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21
Quail, game-bird growers on rise in N.C.

The Associated Press

HARMONY, N.C. -- The number of people raising quail and other game birds is on the rise in North Carolina, as farmers look for supplemental income or a way to participate in sport hunting.
Richard Hix of Iredell County hatches 80,000 quail a year and raises 28,000 of them in the houses where he once raised chickens at his farm.

Another farmer, Edward Elam Jr., buys some of Hix's birds and runs a 140-acre shooting preserve nearby that caters to hunters from suburban Charlotte and the Triad.

"I couldn't make a living at it right now," Elam said. "But it's some supplemental income, and it allows me to make a little money doing something I enjoy."

Though older North Carolinians can recall finding wild quail outside their back door in rural settings, biologists say the bird has steadily declined since the 1960s. That's because farming practices no longer leave weeds and grasses at the edges of fields for quail to eat.

To meet the demand for quail enthusiasts, whose hunting season began Saturday, more people are getting involved in raising the birds or providing land for hunters to shoot them.

The number of permits issued statewide for farmers to grow quail and other game birds rose from 435 in 2002 to 627 in 2004, according to the state Wildlife Resources Commission. And the number of permits for game-bird preserves grew from 151 in 2002 to 223 in 2004.

"It's a growing economic enterprise in rural North Carolina," said Terry Sharpe, a biologist who works for the commission.

"They're kind of taking advantage of the poultry houses we've got in North Carolina, plus the decline in the wild-bird population and the fact that people enjoy that kind of recreation," he added.

Once the quail he raises are 16 weeks old, Hix ships most of them to shooting plantations in South Carolina.

Elam estimates that his Rimrock Hunting Preserve outside Harmony brings in an additional $20,000 a year in gross income from the $5 he charges for each bird that the hunters kill.

"I think the demand for it is definitely growing, because people don't have an alternative," Elam said. "The availability of land to hunt is very limited. Everybody I know that ran a preserve last year ran out of birds."

Buck Nooe, the owner of Shooters, a sporting-clays club near Turnersburg in Iredell County, says he sees businessmen, doctors, lawyers and an increasing number of women entering shooting sports.

"You'll have a guy who's a surgeon out there shooting next to a guy who's a backhoe operator," Nooe said. "We're getting a lot of new people into it."

Hix and his wife, Jane, try to walk through the quail house just once a day so the birds don't grow too accustomed to humans.

"We're trying to keep some wild in them," Hix said. "We don't want to imprint these birds to humans. We want them to stay wild."

To demonstrate the birds' instincts, Hix's son, Paxton, whistled like a hawk inside the chicken house, and the birds hunkered down in the wood shavings, looking for cover.

Hix says he hopes to expand his operation to use more of his poultry house. But he cautions that no farmer should try to grow game birds unless he has a market.

"I can raise more birds. But there ain't no reason to raise them if you can't sell them," he said.

Sharpe said that quail has rebounded wild in an area near Rowland in Robeson County, where row-crop production remains.

Hurricanes and clear-cutting timber actually help quail by removing trees and saplings, leaving the grasses and weeds where quail thrive, said Mike Seamster, another commission biologist.

State officials are now working on plans to offer rental payments to farmers for 10 years under the federal Conservation Reserve Program if they agree to leave undisturbed buffers at least 30 feet wide at the edges of their fields.

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Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, http://www.journalnow.com

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