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Farm quail habitat restored in W.Va.

May 21, 2001

Farm quail habitat restored in W.Va.



By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro


SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Martha Knott Putz remembers growing up at Willow Well, her family's 215-acre farm on Molers Crossroads, and the call of the bobwhite quail that whistled across the fields.

She also remembers when the quails' calls could no longer be heard. "We stopped seeing them in the early 1980s," Putz said. "There were a lot of quail around before then. My father and his friends used to hunt them. It was no problem to get your limit."

Putz and Patrick Luke, who works in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's office of the National Farm Service Agency in Jefferson County, W.Va., said they know what made the quail disappear.

Cleaner farming practices such as no-till farming that depend on insecticides, herbicides and pesticides to destroy unwanted vegetation and insects harmful to crops killed quail as well. The chemicals destroyed the vegetation that the birds ate and lived in and that hid them from predators.

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Luke said harsh winters followed by cold, damp springs also took their toll. Chicks were especially vulnerable.

Willow Well is owned by Martha Knott Putz and her two sisters. Susan Knott lives on the farm. Alice Knott Mills lives in southern Virginia. All three grew up on the farm.

Putz, her sisters and their mother ran the farm after Martha's father died in 1952, she said. Today, the sisters keep about 60 head of Hereford cattle on the farm. The rest of the cropland is leased to another farmer, she said.

Putz and her husband, Robert Putz, live in a renovated old stone farmhouse a few miles from Willow Well.

About three years ago, the Putzes decided that they wanted to bring quail back to the farm. They signed up for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program. WHIP offers landowners free technical advice and cash incentives if they set aside areas for wildlife habitat improvement.

The Putzes wanted to focus on quail habitat, Robert Putz said.

Luke studied the land and identified areas where habitat could be improved. Fence rows, stretches of an eroded drainage area and marginal farmland were included. In all, seven acres were set aside, none of which affected any land in agriculture, Martha Knott Putz said.

Luke chose plants and vegetation that best benefit quail. Some provide food, some provide nesting areas, and some provide a safe harbor from predators. Plant varieties include hedge-like switch grass whose stalks grow an inch or two apart. "Quail can run between them but predators can't," Robert Putz said.

A favorite of Luke and the Putzes - as well as the quail - are the sunflowers. A smaller variety than the giant fan-size sunflowers of summer, these reach only a couple of feet high, have multiple blossoms and cover the fields with a riot of yellow when they bloom. Martha Putz said.

The work began in 1999. The habitat is taking shape as the varieties mature. "I've already seen two coveys of quail," Robert Putz said.

The improvements benefit many kinds of birds, including song birds, who during their spring and fall migrations stop on the farm to rest and feed, Robert Putz said.

The Putzes hope the improvements will attract pheasants too.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed," Martha Putz said.

Robert Putz said he would like to be able to hunt quail again in a few years. Luke cautioned that WHIP is not aimed at improving hunting.

"It's designed to have the least impact on farming operations," he said. "We don't want farmers to be against wildlife. We want them to cohabitat with wildlife."

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