Tall Timbers: In Search of the Wild Flush
An innovative plan to restore wild quail populations throughout the South
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David Douglas is an unbeliever, and an unapologetic heretic, at that. A builder, a bird hunter, a man in love with the South Carolina Lowcountry, he simply rejects the gospel widely held across the South that the age of wild bobwhite quail is past. That it is no longer feasible to have wild quail on private lands in numbers worth chasing with a bird dog and a scattergun. That farming changes, urbanization, increases in predator numbers, fire ants, pine plantations, and any of a litany of other modern quandaries have so diminished the prospects of Gentleman Bob that quail coveys and quail hunting and the sunrise whistles of a bobwhite brood are destined for relict status—available for occasional enjoyment, but nothing to fashion a farm, or a lifestyle, around.
Douglas will hear none of it. On historic lands his wife’s family amassed, along the cypress-shaded banks of the Little Pee Dee River, Douglas is restoring wild quail habitat and wild quail populations in ways that just might change the future for the South’s most iconic game bird. Thanks to an intensive program of habitat management and an innovative wild bird propagation technique developed by the private quail and Southern pinelands research facility Tall Timbers, Douglas is turning back time on several hundred acres of pines and fields and tangled swamps. He is a convert to a growing faith: that Southern quail and quail hunting just might rise again.
“You’ll have to shoot fast,” Douglas warns as I step through a winter-brown field of thigh-high weeds, reeds, and briars. Bearded and chatty, he wears denim brush pants and a pleasant bearing of near-constant optimism. Nellie, a German shorthaired pointer, has the birds pinned down, on point on the edge of the field’s low cover, right where the grasses grade to chest-high broomsedge and then to tall, columnar pines. Late-season birds are inherently skittish, invariably wary. The tinkle of a dog bell, the raking of nylon-faced brush pants through briars—anything can set them off, and when a covey of wild birds goes, it goes with a force and ferocity honed over the millennia.
The exact location of this quail covey is no accident, nor is its existence in general. We’re working through a “brood field,” a five-acre plot designed and maintained to provide cover for young quail. These brood fields are a critical component of Tall Timbers’ prescription for wild quail management, and a perfect example of a core philosophy of how landowners can make the switch between relying on pen-raised birds with their put-and-take hunting and a new paradigm of giving wild birds a chance.
Tall Timbers is a Tallahassee, Florida–based, privately funded 3,400-acre research facility founded in 1958 and based on the pioneering work of the father of modern science-based quail management, the much-lauded Herbert Stoddard. Over the last half century, Tall Timbers has been synonymous with the magnificent quail hunting found on the sprawling quail plantations of the Red Hills, a 300,000-acre swath of rolling open pinewood savannahs, carpets of golden wire grass, ancient lakes, and river swamp between Tallahassee and Thomasville, Georgia. There, about eighty historic quail plantations pour millions of dollars into managing for wild quail, with astounding results. Finding twenty to thirty coveys per day is not unusual for gunners who traditionally ride horses along meticulously mown grid paths, accompanied by mule-drawn dog carriages that hold as many as eight highly trained bird dogs.
What’s happening in South Carolina and elsewhere is a sister effort, carefully refined for smaller private land parcels outside Tall Timbers’ traditional Red Hills range. “We’ve tuned the Red Hills model to smaller scales, and we are exporting it to landowners with a few hundred acres instead of a few thousand, but with a similar passion for wild birds,” says Bill Palmer, Tall Timbers’ president and CEO. “We’re telling people that managing land for huntable populations of wild quail is doable, that the days of hunting wild quail in the South aren’t numbered at all.”