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Inroads

Covey in Flight

We’ve been coming to this area of the grain belt for over 20 years. It took the locals at least seven of those to warm beyond a passing nod or the requisite finger waive to oncoming trucks. We now know many by name though most likely still recognize us only as familiar faces. Every year the list of those names grows shorter and tables easier to come by at the local breakfast joint where the menu hasn’t changed since the advent of Crisco.

There’s an undercurrent of sorrow in these tiny towns that subsist on the edges of massive seas of grain. The small, family farms are dwindling with the youth who choose lives away from the toil of land. With their exit the hedge rows, culverts and fences that shelter upland birds are put to the plow in memoriam. A constant shadow of loss runs deep in furrowed brows.

Empty streets, empty storefronts breeding empty fields.

It’s a sharp contrast to the joy we feel returning to walk areas named for memories of hunts’ past. An escape from narrow spaces and narrow minds of populous hometowns to these wide, quiet prairies. The same solitude that weighs on residents heals transients. Attempts to transfuse our excitement for the region seem only to produce short lived results. The recession of these towns shows no sign of abating.

Opening week brings hope that the resident game birds will find a way to oppose the trajectory of aging residents. Members of this hunting band are trying to stave-off the march of time as well. My dad and Wyatt, the black lab, are well to the back side of the hill. But the hunt continues, sometimes at a little slower pace, often not tackling quite as big cover. Using decades of local intel we’ve amassed of the area seems to compensate for waning abilities.

The birds never age. They are elusive and spry as always. They are the same birds we’ve chased all this time. They recognize us and treat us as old adversaries. Most still outrun us, outfly our shot string, cackle at the idea of getting to know us any better than fleeting glances over splayed wings cast to the sunset. We’re greeted by more Bobwhite these last couple seasons, though the pheasant and prairie chickens still make a passing appearance, just long enough to acknowledge the dogs and alert the rest of the county to our presence.

The inroads we’ve made with the townsfolk seem impervious on the birds. But occasionally we’re able to break through and shake hands with a few. We share the encounters with our local friends who delight at the news that youthful flights persist.

Embrace the Hunting Curve

New Mexico Sunset

I kicked off this season hunting the entire month of September without ever pulling the trigger—for birds, not for big game, not for a once-in-a-lifetime tag draw. I never even came close. True, the Himalayan Snowcock might be the most challenging hunt in the country. This was my second attempt at those demons and I was just stoked to actually get a photo. Most people never have the opportunity to even lay eyes on one.

The dogs and I finished this season on public land in New Mexico. We’ve never chased desert quail before. We’ve never hunted this far south. I hadn’t heard a whole lot about bird forecasts or others hunting in the area this year. But there’s a big National Wildlife Refuge in the middle of the state that is just a short 23 hour drive away, and it calls to us.

Visions of huge coveys of all three desert quail species duel with the knowledge I’ve gained from hunting elsewhere; late season wild birds are demanding. The later you go into winter the more educated upland birds become. These are the survivors of inclement weather, predator, disease, encroachment and every curveball their environment can muster.

But end-of-season wild bird hunters are the survivors, too. Hunters looking for an easy stroll and guaranteed gunning have retreated to preserves or have long ago retired their shotguns until next season.

For me, what is left is the essence of bird hunting that few get to see. The battle of wits between the smartest, strongest birds and Ultimate Uplanders with bird dogs not wanting this dance to end.

This New Mexico desert does not disappoint. It’s brutal and beautiful. It’s unfamiliar and unkind. Unseasonably high temps, gritty terrain and cactus of every sort that chew up pursuers. Quail offer fleeting glances and scent then scatter across the sand and evaporate leaving nothing but shallow footprints and spent, stumped dogs.

And I wouldn’t change a thing. We’ll be back to build on the lessons of this trip, to confront the unknown. The heft of the game bag remains a distant aim when the humbling by wild places offers such reward.

Backyard Bobwhite: Part 1

Is the key to restoring quail right out your back door?

I grew up in small farming community in rural Northeast Ohio. It’s not considered an upland bird hot spot. But I still remember seeing wild quail when I was a kid. And I’ve verified this with others from the area. Bobwhite used to inhabit the hedge rows and fence lines.

