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The Naturalist's Corner
By Don Hendershot


I read with interest the story in last week’s Smoky Mountain News (SMN) regarding a new chapter of Quail Unlimited starting up in Western North Carolina. I have mixed emotions about hunting organizations championing game animals.

In the article, Mr. Fresa states, “People think we are out to kill a lot of birds. That’s not the point.”

When I was covering news stories for SMN, I was told by a seasoned politician, “When a politician says it’s not about the money – it’s about the money.”

Growing up in Louisiana, earning a degree in wildlife conservation and guiding for a duck camp in the marshes of South Louisiana, I had the occasion to meet many people connected with the powerful conservation group Ducks Unlimited. They were all hunters.

Many were friends then and most still are today despite the fact that we have very different opinions regarding hunting. But none would have denied then or now that they supported DU as a means to insure that there would always be plenty of ducks to hunt.

I don’t believe QU is much different. In fact, the group’s mission states in part that QU is “dedicated to the wise management of America’s quail as a valuable and renewable resource.” And on their website is a list of quail hunting preserves (49 in North Carolina) with contact information. While it may not be about hunting for Mr. Fresa, I think it’s safe to say that providing flying targets for sportsmen ranks high on QU’s list.

With that disclaimer in place, I will be the first to admit that many of the organizations devoted to specific game birds have been quite successful. I believe that is most apparent in WNC when it comes to the work of the National Wild Turkey Federation. One cannot spend much time afield in WNC today without encountering wild turkeys.

And I am quite partial to bobwhites. They were common across the delta farmland and in the piney woods of Northeastern Louisiana where I grew up.

It would have been hard to imagine a summer morning absent of the strident “bob-bob-white” of the male northern bobwhite, Colinus virginianus. And with studied practice I learned to imitate the liquid answering whistle of the female. With a little patience it was easy to have the randy bobwhite dancing around at your feet looking for the object of his affection.

As QU’s website and many, many others across the World Wide Web, including the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and other conservation groups are quick to point out the northern bobwhite has suffered dramatic population decline over the past two to three decades. But only one that I saw (National Wildlife Federation) bothered to put it in any context. The truth is that even in the midst of this decline there are far more northern bobwhite today than before Columbus, and the population is considered globally secure.

Northern bobwhites are one of those “edge” or early successional species that benefited greatly when Europeans began to chop up the eastern forests. Holes and small farms scattered throughout the forested landscape were ideal northern bobwhite habitat. The population reached its peak during the first 50 years of the 20th century. But with urbanization gobbling up family farms and the advent of monocultures and “clean” farming quail habitat began to disappear, and along with it the northern bobwhites.

Perhaps I am quibbling, but I would love to see an increase in northern bobwhite numbers as part of a holistic conservation movement. I’m speaking of a plan that would benefit grassland and edge species like painted buntings and grasshopper sparrows as well as northern bobwhites, not one attributable to forest “thinning” and artificial food plots.

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