Down times for upland birds

Bob Fala Outdoors Columnist

October 17, 2013

The good times have rolled on for deer, bear and wild turkey. They’ve done pretty well for the ducks and geese of the wetlands too. However, the opposite has occurred for our beloved feathered fare of the dry lands. You know, the Bobwhite quail, ruffed grouse and American woodcock simply known in the collective as upland game birds. So what’s the story?

Only the gray-haired contingent remembers the good old days for when Bobwhite quail were as much a part of hunting here as was squirrel hunting. Back when, upland small game hunting was action packed, oft with a mixed bag of rabbit, quail and a squirrel or two along the woodlots for good measure. The explosive covey rises just under the nose of classy pointing, flushing and rabbit dogs or even hound-less school boys kicking them out with their feet were something to behold.

Many folks under forty of fifty years of age have never even seen a quail, let alone shot at one! Fast forward to the present and the Bobwhite quail is barely a huntable species in West Virginia. The backyard farms of just about everywhere circa the 1930’s have reverted to mature timber. For a while in between, the brush loving ruffed grouse and American woodcock filled in nicely for the Bobwhites peeking out sometime around the 1970’sand 1980’s.

The ruffed grouse or “native pheasant,” as some folks call them and American woodcock since then have followed the same downward path as the Bobwhite quail for the same reason, reforestation to mature timber. The managers like to call this a statewide, “landscape” scale or aerial view habitat change of a major proportion.

There is not much we can do about it either. The likelihood of West Virginia’s marginal upland soils being returned to corn is highly unlikely. The greatest chance for another landscape like habitat change to favor the upland birds is for a major turnabout in the timber market. And as the trees continue to mature and the housing market recovers, there is some hope.

Mother Nature can sure aid and abet the brush loving species too. For example, events the likes of forest fires and tornadoes to last year’s Derecho and Hurricane Sandy can create some “early successional” habitat, as the ecologists call it, in a hurry. In the local Coalfields, the young growth of the surface mine reclaims and perimeters are good bets for the upland birds too.

As a group, the early successional or species of the young forest are one of the most imperiled wildlife. As a result, nearby states like Ohio and Pennsylvania aggressively try to purchase old surface mine sites to provide a modicum of hope for this struggling group of wildlife. Reason being, these states have undergone much of the same landscape transition from farm to forest as West Virginia has.

Die-hard upland bird hunters have resorted to obtaining hunting permits or leases from major timbering companies as a modern day last resort for some steady upland action. Where there is brush habitat as in after intensive logging, there are generally a few birds. As always, habitat is the key.

As you head out into the uplands for this year’s grouse and woodcock season (Oct. 12) or Bobwhite quail (Nov. 2), keep these landscape habitat factors in mind for the bigger picture. And for the smaller scale day of the hunt stuff, get into the hairiest and brushiest of the young forests you can find for a taste of today’s upland action.