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27
Pheasant retirement
Carl Welborn describes challenges of growing game birds as relaxing

By Paul Huggins
DAILY Staff Writer
phuggins@decaturdaily.com · 340-2395

FISH POND — From the way Carl Welborn describes the challenge of raising game birds, one might think only a birdbrain could succeed at it.

Not that he has to think like a bird, but perhaps there are smarter ways to spend your time than pen-raising pheasant and quail.

Welborn justifies his risky business by saying it's merely a relaxing way to spend his retirement.

"It's still just a hobby," he said, noting he only hopes to break even financially.

These days, the 69-year-old Fish Pond resident has plenty to do.

Since late April his 15 pheasant hens — with help from two roosters — have laid 600 eggs that he has incubating in hopes of providing recreation for area hunters this fall. By then, he'll have 700 to 1,000 pheasants ready and twice that number of quail.

Among the duties of raising game birds are checking the incubator eggs several times a day; turning eggs daily that await the incubator; sometimes helping new hatchlings emerge from their shell; feeding; cleaning pens; transferring birds to larger pens as they grow, warding off predators such as hawks, snakes and cats, installing blinders on pheasants to prevent them from pecking each other to death, playing matchmaker with hens and roosters and simply gathering eggs.

"There's a lot of people who got out of it. It's a lot of work," he said.

Come fall, private hunting preserves will pay $2.75 to $3 apiece for quail and $8 each for pheasant to be released on their land.

Growing demand

The demand for pen-raising quail started to emerge in the early 1980s as bird hunters struggled to find opportunities as the species practically disappeared.

The population of northern bobwhite quail, decreased 65 percent in the past 20 years, according to Quail Unlimited. Theories on the decline vary, but loss of natural habitat and changes in agriculture that replaced static crops with crop rotations are among the most common.

Welborn is the lone game bird grower in Lawrence County to have a seller's license from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Morgan County also has only one licensed grower, and Limestone County has none. Statewide, there are 127.

Welborn started raising quail nine years ago after he retired from Amoco as an electrician. He figured it was a natural extension of his fondness for bird hunting. It was never meant to be a real business, he said. If he wanted to make money, he would have taken up poultry farming.

"Chickens," he said by comparison, "are easy."

Fellow quail raiser Tim Baker, 68, of Priceville agrees.

Not an easy task

"Raising quail is no easy task," he said, noting there's no such thing as a part-time quail raiser. "They look for a way to die."

Baker and Welborn said quail are highly susceptible to disease, and each has lost thousands of birds at one time to sickness.

"There have been a lot of people who tried to raise quail and failed," Baker said. "You can read all there is to raising them, but you can't do it until you do it and you see your mistakes. And it ain't no fun to see 2,000 to 3,000 birds die."

Learn from experience

Among the valuable lessons Welborn learned from experience: letting the grass and weeds grow tall and thick around the breeding/growing area. This provides a natural barrier against blackbirds, which are among the chief spreaders of diseases that kill quail, he said.

Welborn said changes in weather can wreak the most havoc on a crop because outside temperatures affect the inside temperatures of incubators and brooders. That's why growers must check thermometers regularly throughout the day and make necessary changes, he said.

Inexpensive

Raising game birds seems simple enough to the uninitiated. After all, the birds have done it unattended for ages. And it doesn't require a huge capital investment.

Baker figures it costs $2,000 for facilities to run a small operation. That includes making his pens and $400 to $500 for an incubator that can prepare 750 eggs at a time.

But then there's the feed cost. A thousand birds will eat a 50-pound bag ($8) of feed in two days and it takes 120 to 135 days to raise them. Welborn and Baker make their own finishing feed, but must supply special starter feeds for five to six weeks.

They also must mix antibiotics and disease-fighting medicine with water.

Breeding season is time consuming, and even during the off season they have to care for their breeding stock to survive winter, they said.

As for how his hobby compares to others taken up by retirees, Welborn said he could never see himself chasing a golf ball.

"I've always liked a challenge. I do that with all my gardening. I'll try to grow something bigger than my neighbor. And I've always liked experimenting with stuff. It's a lot of work, but it's enjoyable and you're always learning something new."

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THE DECATUR DAILY
201 1st Ave. SE
P.O. Box 2213
Decatur, Ala. 35609
(256) 353-4612
webmaster@decaturdaily.com

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