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Backyard Bobwhite: Part 3

8 week old Bobwhite

Educating birds, or Educating Us

It’s been just over a month since we added 35 young Bobwhite to our small flight pen. The birds are now approaching 10 weeks of age and in a couple more weeks we should start to see their adult colors and get a better idea of the gender mix of our population.

We learned very quickly that the soft sided netting at ground level was not going to be sufficient to repel farm cats. And then there were 33. But it was a good lesson to learn early before attempts by more wild and nefarious predators could be made under cover of darkness. Some quick adjustments to the pen with some wire mesh seem to have improved security and we’ve not lost another bird to date.

Young quail eat a lot. They have no problems pseudo-foraging for food which we’re broadcasting on the ground. Meal worms seem to be the most highly prized energy source which makes sense because of the high protein requirements for young birds. Grasshoppers or crickets unfortunate enough to wander into the pen are quickly divided as well.

The cover and food plot continue to thrive in the wet Ohio summer and grain yields should fair quite nicely this fall. In the interim it provides good hides within the pen that the Bobs seem to enjoy. It is astonishing how quickly 30 birds can disappear in such a small enclosure.

It’s become clear these birds will not be made truly wild as we once hoped. They have imprinted on their primary caretaker, my dad, and he has taken to them as well. This might be concerning if there was a thought we ever intended to “hunt” these quail. But the goal is not to have strong flyers for shooting. The goal is to have fat healthy birds that stand a chance of surviving a rough winter. Our wild bird plan has become multigenerational.

If we can shield some birds from the clutches of a deadly winter and all the peril therein, a breeding in spring will produce hatchlings that have never known a pen or the charity of a free meal.

So the bar has moved. We’re learning and hopefully our quail are as well. They still demonstrate wild tendencies to evade and hide. But the dinner bell strikes a powerful chord that trumps most fears. Maybe when the seeds begin dropping after the first frost and we open the pen, the provider of food will become less important.

For now we’ll just hope luck remains on our side and we can keep birds healthy and growing to the satisfaction of the old man and quail alike.

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.


Backyard Bobwhite: Part 1

Is the key to restoring quail right out your back door?

I grew up in small farming community in rural Northeast Ohio. It’s not considered an upland bird hot spot. But I still remember seeing wild quail when I was a kid. And I’ve verified this with others from the area. Bobwhite used to inhabit the hedge rows and fence lines.

Then came the blizzard in January of 1978. In Ohio it produced wind speeds of 70+ mph and wind chills dropped below -60° F. Depending where you lived the snowfall reached over 30″ with drifts that were epic. I remember digging a snow tunnel directly out the backdoor that I could stand up in (I was still just a little guy). This storm killed over 50 people in the state of Ohio. It also killed nearly every quail. And their comeback has been slow to nonexistent.

There’s still a Bobwhite hunting season in 16 Ohio counties primarily in the southwest where populations have hung on. The Ohio DNR has taken shots at expanding these quail territories by trapping live birds in areas of Ohio with decent population and seeding them to counties further north with cooperation from private landowners. The state also has attempted restoring Bobwhite on public lands by transplanting wild birds trapped in Kansas. Those seem like good plans but public funding for this type of program is getting sparse. Quail aren’t the high-profile, high-draw return on investment that big game and turkey are these days.

Bobwhite Quail range tends to expand at a snail’s pace, by most accounts about 1/4 mile per year. With annual mortality rates above 80% it could take centuries under the best case scenarios for quail of southern Ohio to populate the rest of the state. That’s not going to happen on public land alone.

Every year we receive messages and posts from fans asking what they can do to help conserve upland birds. And the stock answer always seems to be pay dues to the large conservation organizations, and attend their banquets. But dues and banquets leave many unsatisfied. Cutting a check doesn’t make some feel invested in conservation.

Chapters of Pheasants/ Quail Forever are active and do good work attracting people to upland sports. But the focus in this area seems to be improving hunting habitat on public lands where wild birds don’t exist. When birds are released into these tracts the hunting might be wonderful, the bird survival is another story.

That’s bothered me.

And that’s when the wheels started turning. How does someone who doesn’t own massive tracts of land or have millions of dollars positively and actively impact upland bird conservation?

Bobwhite are the perfect candidate species for micro-conservation. They are small birds, with relatively small resource requirements that prefer a home territory.

Most of my childhood was spent on our family farm. My parents still live there. My dad taught my sisters and I how to mow around the age of 11. He’d gas up the mowers and turn us loose to shear the 8 acres that run around the house, outbuildings and orchard. It was a biweekly chore during the summers. Now that we’re all grown the mowing has fallen back to dad and now he’s recruiting the grandkids.

But those new recruits have sports and swim meets and much more important pulls on their time that require a granddad to attend that make a manicured lawn seem less important. And dad is no longer a spring chicken.

This winter we began hatching a plan to lighten the mowing load and reintroduce the Bobwhite back to our homestead without breaking the bank. The goal is to map out steps for an individual (or two) to run their own habitat and reintroduction process with minimal land requirements. We’ll document all costs, obstacles and success or lack of. And if all else fails at least dad will have less to yard to upkeep.

We identified an area at the back of the farm totaling around a half-acre that dad is willing to give up mowing.  This plot sits between a small old orchard and two sets of evergreen trees. It offers great cover from the elements, a nearby creak for water and is close enough to the house to limit exposure to predators as well.

The first step is to return it to good quail habitat . In Ohio the largest obstacle for quail success is access to food over the winter. There’s still plenty of grain agriculture around, but cover along fence lines that have been traditional habitat is becoming non-existent. Commodity prices are too high for farmers to allow land to sit untilled. But lawns, good lord there are plenty of manicured yards. If farming is going to take up the quail’s habitat then let’s give it back one square foot of lawn at a time.

I am a bird hunter, not a biologist. But I know a thing or two about these birds that I’ve pursued for decades. I know the types of areas and habitat where the dogs and I have found quail. With a little tilling and cultivation we can transform yard into that type of area. It won’t fulfill all the requirements of a Bobwhite’s life cycle. But by my account most of those requirements they can still fulfill on their own. The winter food source close to good cover is the crux in this state.

The week prior to Memorial Day we tilled our plot and hand seeded a game bird mix containing sunflower, millets, and sorghum seed. We also took down an old apple tree that’s been crowding some pears in the orchard. We utilized those limbs to stack three massive brush piles for the birds to eventually use as dense protective cover. The hope is this will become the home base for our quail, putting everything they need within a very small area so that they have every motivation to stay and thrive.

It was a full day of hard work. And now there is more to come.

But that’s for the next installment: Making a cost effective quail pen and our plans to train pen-raised quail for survival in the wild.