The call of the whip-poor-will and bobwhite quail have something in common.
No, they don’t sound remotely similar, and one emanates from the forest at night while the other rises from the fields during the day.
What they do have in common is they are both sounds that are seldom heard in Pennsylvania anymore, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission is hoping to bring at least one of the species back.
Northern bobwhite quail were relatively common in parts of the state - particularly agricultural areas, until the mid-1940’s. The population dropped in the 1950’s, made a recovery in the early 1960’s and then plummeted to the near non-existent levels of today. Habitat change - namely the loss of grassland and brushy areas, is to blame.
It’s a similar decline as the wild pheasant, but Wild Pheasant Recovery Areas are providing hope that pheasants can be brought back.
Can the same thing happen with wild quail?
That’s what the PGC wants to find out, and it recently finished a 10-year management plan for the bobwhite quail with the main goal to restore wild breeding populations in suitable habitat across the state.
The first step, according PGC game bird section supervisor Ian Gregg, is to review bird count data and find where, if anywhere, quail have been heard or seen. The agency will contract out that work, Gregg said, and then review the findings. The work is expected to begin by the end of this year.
“It could show us clusters or scattered areas of quail, or it could tell us we don’t have many wild quail left in the state,” he said.
There are biologists, Gregg said, that are convinced that wild quail - not those released for training bird dogs — are extirpated in the state.
Gregg isn’t as convinced.
“I’m not ready to go that far,” he said.
If the data review determines there are areas with evidence of wild quail, the agency may then conduct genetic sampling of the birds to determine if they are truly wild or the result of bobwhites released for dog training purposes.
If wild quail are indeed confirmed in certain areas, intensive monitoring and habitat management will follow with the goal of expanding those populations.
But even if there are no wild quail left in the state, Gregg said there is still an option.
“We’ll do a habitat evaluation to find any suitable habitat and work with other states to do a trap and transfer of wild quail,” he said. “But that will be challenging because quail are declining throughout the eastern U.S. and it might be tough finding a state willing to part with them.”
While loss of grassy farmland habitat is believed to be the biggest contributor to the wild quail decline, Gregg said there are other factors.
Pennsylvania is on the northern edge of the bobwhite’s range, and the diminutive bird doesn’t fare well in hard winters. On the eastern shore of Maryland, for example, quail were relatively common until the harsh winter of 2009-2010 blanketed the area in deep snow. In less than a month, bobwhite quail were nearly extirpated from the area due to the prolonged snow cover.
That’s why Gregg believes habitat is the key to any successful wild quail reintroduction or expansion. Proper habitat would provide the birds with cover and food, and a better chance of surviving through the winter.
Prime quail habitat is similar to that required by wild pheasants, Gregg said, and the WPRA’s are resulting in large areas of grasslands where wild pheasants are thriving.
Could quail piggyback with wild pheasants in those areas?
“Habitat is definitely the focus to any type of success with wild quail,” Gregg said.
Unlike wild pheasants, which are being established with the goal of providing huntable populations, the focus on re-establishing wild quail heads in a different direction.
“The primary benefit for wild quail is re-establishing a native species,” Gregg said. “With pheasants it’s huntable populations, but with the quail plan we’re not being so ambitious. Just establish self-sustaining populations first, while bringing them back to a huntable level could take 10 years or more, if at all.”
While the agency was drafting the wild quail management plan, they received numerous public comments from hunters and non-hunters. Gregg said most mentioned the same thing when it came to wild quail.
“They mentioned hearing them years ago. They miss that,” he said.