Restoring the Bobwhite

Posted on May 11, 2012

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The Northern Bobwhite quail flap their copper-colored wings and expand their speckled bellies to bellow out a distinct two-part whistle. If you listen closely, they sound like they’re calling “bob white.”

These native birds were once popular game for hunters, but this year, the Department of Environmental Conservation has abridged its quail hunting grounds on all of Long Island for fear of further reducing their declining presence.

“You never want a species nationally or locally to become extinct on your watch,” said Bruce Horwith, a conservationist and owner of the Wild Bird Crossing Store in Bridgehampton. “You do what you can to keep them going, and the quail here obviously are facing a struggle.”

The number of bobwhite quail surveyed across eight sites on Suffolk County declined from 24 spotted in 2002 to zero in 2011, according to Chip Hamilton at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. The biologists at the conservation sift through quail trails along eight locations including Rocky Point, Manorville, Otis Pike Preserves and Eastport.

The bobwhite are struggling to make a comeback primarily because there aren’t enough grassland habitats for them to thrive in, according to Mike Schiebel, natural resources manager at The Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island.

The quail seen in Suffolk County today are the released quail and their offspring from captive breeding programs that private groups and conservationists introduce, Schiebel said.

The conservationists include Eric Powers, an environmental biologist who has been conducting the “Bobwhite Quail Project” for the past nine years in Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown.

Powers entered a partnership with local schools to incubate bobwhite quail eggs. During late March they are incubated, in May they hatch and in June they get released into the preserve.

He began this year’s project at the Miller Avenue Elementary School in Shoreham where he talked to a class of 25 third graders about incubating their eggs for 23 days in a heated incubator.

“When they come out, and they finally fluff up they really resemble a fuzzy walnut,” Powers said.

The students roared in laughter. For size comparison, he held the fragile quail egg next to an ostrich egg. Some students fixed their eyes on the eggs and left their mouths hanging, while others asked Powers if they could see them up close.

Powers’ effort is one among only three bobwhite restoration projects on Long Island. The other two are at Avalon State Park and Preserve in Stony Brook, led by Leonard Carolan, and at Connetquot River State Park Preserve, led by Cathy Wilvert.

Carolan began his project in 2010 with two sets of 125 baby quail shipped from John Wolf’s Game Bird Hatchery in Pennsylvania. In the preserve, his team keeps them in a “surrogator,” an enclosure that contains food, water and a heater, for three weeks in May before they’re released into the fields by June.

“They’re hesitant at first,” Carolan said, “but once one makes the plunge they all start to follow.”

Unlike Powers, Carolan doesn’t want quail to get accustomed to humans. But by the end of 2010 and early 2011, Carolan saw only 11 quail that had survived through the winter.

While shrinking grasslands and predators like the fox are contributing to the quail’s decline, both Powers and Carolan argue that housecats have become the dominating predator.

“There’s a remarkable increase in the number of cats let out to wander through the forest, and there’s a fundamental difference in the way that natural predators hunt and domestic cats hunt,” Powers said. The fox can’t afford to wait for the quail to come down from a tree, but a cat has “nothing else better to do but wait for this quail to get out of that tree.”

He also found out through park visitors and employees that reintroducing the bobwhites reduced the number of ticks, especially during spring and summer.

“The purpose of reintroducing these birds into their native habitat” is to try “to bring our ecosystem back into balance, even if it’s a temporary balance,” Power said.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation used to raise bobwhites on Long Island for local hunters until the 1960s and then hunters continued releasing them. Today, few of the birds released actually survive through the following spring.

The only way to track the bobwhite quail is through bird watchers, some amateurs, and nonscientific counts conducted during June.

The Department of Environmental Conservation conducts surveys at eight spots on Long Island. Other environmentalists make calls to bobwhite quail, and then listen to see if they get a call back.

Derek Rogers, a preservation manager at The Nature Conservancy’s Uplands Farm Sanctuary in Cold Spring Harbor, began calling bobwhites on a breeding bird survey at Pine Meadows County Park in May 2009 and plans on conducting another survey this May. He said most of the quail counted on Long Island had been part of reintroduction program.

“The best time to locate Northern Bobwhite on Long Island is usually in the month of May,” Rogers said. “Bobwhite can be difficult to actually see, depending on the habitat in which you are searching. The grassland is thick and grows to the knee-to waist-high range, making it difficult to see birds.”

Some of the sightings are recorded using Google Maps on a popular birder sight called eBird.

“Most of the game or domestically released birds do not fare well in the wild. Their survival rate is poor,” Scheibel said. “The other part of the problem is that you’re not fixing the reason why they’re in decline in the first place” –the loss of grassy fields where they can live.

Scheibel said that New York had a lot of small farms, which were a good home for the bobwhite, but things changed when shopping malls and other buildings replaced fields.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the native grasslands are now found in Brookhaven, East Hampton, Hempstead, Islip and Southampton.
This decline in grassland also has reduced the interest in hunting, Schiebel said, because there’s no place to hunt.

“Young folks, if they don’t have a place to readily hunt, they’re not going to form that interest later in life,” Schiebel said. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, $25.8 million from licensing and permit fees goes toward wildlife resources, and $14.9 million in firearms and equipment taxes goes to the restoration funds that rebuild habitats or wildlife population. No information was provided on how much goes to bobwhite quail conservation.

There are no known efforts to preserve the bobwhite habitat.

“What remains [on Long Island] is just not very suitable bobwhite quail habitat,” Scheibel said. “You can release all the thousands of bobwhite you want, it’s not going to help.”

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