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Connecting with Bobwhite

The number of Ohio residents who recognize the distinctive call of Bobwhite is dwindling. The old-timers, a few farmers, the occasional birder can still whistle the tune that was once a fixture of the buckeye landscape prior to the blizzard of ’78. Just a handful of counties in the southwest corner of the state are now habitat to sustaining populations. Those birds are 150 miles as the quail flies from the area where I grew up hearing quail on my grandpa’s farm.

This is dairy farm and Amish country. The fence rows still stand, private land is still logged, successional habitat still exists. But wild quail are nowhere to be found. Under the best conditions not factoring habitat loss, fragmentation and human encroachment, quail populations naturally expanding their range (1/2 mile per year) could hypothetically return Bobwhite to my old stomping ground by the year 2315. There’s a good chance I won’t be around for that, and an even better chance that the Bobwhite quail will no longer be a part of local lore.

This part of the country has never been a quail hunting hotspot. In fact we never hunted them growing up. We simply heard them and appreciated their part in the rural reveille.

Last off-season, we embarked on our own Bobwhite conservation project (See the Backyard Bobwhite series of articles). We reviewed previous data and studies for pen-raised birds. We listened to the skepticism of professionals and conservationists. Guided only by what we’ve learned from years afield, we planted a small food plot and raised 33 birds in pseudo-wild conditions.

We had a hard winter. It really was a nightmare scenario for our small group of birds released in October. It dipped as cold as -22°F and snow totals for the season were close to 30”.

A neighbor to the west had last eyes on our quail in late November. There was no evidence they returned to our food plot over the winter. We believed survival was a long shot given all the existing data on released birds and mortality rates.

But the spring offered a glimmer of hope. A retired biologist friend reported seeing birds in his yard a half-mile south of our release site. And the same neighbor who reported birds in November claimed to be hearing Bobwhite on mornings prior to departing for school. But the ability of locals to correctly identify quail which have not been seen in over 35 years left room for doubt.

As we began assessing this year’s quail plan, turning some ground in our plot to test new seed, sketching the improved flight pen, all doubt was removed. From the cover bordering the small creek that runs through our property, I heard the unmistakeable calls.

To hear them firsthand reminds me why all this is important. It has nothing to do with bird hunting. This is about a way of life. These birds restore a connection to a family farm, to the land, to my grandpa. It’s about finding wonder and worth in small wild elements still able to survive in vastly changing landscapes. Neighbors who have unwittingly missed Bobwhite for a generation are becoming vested in their survival and restoration for their own similar reasons. And now the work to construct the new flight pen doesn’t seem like much work at all.

Backyard Bobwhite: Part 2

Can a pen-raised quail make it in the wild?

If you’ve had the privilege to hunt Bobwhite over a few seasons in areas where they still reside, you likely know that year over year you will find birds in the exact same locations. Read old stories from some of the great quail hunting authors and you’ll notice the coveys have become so consistent that they’ve been given names. There’s obviously a reason for this.

Bobwhite Quail imprint on a home territory. Their range is small which also contributes to relatively lengthy periods to expand into new areas. But when you take this knowledge acquired from hunting and apply it to conservation it can make a number of things really start to add up.

I believe this is the key to why most quail reintroduction and relocation projects lack success. Transporting a Bobwhite away from its home turf is like dropping it on the face of the moon. The learning curve to acclimate is so great that before it can identify cover, food, water and threats it becomes hawk bait.

The traditional wisdom is that you can’t take a pen-raised bird, release it in the wild and have it survive long term – it’s been too stupefied by domestication to have a clue. But can survival instincts be revived in captive birds? We don’t have the resources or permissions to trap wild birds and relocate them. But we can take newly hatched birds and try to educate them.

As with most offspring, the young are at highest risk. Bobwhite fledge in around a week’s time and become flight capable in as little a two weeks. But most quail take six weeks or more to become true flyers. By most accounts Bobwhite annual mortality rates can approach 80%. The bulk of this is due to exposure to the elements or predation before young birds can manage strong flight. Needless to say, the learning curve for hatchlings is fairly steep. Juvenile quail make a tasty snack for just about anything with teeth or talon.

Ultimate Upland Quail Pen

The way I see it, we’ve got to train our birds three things that the average pen-raised bird is lacking.

First, we want our birds to imprint on a specific area. As you may have read in Backyard Bobwhite: Part 1, we’re providing everything the birds need in a condensed space (food, cover, water). We know that the birds will explore outside of this location. The hope is they also learn to return to the relative safety it offers, much like free-ranging chickens returning to a coop nightly to roost. If our quail return to the brush piles and food plot which should grow thick by this fall, it offers them the best chance of overnight survival. We’re placing our quail enclosure in the heart of the area we want our birds to consider home base, adjacent to one of our massive brush piles.

Most pens lack cover. In order for our birds to survive they cannot feel comfortable standing in the clear for extended time in an open enclosure. Silent death from above awaits any gallinaceous bird willing to frolic in the open for too long. Our pen will be on the ground and will have the same cover and feed plants growing through it that we want the birds to become accustomed to. We also plan to incorporate some brush resting on and within the pen. We want these chicks to feel as if they are growing up in the shelter of a thicket. We know first hand from raising chickens that hawks will attempt to take birds even when they are within pens. Netting will provide protection from above and allow the quail to learn of the pending raptor threats without initially suffering the losses that accompany that same lesson in the wild.

Lastly, we don’t want our birds looking to feeders as a food source once we release them. These birds need to know how to forage. We’ll be broadcasting their food on the ground within the pen and incorporating the same seed and grains that they will need to find in the wild. Over the first few weeks of their life a Bobwhite’s primary diet in the wild is insects. Our ground based enclosure will allow foraging for insects but we’ll also look for a source of insects to supplement our young quails’ high protein requirements.

Click here to see the video of our simple, inexpensive quail pen come together. Total expenses were less than $150. If successful we hope to be able to reassemble and reuse it in other locations in the future.

We’re bird hunters armed with knowledge from afield trying to translate it to raising birds that can survive a rough Ohio winter. It’s an experiment. Parts of this plan contradict studies by much smarter individuals. Most experts believe to manage for quail you need a minimum of 20-40 acres with multiple plantings and dedicated areas for every stage of their life cycle. Our hope is to utilize a much smaller area and allow the birds to provide for themselves while we provide the missing element that caused their initial decline, a winter food source close to protective cover.

It remains to be seen if we’re correct. But we’re excited to try something different, utilizing a fresh perspective. It’s time to start thinking differently for quail and many other species’ conservation.