For The Birmingham News
On a recent walk in the woods, Robert Segrest suddenly realized that birds he used to take for granted had become strangers to his sons.
"We jumped a covey, and it startled them," Segrest said. "I've got a 13-year-old and a 5-year-old, and I don't think they've ever seen quail before. It definitely startled the younger one. He asked me what it was, and I told him and he said, `What's a quail?'"
That's a painful question for anyone who remembers when wild quail covered the Southeastern United States. When Segrest was a teenager growing up in the Tuskegee area in the 1970s, quail were still plentiful enough to be a regular sight on any rural property. During the next two decades, however, quail all but disappeared, with a few isolated coveys hiding out in the most remote locations.
But an unusual and amazing comeback is happening in that same area where Segrest once found quail in abundance. About four miles from Segrest's home, on the same property where the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II fame once defied long odds, David Runyan is bringing quail back with award-winning methods.
"I know for a fact when David moved in there weren't any birds - not there, not here, not anywhere in the area," Segrest said. "Now all of sudden in the past two or three years, I'm seeing quail again. I saw a covey that probably had 10 or 12 quail in it. They're here because of what David is doing."
What Runyan is doing is defying long-standing theories for repopulating quail. Using his own strategies, he recently won the 2003 Progressive Farmer/Rural Sportsman Upland Game Management Farm of the Year award for his work managing Uphapee Plantation, a 2,450-acre private property in Tuskegee.
More than 60 years ago, the land was used by the Army to house and train young black men to become military pilots, flight engineers, gunners, and mechanics. Many of these men went on to become decorated World War II heroes. Many gave their lives fighting in the war.
A dumping ground:
When Runyan was hired by a new owner to manage the property in 1997, the historic site had fallen into abuse and neglect, with locals often using it as a drag strip and a dumping ground.
"The old runways were here, the old parking apron where they parked all the P-51 Mustangs and all the other aircraft," Runyan said. "There aren't a whole lot of buildings on the place. The old post office is still standing and the freshwater treatment facility is still standing, but other than that it's just a bunch of concrete slabs, chimneys, a few paved roads."
When Runyan began to clean up the mess, he found few quail and little habitat. In fact, the only good habitat came from the weeds that grew up through the asphalt runways. Still, he welcomed the prospect of transforming the land into suitable wildlife habitat.
"I've worked on a lot of different pieces of property, and this by far has been the most interesting, purely because of the history," said Runyan, who previously had never heard of the Tuskegee Airmen but since has studied them and met a few. "You're driving through the woods, and the next thing you know, there's a road, a curb, a sewer drain. It was actually like a city.
"But something I'm real proud of is the fact that I've taken what once was an old city and now it's prime wildlife habitat."
Runyan created the habitat through textbook management methods, such as planting food plots, prescribed burning, clearing land and thinning timber. His efforts to place birds in the wild, however, were anything but textbook.
Most quail released on private and public preserves and farms are 12 weeks old. They are released in the late summer or early fall, and the ones that aren't killed by natural causes or predators are taken during the hunting season. Few survive their first winter.
"People think a released bird doesn't have the ability to survive," Runyan said, "much less proliferate and reproduce."
Runyan found a bird grower who actually vaccinated his quail and did some research. In the process, he learned that 12-week-old birds often lose their survival instincts in captivity. Runyan started releasing younger birds, starting with 10 weeks, then eight, then seven. During the past two years he's released 6-week-old, vaccinated, banded birds with amazing results.
"The last two years we've experienced a boom in population," Runyan said. "We're seeing a recognizable increase of banded birds."
Runyan gives the birds a head start by releasing them in heavy cover, such as plum or privet thickets, surrounded by food plots and other prime habitat. He also provides water and small grain so the birds won't have to leave the cover.
Runyan also helps the birds by trapping and hunting predators such as raccoons, possums, bobcats, foxes and coyotes, although he has learned to let some of the coyotes go because they prey on nest predators.
`Making a difference':
The results of his work include more birds, healthier birds, birds that breed with wild birds and birds that behave like wild birds.
"When you get them up ,they get up together, and they pitch down together like wild coveys," Runyan said. "They call and gather like wild birds. They run from the dogs like wild birds. They act as wild as anything I've ever seen. You'd never know they weren't wild until you pick them up and they have a band on them."
The Progressive Farmer/Rural Sportsman award, which Runyan and his wife Kimberly received at a banquet Thursday, is another way Runyan hopes to make a positive impact.
"That's very rewarding. I feel like I'm making a difference," Runyan said. "What I've been most excited about is sharing what I've learned and the formula I've come up with for the successful repopulation of quail. I hope people will pay attention and other people will start practicing some of what I'm doing and have their own success."
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