Bringing Back the Masked Bobwhite


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnering with Quail Forever, others to restore unique and endangered northern bobwhite subspecies

By Joseph Bozzo, SCA Quail and Habitat Monitoring Intern 
In Arizona, the masked bobwhite quail, a subspecies of the Northern bobwhite found only in the Sonoran desert and semi-desert regions of southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, was pushed to the brink at the turn of the 19th century due to overgrazing that led to the loss of savanna grassland habitat the masked bobwhite needs.


Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona was created in 1985 for the masked bobwhite as well as protection of all other native flora and fauna. The refuge has a variety of habitats to offer wildlife and visitors. The area is scattered with habitat mosaics, grassland valleys, and desert scrub slopes. Mesquite dominate most of the refuge. However, cottonwoods are dotted in certain areas of the refuge especially Arivaca Creek and Cienega (desert marsh) locations. Brown Canyon is shadowed by Baboquivari Peak and is a cool change of pace from the hot lowlands.


Captive breeding populations of masked bobwhite have been established in hope of returning the masked bobwhite quail to a sustainable population in the future. Mesquite encroachment and invasive species have taken over the native grasslands. Grazing has been prohibited since the refuge was established, yet the native grasses have struggled to re-establish in the sea of non-native and invasive Lehmann lovegrass (Eragrostis lehmanniana) and increasing pockets of buffelgrass (Cenchrus ciliaris). 
Our mission is to establish a stable wild breeding population of masked bobwhite quail in the desert grasslands of southern Arizona by returning the habitat to its former glory. Habitat manipulation is being done on specific parts of the 117,464-acre refuge. The habitat work helps many other desert grassland species including other quail, pronghorn, and mule deer by increasing food sources from forbs, shrubs, and native grasses. Mesquite and invasive plant removal, prescribed burns, seeding/planting, and erosion control are some of the main tactics being used to revitalize the native habitat.   
Habitat has been modified in release site locations where wild northern bobwhite males are used as foster fathers for masked bobwhite chicks and are their survival guides. The foster parents are used to teach the young masked birds to be as wild as can be when encountering predators. Radio telemetry is used to track the released birds and analyze survival, location, and whether or not the birds are utilizing the modified and more suitable habitat. One day the calls of the masked bobwhite will fill the air at Buenos Aires NWR and so will the shots of responsible quail hunters from around the U.S.

The biological team, Southern Arizona Quail Forever Chapter, Friends of BANWR, and dedicated volunteers working down at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge are committed to the success of the program and for the endangered masked bobwhite to recover from its extirpation. Most importantly, the re-establishment of the species would preserve the intrinsic values it holds, add to the diversity of wildlife in southern Arizona, and open up another upland game bird for harvest. The masked bobwhite’s return would be a great achievement for conservation efforts not only locally, but also at the national level.