Bobwhite quail set for bigger return to New Jersey

Rare bird, believed extinct in the state, has shown it can live at Pinelands site after small shipments from Georgia

Credit: John Parke/NJ Audubon
Bobwhite quail (male)
It’s looking like the northern bobwhite quail may get another chance to come back in New Jersey.

The secretive and formerly abundant bird with its distinctive onomatopoeic call is effectively extinct in the state but small flocks from Georgia, where it is more numerous, have been captured and moved to a site in the Pinelands over the last four years.

Naturalists from the state’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, New Jersey Audubon, the University of Delaware, and Tall Timbers Research station, a Florida-based land trust, have been studying whether the approximately 300 birds that have been “translocated” to the woods on a Burlington County cranberry farm have been able to survive and thrive 800 miles from home.

The good news, the scientists say, is that the quail have shown that they can breed, feed and elude their many predators — which include hawks, foxes, snakes and raccoons — in sufficient numbers to suggest that the New Jersey population could recover to a sustainable level if a larger number of the birds are shipped in and their habitat is carefully managed.

Conditions on the 14,000 acres owned by the Pine Island Cranberry Co. near Chatsworth look suitable for a bobwhite population to re-establish itself, said John Parke, Stewardship Project Director and head of the bobwhite program for New Jersey Audubon. He predicted that 800 to 1,000 of the birds a year will be released by the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife somewhere in the state starting in the next few years but that the timing will depend on when or whether other states are able to supply a lot more birds than New Jersey has taken so far.

State officials are also considering three sites in New Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore region where the last wild bobwhites are thought to have lived, but those locations may be threatened by sea-level rise or other factors, Parke said. The last confirmed sightings of wild bobwhite quail were in 2009.

The Department of Environmental Protection said it’s reviewing the results of the study, along with its private-sector partners, and evaluating the feasibility of repopulating the state with the quail.

Where and when to reintroduce more quail

“The partners have evaluated sites for a potential population restoration effort and are exploring sources of wild-caught quail from other states. Details will be released once a definitive plan is in place, if birds are available,” the DEP said in a statement.

Parke said officials in the Division of Fish & Wildlife have decided in principle to go ahead with the larger translocation, and are now trying to work out where and when to do that.

“The state is looking to do a bigger translocation to try to build a bigger population,” he said. “This will happen but it’s a large investment by the state so you’ve got to make sure you pick the most optimal spot. The more birds you have on that landscape, the better the chances for breeding and to ‘covey up,’” a method the birds use to form groups so they are less vulnerable to predators, he said.

The translocated birds — just 80 a year for the last four years — have been resilient in several ways, Parke said. They have shown “site fidelity” — meaning that they don’t move far from where they are released, indicating that their new environment provides enough food to eat, places to nest, and vegetation to shelter from predators. They also nested, and after three years the females “double clutched,” meaning that they laid two lots of eggs in a year. Among pairs where the females disappeared, perhaps because of predation, the males took over incubating the eggs and raising the young, another good sign, he said.

And even though the birds typically only live for nine to 10 months, a small number have survived each of the last four winters, in another sign that the population could become sustainable.

It all depends on the right conditions

Overall, the translocation experiment has shown that the birds would be able to re-establish themselves in New Jersey under the right conditions.

“Based on the results of the study, translocation is a suitable tool to use in the Mid-Atlantic States as a means to recover the species, but translocations may only be successful if management geared specifically for creating early-successional habitat suitable for bobwhite habitat is implemented and sustained,” Parke said. (Early-successional habitat contains vigorously growing grasses, shrubs and trees which provide food and cover for wildlife, but which need to be mowed, burned, cut, grazed or disturbed in some other fashion, to prevent them from growing into mature forest.)

The results of the research, contained in a PhD thesis by University of Delaware graduate student Phil Coppola, are currently being academically reviewed, and will be crucial in determining the future of the project, Parke said.

“This is the first time you are going to have these kinds of results for bobwhite quail in New Jersey,” he said.

For his part, Coppola said there was a low rate of nest survival during the project but there’s “plenty of evidence” that that could be increased “in a huge way” with the right habitat management. “As long as we’re managing for the species properly, then it’s going to be successful,” he said.

Population elsewhere has plunged by 80 percent

Across its range of the central and eastern U.S. as far north as New Jersey, the bobwhite’s population has plunged by more than 80 percent in the last 50 years as its habitat has been lost to development and farming practices that have eliminated the brushy edges of fields where the birds lived.

If the birds, which grow to less than 10 inches and weigh only six ounces, can re-establish themselves in New Jersey, they are likely to require the kind of habitat management that has been practiced by Pine Island and neighboring cranberry farms to ensure clean water for their crops.

Although the cranberry farms themselves are not suitable habitat for the quail, the land around them is just right, Parke said.

Stefanie Haines, social media coordinator for Pine Island Cranberry Co., New Jersey’s biggest cranberry producer, said the farm’s long-established practices of controlled burning and selective clearing of trees to reduce the risk of wildfires creates a savannah-like environment that provides food for the quail and grows grasses and shrubs that help to shield them from predators like hawks.

“It was always the stuff that we were doing for purely agricultural reasons,” she said, in an interview at the approximately 2,500-acre parcel where the bobwhite has been studied. “Protecting our water resource is our biggest concern always.”

The cranberry connection

Haines’s neighbor, Stephen Lee IV, whose family has been growing cranberries at the Chatsworth site for six generations, said the need for clean water in his business means growers must also be responsible forest stewards.

“Cranberry growers are probably the best stewards of land you are going to find anywhere,” he said. “You have to have a buffer that surrounds the bogs in order to protect them.”

By thinning pine forest to reduce the “fuel load” — and so reducing the risk of wildfires — Lee said he and other cranberry growers are also creating conditions that are favorable for the quail.

“I’m the lucky guy who doesn’t have to invest any time or energy, and I’ve got quail on the property,” said Lee, who grows cranberries on 130 of his 1,886 acres, and has 800 acres of forest that he manages to ensure water quality for his crops. “Because of the fact that we’ve actively managed our forest, we’ve got really good habitat.”

Managing the land for the bobwhite will also help other scarce birds like the prairie warbler, eastern towhee and American woodcock, all of which prefer young, or “early successional” forest, Parke said, noting that most threatened or endangered bird species in New Jersey live in that environment.

“Quail is kind of a poster child for a lot of other things,” he said.