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NewsTribune photo/Amy Flanery Spring Valley Mayor Cliff Banks holds one of the quail he and Mark Actis have begun breeding in Banks’ garage. The men plan to move their 52 breeders to an outdoor location this spring and expect them to lay about 100 eggs per month. The new quail will be released into a man-made habitat on Putnam County farmland.
NewsTribune photo/Amy Flanery Three-month-old quail flock to the sandbox in their indoor enclosure after Mark Actis added fresh sand. He and Cliff Banks plan to breed the quail and to stock them on private property.
Cliff Banks, Spring Valley’s mayor, is known for his public efforts and political campaign plank four years ago to bring an Asian carp processing plant to town.
But his efforts in the outdoors didn’t stop after that didn’t come to fruition. In his private life, Banks is working to establish a population of quail on two pieces of private land in Putnam County, including 304 acres he owns.
This fall, he was raising 26 pairs of quail to use as breeding stock. They should start laying eggs in March, and he and his colleagues plan to let them go before they become tame.
“First of all, when you let ’em go, they have to be just starting to fly so they can get away from the predators,” he said.
They can’t be considered a native line of birds. He said he and Mark Actis are raising “Georgia Giants” and “Wisconsin jumbos.” Conservation officials typically favor native strains. Also, they usually see similar attempts fail because of lack of suitable habitat.
“If they’re going to spend their time and money on something I would spend it on habitat,” said Stan McTaggart, Illinois Department of Natural Resources district wildlife biologist for Marshall, Putnam and Bureau counties. “With the commodity prices and the type of ground we have around here, more people put it in corn and beans.”
Still, Illinois is lacking in suitable habitat for many types of wildlife, so McTaggart welcomes efforts.
“Anybody that’s trying, that’s great that they have that mindset and they want to try,” he said.
McTaggart said the proper habitat for quail attract other species, such as Henslow’s sparrows and grasshopper sparrows.
Critics sometimes say raising and freeing quail and other upland game often turns into a predator-feeding program instead of a population re-establishment program. McTaggart said put-and-take programs, or efforts to stock birds just to train the dogs and for hunting pleasure, are more successful than repopulating schemes. He said quail need to have types of grasses they can move through, and they need some patches of bare ground, or “disturbance” as McTaggart called it. “The key with quail is they’re a wee little bird and their feet need to touch the ground,” said Mike Wefer, Illinois Department of Natural Resources upland and agricultural land game biologist and wildlife section head.
Wefer said Putnam County is on the northern edge of Northern Illinois’ quail range. “That said, if you have good habitat, there’s a good chance you can get quail,” he said, noting Green River state wildlife area north of Ohio, Ill., is a good example of a place where quail populations have thrived at times. However, he clarified that he means the habitat itself attracts quail, not that placing birds into a habitat will cause them to thrive. Also, it can take them awhile to come back after die-out in big snowstorms, or ice storms particularly, Wefer said.
He said efforts to introduce quail mainly to hunt them and train dogs usually work out just fine, but efforts to re-establish a population generally don’t work. He said the average age of quail in Illinois is eight months, meaning most don’t survive the winter.
But Banks says he did this before when he lived in southern Illinois, and he said initially his goal is to establish populations on private properties.
“We’re going to give it a shot,” Banks said. “We’ll work with the state biologist on this.”
Banks said he is working to create a suitable habitat.
They’re creating brush piles over small safety zones made from wire fencing wide enough for birds to get in and narrow enough to keep out predators ranging from foxes to cats.
“We’re trying to cut down the coyote population in those two areas, too,” Banks said.
“We’re going to be planting the right feed for them with some wheat and milo and different grass seed the quail like to eat,” he said. They’re also planting some types of grasses that the quail should be able to see over. They plan to do that planting along roadways and in grassy waterways between the agricultural rows.
McTaggart said he is more familiar with Marshall, Woodland and Stark counties than Putnam and Bureau, which he has in his area of responsibility now. He said when he has done upland surveys in those counties, they still find quail, but “they’re in decline.” He said some recent wet summers were hard on them.
Wefer said, referring to the topography for pheasant more than quail, Putnam and La Salle counties “have incredible potential, but with $8 corn, the pheasant population is competing directly with $8 corn.” Therefore, he said his “hat’s off” to anyone who is conserving or creating habitat other than row-crop land.