Then came the blizzard in January of 1978. In Ohio it produced wind speeds of 70+ mph and wind chills dropped below -60° F. Depending where you lived the snowfall reached over 30″ with drifts that were epic. I remember digging a snow tunnel directly out the backdoor that I could stand up in (I was still just a little guy). This storm killed over 50 people in the state of Ohio. It also killed nearly every quail. And their comeback has been slow to nonexistent.

There’s still a Bobwhite hunting season in 16 Ohio counties primarily in the southwest where populations have hung on. The Ohio DNR has taken shots at expanding these quail territories by trapping live birds in areas of Ohio with decent population and seeding them to counties further north with cooperation from private landowners. The state also has attempted restoring Bobwhite on public lands by transplanting wild birds trapped in Kansas. Those seem like good plans but public funding for this type of program is getting sparse. Quail aren’t the high-profile, high-draw return on investment that big game and turkey are these days.

Bobwhite Quail range tends to expand at a snail’s pace, by most accounts about 1/4 mile per year. With annual mortality rates above 80% it could take centuries under the best case scenarios for quail of southern Ohio to populate the rest of the state. That’s not going to happen on public land alone.

Every year we receive messages and posts from fans asking what they can do to help conserve upland birds. And the stock answer always seems to be pay dues to the large conservation organizations, and attend their banquets. But dues and banquets leave many unsatisfied. Cutting a check doesn’t make some feel invested in conservation.

Chapters of Pheasants/ Quail Forever are active and do good work attracting people to upland sports. But the focus in this area seems to be improving hunting habitat on public lands where wild birds don’t exist. When birds are released into these tracts the hunting might be wonderful, the bird survival is another story.

That’s bothered me.

And that’s when the wheels started turning. How does someone who doesn’t own massive tracts of land or have millions of dollars positively and actively impact upland bird conservation?

Bobwhite are the perfect candidate species for micro-conservation. They are small birds, with relatively small resource requirements that prefer a home territory.

Most of my childhood was spent on our family farm. My parents still live there. My dad taught my sisters and I how to mow around the age of 11. He’d gas up the mowers and turn us loose to shear the 8 acres that run around the house, outbuildings and orchard. It was a biweekly chore during the summers. Now that we’re all grown the mowing has fallen back to dad and now he’s recruiting the grandkids.

But those new recruits have sports and swim meets and much more important pulls on their time that require a granddad to attend that make a manicured lawn seem less important. And dad is no longer a spring chicken.

This winter we began hatching a plan to lighten the mowing load and reintroduce the Bobwhite back to our homestead without breaking the bank. The goal is to map out steps for an individual (or two) to run their own habitat and reintroduction process with minimal land requirements. We’ll document all costs, obstacles and success or lack of. And if all else fails at least dad will have less to yard to upkeep.

We identified an area at the back of the farm totaling around a half-acre that dad is willing to give up mowing.  This plot sits between a small old orchard and two sets of evergreen trees. It offers great cover from the elements, a nearby creak for water and is close enough to the house to limit exposure to predators as well.

The first step is to return it to good quail habitat . In Ohio the largest obstacle for quail success is access to food over the winter. There’s still plenty of grain agriculture around, but cover along fence lines that have been traditional habitat is becoming non-existent. Commodity prices are too high for farmers to allow land to sit untilled. But lawns, good lord there are plenty of manicured yards. If farming is going to take up the quail’s habitat then let’s give it back one square foot of lawn at a time.

I am a bird hunter, not a biologist. But I know a thing or two about these birds that I’ve pursued for decades. I know the types of areas and habitat where the dogs and I have found quail. With a little tilling and cultivation we can transform yard into that type of area. It won’t fulfill all the requirements of a Bobwhite’s life cycle. But by my account most of those requirements they can still fulfill on their own. The winter food source close to good cover is the crux in this state.

The week prior to Memorial Day we tilled our plot and hand seeded a game bird mix containing sunflower, millets, and sorghum seed. We also took down an old apple tree that’s been crowding some pears in the orchard. We utilized those limbs to stack three massive brush piles for the birds to eventually use as dense protective cover. The hope is this will become the home base for our quail, putting everything they need within a very small area so that they have every motivation to stay and thrive.

It was a full day of hard work. And now there is more to come.

But that’s for the next installment: Making a cost effective quail pen and our plans to train pen-raised quail for survival in the wild.