Quail Country: Some Final Thoughts on an Easy Fix

By Jim Wooley

As I write early on an April morning, Audra is dreaming of fall. Civilized pointers aren’t up at this hour, so she dozes near my desk, paws motoring, eyebrows atwitch, yipping softly, another rabbit chase in progress. Maybe rabbits are the safe bet.
Iowa’s past February was a quail killer, and its survival stories are familiar oddities. Coveys desperate for shelter invaded old barns. They dined with livestock at feed bunks. My neighbor’s yard covey staked out his bird feeders and roosted beneath the deck. By whatever means, a thin margin survived.

Quail are known for Houdini-like recoveries given the right weather and habitat. But even with excellent reproduction, fall numbers will test past depths. People wanting to boost bobwhites will stumble upon the old fallback (dressed-up for the Internet Age).…why not stock birds? Because a century of dismal failure should count for something.
Definition matters here – stocking and introductions aren’t equivalent. People remember that pheasants, introduced into ideal unoccupied habitats beginning 140 years ago, are a great gamebird success story. They forget that subsequent stocking of pen-raised pheasants failed to augment populations diminished by weather and habitat loss.
Native bobwhites similarly benefited as old-style agriculture improved habitat, then declined as landscape change intensified. Agencies and sportsmen turned to stocking, and untold millions of pen-reared quail were raised in game farms and backyards, then released. Predators applauded wildly. Studies eventually showed return on investment was appallingly low. Science altered wildlife managers’ thinking, and state-sponsored stocking gave way to a habitat emphasis. The stocking idea, however, never faded for many hunters. Biologists still battle the notion that wild populations can be rejuvenated with pen-reared quail.
That’s why our newly arrived Audubon magazine, with a masked bobwhite quail family on the cover, was such an interesting read. Masked what? This cousin to northern bobwhites was extirpated from its tiny Arizona range a century ago. It might possibly still occur in Mexico. But for now, most of the world’s known population exists in captivity. A Federal species restoration effort is underway using that resource, and it’s not your average backyard quail operation.
Instead, serious science and hard work is involved. This re-introduction of masked bobwhites into unoccupied historic range is paired with habitat improvement on 100,000 acres of National Wildlife Refuge lands. Chicks are pen-reared (no other options exist), but careful attention is paid to genetic diversity and human interaction. Pre-release, chicks are matched with a surrogate parent (usually wild male northern bobwhites) that adopts the covey and shows it the ropes in the wild – food, shelter, and when to duck (predator avoidance). The technique appears to be working. A small wild population has established, and limited reproduction is occurring. Time will tell.
Which brings us back to Iowa, or anywhere with garden-variety bobwhites. The problem with silver bullets? They’re always in short supply. Snake-oil salesmen are much easier found, promoting expensive captive rear-and-release systems, while suggesting hatchery gamebirds can restore wild populations. Consider just this – if an easy fix worked, wouldn’t wildlife managers be using it? They are not. Instead, managing upland habitat – hard work – provides satisfying results for quail and pheasants. Lean into that on your farm or lease.
And now, it’s time to put a bow on my very last QF Biologist Brief. I’m not hanging up my pencil just yet, but it’s a good time to slip away for a while. A new granddaughter recently joined our thundering herd. Another wants more fishing time with Grumpa. Paused pursuits await a renaissance, and new stuff beckons. Writing this column has been a privilege that I’ve enjoyed immensely….and I hope you have, too. So, thanks for reading, and good hunting.

Jim Wooley is Quail Forever Senior Field Biologist (Emertius)

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