The month of November brought to light some exciting new facts about quail in South Georgia. "The good old days are here again." The plantation handlers trial was held on Pineland Plantation, in Albany, Ga. This is not a big trial as far as trials go, consisting of 24 dogs, all top wagon shooting dogs. The gallery was large and fun was had by all. The surprise to all, was the number of wild coveys pointed in a six hour period. The same covey was never pointed twice because six courses were laid out never covering the same ground. Total count at the end of the day was 94 coveys, yes the good old days are here again in South Georgia. A few other plantations in the area have seen similar covey counts and most plantations have enjoyed substantial increases in their bird population.
Background: Pineland Plantation is owned by the Mellon family. R.P. Mellon and S.P. Mellon are the two brothers that run the trust covering Pineland. When you ask the question " how did the quail population get to this point?" it was through the foresight of the Mellon brothers, Pineland manager Haywood Parrish, and the hunt master Aubrey Iler. Through the efforts of these four people, Pineland Plantation involved Auburn University in a quail study six years ago. The findings of this study have had a remarkable impact on the quail population, especially in South Georgia. Information from this study is available to anyone and many have begun to apply and see the results on their property. This is an interview with Aubrey Iler, representing Pineland, who is the closest to the results of the study. Aubrey has been on Pineland most of his life.
Below is an interview with Aubrey.
When and how did the Albany Area Quail Management Project get started and do you contribute the rise in the bird population to the study?
Haywood Parrish called on The Auburn University Wildlife Science Department to help us identify our limiting factors for quail at Pineland. From this the need for solid research grew into the initial 3 year study, starting in March of 1992. There are many reasons contributing to the increase of the population. Much of the credit should be given to the Quail Project not only at Pineland, but region wide. Largely what the project has done is to allow us to scientifically test management practices. Then it is easy to see which practices are truly beneficial or possibly harmful to quail. After determining a practice is of benefit then the fine tuning can start by striving to get the most from the money and time which you are investing in that practice. Basically, the Study has focused on habitat types and their quality, effects of predation, effects of supplemental feeding, and hunting success relative to these and other factors. Then we try to take trends that develop and use them to our advantage.
The flood of 1994 covered a large portion of Pineland. What happened to the bird population?
The flood killed cover and devastated the native food supply during the nesting season and the population declined on the areas that were affected. Quail live on weed seeds, native fruits, and insects during the summer. The flood wiped out all of these and the chicks that were hatched had nothing to eat. Most adult birds survived but reproduction was affected. Within 2 years the population had recovered and was good on these courses.
Did you ever document not feeding?
In the early years of my tenure there was no supplemental feeding at Pineland. We started feeding 2 or 3 years later and I know what feeding can do for quail. The Quail Project tested the effects of not feeding at Nilo Plantation. Nilo took one course and quit feeding. The first season they noted that hunting success was off about 35%. Additionally mortality was higher on the unfed course throughout the year. The next spring rolled around, the birds were a month later starting to nest on the unfed course as opposed to the fed courses. Over a period of 2 years the population was cut in half on the unfed course. It has been my opinion for many years, and the Quail Project proved that if you want to maintain a quail population in large numbers you must do some form of supplemental feeding.
How many tons of grain do you feed annually?
During the course of a year we feed about 15,000 bushels of grain. Feeding is spread out from November through the summer months.
Recently we have noticed that you use a harrow more than before. Is there a purpose behind this?
The harrow is being used to produce quality brood habitat. If we have an opening in the woods we will harrow it. This helps to open ground cover and produce weeds for birds to catch bugs in and keep predators off of them. We disk each year in October and November then we leave it. By spring there is more weedy cover and abundant insects for the nesting season.
How do you burn?
We knew that burning was required but we modified our approach to burning. We try to leave 25% to 30% in well distributed evenly spaced blocks on each course. Cover blocks will range in size from 1 to 10 acres, always striving not to leave cover in the same place year after year. This is primarily where birds will nest the following spring and summer.
What about predator control?
