A glimmer of hope for a fading species
The call of the whip-poor-will and the bobwhite quail — they are two sounds that many old-timers have told me they miss in the outdoors. Growing up in the 1930's and 1940's, these two species were common — at least much more than they are today.
The call of the whip-poor-will emanating from the forest on a warm, summer evening was a soothing, cherished sound. And during the day, the unique call of the bobwhite floating out of a hayfield was pleasant enough to make everyone stop and listen.
Today, both species have significantly declined in Pennsylvania, but it's possible that at least one may have a chance at a comeback.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a 10-year plan in place for the northern bobwhite quail — a species that is native to the state. Is it possible that the agency could pursue a similar course of action for the bobwhite like they have for pheasants? Could we see a similar reintroduction effort? Will there be wild quail recovery areas?
This week I spoke to Ian Gregg, game bird Section supervisor for the agency, to find out. He said there are a lot of obstacles when it comes to re-establishing wild quail in the state, and habitat tops the list.
Quail require the same type of habitat — grasslands, as pheasants. Because Pennsylvania is at the northern end of the bobwhite's range, the best chance for wild quail lies in the southern half of the state. Unfortunately, that's an area where it may be difficult to establish the expansive grasslands needed by the species, thanks to more efficient farming practices and urban sprawl.
Making the situation even more dire is quail are very vulnerable to severe winter weather — mainly deep snow. That's one reason why Gregg believes the species has struggled recently over much of its range.
It's to the point that Gregg said there are biologists who are convinced that wild bobwhite quail are extirpated from Pennsylvania.
But he's not ready to give up.
According to Gregg, the Game Commission will contract out a review of all existing bird survey data to see where quail were seen. They'll determine if there's any trends related to specific habitat or locations in the state producing more sightings. If there are identified "hotspots" the agency may then head out to the field to conduct quail population surveys.
If such areas are found, the next step would be genetic sampling to determine if the quail are indeed wild or the result of those released by bird hunters training their dogs.
Things like habitat expansion and even trap and transfer with other states aren't being ruled out, but such prospects would happen years from now, if at all.
It's easy to be pessimistic about the restoration, or even the existence of wild quail in Pennsylvania. But the Game Commission isn't giving up hope on this native species, and neither should we.
Gregg did make an interesting clarification during our talk. He said restoring wild quail is far different from similar efforts with pheasants. When it comes to wild pheasants, restoration is being done with the single goal of establishing huntable populations. With quail, Gregg said, it's just a matter of establishing a wild population — one that may produce the call that has been missing from our landscape for far too long.