Wild wings

He wears an old straw hat and a white T-shirt that probably is only clean for a short time every morning. He has a full white beard and tanned skin and you wouldn’t believe what he has done. I think the man is a miracle worker!

Chuck Purgason raises game birds by the thousands near Caulfield Mo., not too far north of Norfork Lake. On his 1,100 acres of crops and prime wildlife habitat, 2,500 hunting parties killed 18,000 quail, 8,000 pheasants and 5,000 chukars last fall and winter.

Everywhere you look around his home, there are quail and pheasants. The air is constantly pierced by the sharp clear whistle of bobwhite roosters. It looks like an operation that would take 20 workers.

“No,” Purgason says, “I have my son and one other employee here, and my wife who takes care of the books and accounting records. But in the hunting season there are four or five guides who I hire on a contract basis to take hunters out.”

If you think the birds are his only responsibility, think again. He also owns and trains 18 or 20 bird dogs, some of the best you can find. Every upland bird biologist in Arkansas and Missouri needs to spend time with Purgason and listen to him.

“I had a biologist tell me not long ago that he feels wild quail are adversely affected by released, penraised birds,” he said. “I told him the reason people buy them to release and hunt is because there are no wild quail there anymore.”

In the wild, quail eggs are eaten by raccoons and skunks and armadillos and even possums. Small rodents and snakes get a few eggs too. Those furbearing scroungers are at high numbers all across the Ozarks. Purgason says that adult quail are hurt by smaller hawks, particularly sharp-shinned and coopers hawks, and at night by owls. He said that red-tailed hawks, which are deadly on rabbits, likely aren’t a big problem for quail or pheasant on his place.

Purgason says that feral cats are the biggest threat to released adult quail after the sharp-shinned hawks. He also said fur trapping which controlled raccoon and skunk numbers was much of the reason that quail did so well, decades ago. No one traps anymore. Coons and skunks are thick as beer cans in the ditch.

The main reason I visited Purgason was to inquire about something I have wondered about for many, many years. Truman Lake, in the central part of Missouri, is surrounded by more than 100,000 acres of land acquired by the Corps of Engineers. The lower part of the lake is mostly timbered, but the upper part consists of thousands of acres of fields and old fencerows, hunting land increasingly taken over by vast expanses of cockleburs.

When John Hoskins became director, perhaps 10 years back, I took him out on Truman Lake in my boat and showed him a spot where we had flushed five coveys of quail before my English setter in one afternoon in the early 1990s.

I told him that on that day there were no coveys left – not one. Then I asked him if the MDC would forget the tenant farming of large acreages, which left barren ground in the winter, and start doing what people like Chuck Purgason was doing – small tracts of food plots for quail, with nesting and escape cover in between.

I also pointed out that with the tons of heavy equipment and farming equipment the MDC owns, some fantastic small marshes for waterfowl and other migrating birds could replace the desert of cockleburs along the lake. Operating at the time on about $180 million, Hoskins said there just “wasn’t enough money” to do things like that.

There was of course enough to give Bass Pro Shops owner Johnny Morris $2.5 million for his museum, and there was enough to spend hundreds of thousands on restocking a handful of elk down at the Peck Ranch.

I asked Chuck Purgason, what if the Corps of Engineers would let him have a thousand acres to manage on Truman Lake like he is managing his own land, as a place to release and hunt upland birds? It would be a hunting paradise not for elite wealthy hunters, but for common old-fashioned bird hunters living on a weekly paycheck, to bring their youngsters, who have never seen a covey rise, nor heard the cackle of a rooster pheasant.

Purgason wasted no time answering that his place could be replicated easily on such a large tract of public land. He said game farm like his would need only 20 acres, placed on private land adjacent to that public owned Corps land which is already open to any type of hunting or trapping!

“At the beginning of spring, we have some wild coveys nesting and reproducing which are descendants of birds I raised,” Purgason said. “And if they don’t believe it they can come here before we start to hunt and see those coveys out there in the field.”

The reason for that could be that Purgason’s release of 20,000 quail insures some survival into spring even if the percentage is small. In the past, this kind of restocking has been attempted with only small numbers of birds.

I cannot for the life of me figure out why this idea of making the upper reaches of Truman an upland bird hunting area like Purgason has is so objectionable to our conservation department. I know the Corps of Engineers would go along with the idea, so there’s a possibility the MDC could be by-passed if they do not want to help.

Why can’t they send a group down to talk with Purgason and study what he is doing, and maybe just try it once as an experiment? What a great thing it would be for young hunters to see upland bird hunting as it once was.

The idea of “habitat means everything” is fine, but it doesn’t work for upland birds in the Midwest without knowing that large scale farming now practiced on our MDC land is not about producing habitat, it is about producing money. Biologists must accept controlling today’s predation, and know how to create “edge and interspersion.” That means making the right habitat — which is the mixing of adequate winter food and escape cover and spring nesting cover.

If you want to see for yourself what could be done, go see Chuck Purgason’s Ozark Wings project.

I sent a hunter there last year and he came back praising what he saw there.

“It was like the old days,” he said. “You would swear you were hunting wild quail.”

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