s cabin to Piedmont farmers and sons to the richest men in the country.

Habitat was key then, and it remains so today.

Don McKenzie, director of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative wrote in the Fall 20112 issue of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Upland Gazette, that lack of habitat was the major problem causing quail to disappear.

"Habitat degradation at landscape scales is the root of the range-wide quail and grassland bird problem," he wrote. "Regardless of whether you are in North Carolina or any other southeastern state, look around and ask yourself ‘Where is the quail habitat?’

"It should be quickly obvious that the proper question is not ‘Where have all the quail gone?’ Instead, the question should be, ‘How are quail managing to hang on at all in such hostile landscapes?’"

The answer is what people such as 35-year-old Jason Kiker, who operates Buchanan Shoals Sportsman’s Preserve, know and have acted upon to benefit quail and hunters. He uses innovative techniques for rearing and protecting the birds.

Kiker manages 5,300 acres in southern Anson County. The Pee Dee River flows adjacent to some of the preserve’s property, marked mostly by pines with scattered hardwood forests and a few fields.

A 2000 N.C. State University forestry-management graduate, Kiker intensively manages Buchanan Shoals for small and big game, including quail.

"My dad (Paul Kiker) actually started the club," he said. "He ran the operation for a couple of years."

Before Kiker took over the full-time operation of Buchanan Shoals, he was a forestry management specialist handling about 250,000 acres of timber.

"We do lots of things for quail," he said. "One of the main things we do is controlled burns in the pines. We burn all the quail areas, 1,000 acres each year, to control hardwood (sprouts) and upland hardwood (forests). We do the burns each two to three years on a rotating basis.

"We also apply herbicides to control hardwood sprouts. This helps seeds in the ground to grow and provide food and cover."

The result is classic quail-hunting habitat resembling the pine plantations of South Carolina and Georgia.

"If we manage everything right, there’s no need for quail food plots," Kiker said. "We have some food plots, but they’re mainly for turkeys and deer. We also plant 120 acres for doves and have six impoundments of 150 acres for wood ducks and mallards."

Buchanan Shoals is host to a few "wild" quail, so Kiker employs what are known as "surrogators" to raise quail in a natural setting where they eventually will be turned loose to fend for themselves — and can be hunted.

"We have nine areas on the property where we use surrogators," he said.

A surrogator is a box-like device that includes a propane burner to provide warmth at night when the chicks are small balls of fluff. It also contains a 50-gallon water tank with pipes that run just above the chicks’ heads and nipples they quickly learn to peck to obtain water. Pans inside surrogators are replenished daily with food for the rapidly-growing quail.

"We put them in the surrogators when they’re only two or three days old," Kiker said.

Quail chicks quickly learn to eat and peck for water. At one point, Kiker sprays half-grown birds with a fine mist to stimulate their skin’s oil glands. This process waterproofs the birds’ feathers and insulates them from sicknesses caused by cold or wet weather.

After five weeks, they’re ready to be set free in the wild.

Some studies have shown quail reared in surrogators don’t survive long, but Kiker said he has learned how to increase his birds’ survival time. Some eventually survive to form native coveys and rear young.

"It just takes a lot of work and being attentive to the chicks and the surrogators," he said.

He also uses "call" birds that pull the quail back to the safety of the surrogator where they can roost at night and not be worried about attacks from predators.

"I set up (surrogators) for other people who want to have quail on their land," Kiker said. "Wildlife management plays a big role in having pen-raised birds survive."

Kiker figures some of his raised birds have lived for months, a long time for quail raised in pens and released into natural habitat.

One of his keys for quail survival is to place surrogators in heavy cover near good habitat.

"We also feed them the same thing (cracked corn) in the pens as we do after they’re released," Kiker said. "We scatter corn for them in the areas where we hunt because the quail have learned to eat this particular food and won’t find it in nature."

Kiker said with the survival rates of most quail raised in surrogators at less than 1 percent he "expects we get 85- to 90-percent survival." And that’s over a period of several months.

That’s usually not the case, he said, for people who buy a surrogator, watch a DVD provided by the company and try to follow its directions.

"I know people who have used surrogators and gotten only a 10-percent survival rate — or less," he said. "You can’t just watch the DVD and expect you’ll have a good crop of adult quail that’ll live more than a few days. There’s a lot of stuff they don’t tell you about on the DVD I’ve learned through experience.

"You have to check on the birds a lot. There’s a lot of baby sitting you have to do with young quail."

The final step, after the birds have grown to adult size in five or six weeks, is to release them in a suitable area.

"You can’t take a pen-raised bird and turn it loose into a bad habitat and expect it to live more than a few days," Kiker said. "It needs to come out (of a surrogator) and have food and cover nearby."

Good habitat protects quail from aerial predators, such as hawks, and food should be available. Released quail obtain water from puddles, dew on grasses and leaves or after rains.

Another problem is predators and controlling them is no small expense. Kiker concentrates on reducing foxes, coyotes, raccoons and opossums, all eaters of quail eggs. Because quail nest on the ground, their eggs are on the menu of nearly every wild critter.

"We use a lot of fur-bearing predator control after deer season," he said. "That’s when we have a licensed trapper take coyotes, foxes and bobcats. The fur-bearing predators are the ones we believe cause our quail the most problems."

Kiker scatters cracked corn for released birds during hunting season.

"We put out feed and hunt them the next day or two because food concentrates the birds," he said. "It’s like ringing a dinner bell, especially for hawks. So we hunt immediately after scattering feed."

During the spring when quail nest and lay eggs, a hired trapper uses HavaHeart wire-cage traps to ensnare raccoons and opossums.

"It’s a 2 1/2-foot-long box, a live trap," Kiker said. "We want to keep raccoons and opossums from breaking up nests. We trap them as much for turkeys as we do for quail because they’ll eat turkey eggs, too.

"We don’t use leg-hold traps because of the possibility of catching hunting dogs."

Anyone who wants to have huntable quail numbers should consider Kiker’s approach — controlled burns and herbicides to stimulate ground vegetation, rearing quail in surrogators, keeping a close eye on growing quail chicks, allowing natural cover to grow and controlling predators.

To survive, much less thrive, bobwhite quail need cover that can offer protection from predators on and above the ground.
Doing controlled burns  on a semi-annual basis will help keep down unwanted timber growth and provide great cover for quail — and hunters.
Providing good habitat is the first step to helping wild quail — or released birds, for that matter — survive in the wild.
   





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