Predator control definitely has a positive effect on a quail population. Anything that a manager can do to help reduce predation and insure greater survival of quail and success of quail nests will have a positive effect. Predator control is not a "silver bullet" it must be combined with quality habitat, feeding, and other sound management to contribute to the big picture.
Nobody so far has had to deal with population saturation but is Pineland starting to look like there may be a problem?
We do not feel like we have reached the saturation point. There are other places that have as many or more birds than Pineland and they do not feel that they have reached that point either. How high can we all go? I am not sure. A sequence of events could take place and cause a major down turn. With the exception of the drought of ‘93 we have been in a steady incline since ‘91 at Pineland. We have seen some outbreaks of pox over the last few years but it has seemed to be insignificant thus far. Nothing can continually go in an upward direction it should either reach a plateau or decline. The real question should be, what can we do to create a higher plateau?
After seeing the large number of birds, do you trap and relocate birds?
We occasionally relocate birds in the spring, usually to an area that we cleaned up the previous year. In the large scale of land at Pineland, it probably is not very significant. However, I tend to be a little impatient. Research has shown that birds relocated into suitable habitat, and moved more than a couple of miles, will stay and be productive.
What is the future with the Quail Project?
There a couple of areas which need a more intense look. How to provide higher quality and quantity brood habitat and supplemental feeding methods. These are things that any quail enthusiast can capitalize on if they choose. We are going to experiment with enhancing brood habitat and see if it has an affect. We also will do more in the area of supplemental feeding. We need to know if year round feeding is of any benefit. Also experimenting with a high protein feed during the reproductive season will be starting this year. The results from a feeder versus spread feed trial will come to light very soon. The Quail Project also will be looking at how intensive modern agriculture and wild birds relate. The Project has many meaningful and worthwhile ideas to continue to follow. These are all applicable areas for research that will help anyone interested in quail management. The Project needs continued financial support from anyone interested in quail to continue this endeavor into the future.
How long will the study continue?
The Quail Project has answered many questions; but, as most good research does, it has uncovered new areas that need to be studied. This will probably be the case for years to come. I do not think that we have answered all the questions. Some of the initial findings from the study stirred much interest in the quail community. During the second year, everyone wanted to hear about what was happening on the hunts that were monitored with the radio-collared birds. The Williams' Family at Nilo Plantation has been instrumental in securing new support as well as opening Nilo for expanded research for the project. The Project can go on for many years to come; however, this depends largely on the continued interest and support by all people in the quail community.
How often do you hunt a course and do you hunt singles?
We hunt a course no more than once per week. Preferably more like ten days to two weeks. In general terms, if we have a good chance to shoot a covey rise we do not try to follow up with singles shooting.
Field trials in general depend on land owned by private land owners. The policy in the past, in order to keep all things equal, meant that the same course was used daily. Did too much traffic effect bird contact?
Bird contact, whether hunting or training, has a very pronounced effect on bird behavior. Wild birds learn how to adapt rather fast by running or flushing wild. There are some coveys that you rarely get a chance at and there are other coveys that you have contact with almost every time you hunt through an area. To some degree it might be a fallacy to run a trial over the same course day after day. A dog on day 5 or 6 of a trial might not have the same chance for a clean find as the dog that ran on the first day. As a land manager I do not like to see the same birds chased day after day. There is nothing good that can come as a result from the birds perspective. If all other available areas are equal, it would be better to spread those covey encounters out over more coveys. However it would be difficult to appease all trial participants with this approach.
Do you always train on the same grounds?
We have two thousand acres that we use as a training course. We normally work on it three days per week in the fall. We also try to get around to all 15 hunting courses at least twice prior to hunting season so we have some idea what we are up against. Several years ago we intentionally trained more often than usual in the fall on one of our hunting courses. At the beginning of hunting season our coveys per hour was significantly less than it was during the early fall training. Some of the birds had learned to avoid the hunting party rather well. We quit hunting that course for about 8 weeks and went back during the last 2 weeks of February and then enjoyed normal hunting. These coveys never left the course they just used learned behavior to avoid us. Birds learn fast.
If there are any questions or comments contact Aubrey Iler at Pineland Plantation (912) 734-5471.