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Field Day focuses on restoring Southeastern game birds


Associated Press

ASHBURN, Ga. - The bobwhite quail, which is disappearing in the Southeast, can make a comeback and add millions of dollars to the rural economy if landowners are willing to make changes in the way they manage their crops and timber to protect the birds' habitat.

That was the message Tuesday at a field day devoted to the restoration of Georgia's official game bird.

"The quail decline represents an ecological problem and an economic problem," said Reggie Thackston, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist who works with the birds. "We are losing $45 million a year associated with quail hunting.

"Quail are an indicator species," he said. "Where quail are in decline, all the other species are declining in that environment."

The rich and powerful, including Vice President Dick Cheney, visit south Georgia plantations to hunt quail with dogs that flush the birds and shotguns to bring them down.

Because of the decline of wild birds, some landowners have had to switch to pen-raised quail that are released before a hunt. Some hunters say they don't provide the same challenge as wild birds.

The 60 conservationists and landowners taking part in the field day rode trams around the Wolf Creek Farm to see examples of habitat and forest management that enhance quail populations by harboring bugs for young chicks to eat and grasses and other foliage that quails need for nesting and raising their young.

When L.O. Peebles, 84, purchased the 2,165-acre farm in 1984 he found only three quail coveys, so he challenged the University of Georgia's Extension Service to find ways to restore the population to the level it would have been in the 1960s, when the population was still healthy.

Since the work begin in 1996, the Extension Service has turned the farm into a demonstration project for quail recovery, and now there are 56 coveys.

Biologists blame loss of habitat, primarily from development and modern farming practices, for a 70 percent drop in the Southeast's quail population over the past 20 years.

They cite the elimination of hedgerows and weedy strips between fields and the reliance on pesticides that don't discriminate between true crop pests and beneficial bugs that provide nutrition for quail.

Randy Hudson, coordinator of the Wolf Creek project, said it has demonstrated that quail can coexist with the cultivation of common Southern crops such as corn, peanuts and cotton.

A major focus has been enhancing habitat for nesting and brooding birds and making sure there's adequate food for the chicks, Hudson said.

Besides the effort at Wolf Creek, the Department of Natural Resources sponsors the Bobwhite Quail Initiative (BQI), which provides financial incentives for landowners in 15 counties who want to improve the quail population. The program also provides technical assistance for landowners.

"Our monitoring is showing that on the BQI farms, there is an increase in quail and songbirds," said Thackston, who coordinates that program. "The good news is that we know how to restore quail. They need three things: weeds, briars and bugs."

Pete Peebles, 62, son of the farm's owner, said he hoped the workshop would give landowners a better understanding of the economic potential of quail and hunting.

Many farmers lease land for deer and bird hunting to generate additional income. Speakers at the workshop said quail could be viewed as another "crop."

Pete Peebles, an avid hunter, said his family leases land for deer hunting, but draws the line at bird hunting. They wants to keep all the quail and turkeys for themselves.

"You can't beat being with nature," he said. "My pastor says he's composed his best sermons in a deer stand."


Wolf Creek Quail Restoration Project:

Bobwhite Quail Initiative:

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