Photo by Dan Cook. Dennis Smith gets ready for a quail to appear as the dogs go on a point at White Oak Plantation near Tuskegee, Ala.
Back in the 1960s, many bobwhite quail hunters roamed the fieldsof the Southeast. But quail numbers were declining, biologists warned, and that trend continued because of habitat loss.
The good news is that much attention is now being devoted to their plight, and that was the case long before Vice President Dick Cheney’s much-publicized quail-hunting incident in Texas.
Dr. Lee Stribling of Auburn University is credited with helping the Southern quail population in recent years. Likewise, Tall Timbers Research in Florida is making big strides, according to Robert Pitman, whose family operates White Oak Plantation at Tuskegee, Ala., and offers quail hunting with penreared birds.
The Pitmans also provide deer, turkey and other types of hunting on the 15,000-plus acres they control in central Alabama, including personally owned and leased land, but quail is the only type of game they stock. And they praise the effort being made toward the bird’s natural restoration. Concern about the birds goes back three quarters of a century, Robert Pitman pointed out. Herbert Stoddard’s 1931 book "The Bobwhite Quail, Its Habits, Preservation and Increase" was greatly respected, and Walter Rosene followed with "The Bobwhite Quail, Its Life and Management."
Dr. Stribling, an Auburn associate professor and extension wildlife specialist, has lent his expertise to Georgia efforts centered at Albany, in a project that began in 1992. "We’ve tried to help Dr. Stribling," Pitman said. "The Tall Timbers and that partnered project at Albany have done more for quail than anything since Stoddard and Rosene wrote their books. "The main problem is one of habitat management. You’ve got to be wealthy to be able to afford to manage for quail, because they need an awful lot of space."
After freezes in the late 1950s and ’60s wiped out their thriving citrus farming operation in Apopka, Fla., Pitman and his wife, Hilda, bought land near Tuskegee. They traveled between the two states before deciding to stay in Alabama and build a new type of enterprise, now in its 24th year.
"When we started, we did everything textbook," Robert Pitman said. "Since we wanted wildlife, we planted in small increments because we wanted an edge."
They have continued to learn management techniques for top game hunting. Pitman said if he had realized earlier how much better longleaf pine works for wildlife, quail in particular, he would have planted that type of tree instead of the loblolly pine so prevalent on the plantation. Stately longleaf pines are more fire-resistant than other types, and they leave plenty of space for plants to grow underneath, attracting insects needed by quail and turkey.
"You get daylight on the forest floor," Pitman said. "And you can burn a lot more often so that you can create habitat for quail as well as for deer and turkey."
Rick Claybrook, supervising wildlife biologist for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fishing’s District 4 — which includes Macon County, where White Oak is located — said the state has incentive programs to assist landowners in providing for quail. He agreed with the prevailing belief that the reduction of gardens and other patch farming and consequent loss of edgerow habitat has been one factor in declining quail numbers.
"Probably a combination of predation and things like that and habitat changes" thinned out the quail, Claybrook said. White Oak’s sales and marketing manager, Will Jones, said the plantation’s deer and turkey hunting trips fill up fast every year. Clients come from across the nation, even from foreign countries. The plantation has become well known through numerous stories in national magazines and newspapers and from videos that appear on television.
Photo by Dan Cook A quail runs through the foliage around the main building at White Oak Plantation near Tuskegee, Ala.
Not all of the pen-reared quail brought to the hunting area remain there, Jones and Pitman acknowledged.
Some escape. There is evidence that they mix with wild birds, learning to protect themselves from predators and gather food in remote places.
The Pitmans’ oldest son, Bo, manages the deer and turkey hunting and the White Oak property. Another son, Matthew, oversees the quail hunting at White Oak and Red Oak Plantation, a nearby Pitman development.
All will be busy with turkey season, but they also are increasingly pleased with developments in quail restoration — as many sportsmen are.