A return to the good old days

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"Steady, steady," Daddy said softly to Thomas as we approached. Those words might have been meant for me - as much as the dog. Thomas was a young pointer, full of unbridled enthusiasm, and I was a youngster of nine or 10 on my first quail hunt with a loaded gun.

Thomas was locked on point along a brushy fence row. My Dad, my brother David and I were approaching across a small cut cornfield. It was an early Saturday morning, and it was cold enough to see your breath.

The birds exploded from the fence row as we closed in and sailed across the field toward the woods beyond. The sudden roar and whir of wings startled me for a moment, but I recovered and instinctively picked out a single bird from the large covey. At my shot, a puff of feathers marked my first quail down. I couldn't believe that I had done it!

I knew that Daddy and David had shot, but I hadn't seen anything else but the bird that I had shot. Then I heard Daddy say to Thomas, "Dead, find dead." They had each shot a bird from the covey, and Thomas was searching for the downed quail.

The covey had scattered and flew into a thick little branch bottom. We didn't try to follow them and just went on across the farm looking for another covey.

I had gone along on the quail hunts since I was six or seven and old enough to keep up with the other hunters. I started out carrying an unloaded .22 rifle. Daddy carried the bullets in his pocket. I shot my first rabbit, on a quail hunt, with that little gun.

When I got older I started carrying an unloaded 16-gauge pump gun, but it didn't take but a few hunts to graduate to a loaded gun, and this was my first real bird hunt.

Daddy was a bird hunter. It was his first love. We kept bird dogs and hunted quail on the farms around our small town. Quail were plentiful, and we knew where to find coveys on the land we hunted. There were no deer or turkeys in our part of the world back then.

This was back in the early '60s, and it was the waning days of the Bobwhite Quail. We didn't know it then, but bobwhite numbers would soon plummet. They hang on now across a landscape that has changed because of modern farming practices, intensive forestry practices and urban development.

Bobwhites are grassland birds. They do best on farms with weedy patches and open woods with a grassy understory. Early successional habitats of warm-season grasses, annual forbs and legumes (weeds) and shrub thickets were incidental in the past and are less likely to be maintained today.

Some individual land owners have managed to develop and restore habitat to benefit wild quail, and the results have been impressive. There are numerous government programs that assist individual land owners and managers, but natural resource professionals have realized that we must move beyond farm-by-farm efforts and begin to manage quail on a geographic scale.

The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative is a range-wide habitat plan developed by 25 state wildlife agencies that comprise the historic range of the Northern Bobwhite Quail. Plans have been developed to encourage habitat development in focal areas. It is a unified effort to restore wild quail populations.

South Carolina was divided into four NBCI focal regions. They are the Pee Dee, Central, South and Piedmont. The NBCI Central Focal Region includes seven counties to include Sumter, Lee and Clarendon. The Central Region has approximately 1.5 million acres ranked as high or medium potential for bobwhite habitat restoration. Some significant public land holdings within the focal area include Manchester State Forest, Oak Lea WMA and Santee Cooper WMA. Focal areas have the goal of meeting 50 percent of the target density of quail in 5 years and 100 percent in 10 years.

The goals are ambitious. The target population represents a large increase in the existing quail population. The focal region approach will move us to a scale that will assure the long-range viability of the bobwhite quail.

My Dad and older brother are gone now, but I would love to see quail on the landscape again. It would be a welcome return to the good old days.

Reach Dan Geddings at cdgeddings@gmail.com.