Revitalizing Pennsylvania’s ‘firebird’ with a $3M initiative

Sometimes, birds choose to migrate by plane ticket instead of relying on their feathers.

In an exciting endeavor this spring, the Pennsylvania Game Commission embarked on a mission to introduce a group of bobwhite quail into a fresh environment. After successfully capturing numerous quail in Florida, the commission organized a special flight to transport these birds to Franklin County. Upon arrival, the bobwhite quail were released into their new habitat, marking the beginning of their journey in unfamiliar territory.

Pennsylvania is making a significant effort to reintroduce the northern bobwhite quail, a once common bird in the state. This initiative is part of a $3.2 million investment aimed at restoring the population of this small bird.

Andrew Ward, a quail, pheasant, and dove biologist for the commission, emphasized that the main objective of this endeavor is restoration. He explained, “Our primary goal is to reintroduce a thriving population of wild bobwhite into their original habitat.”

The quail, known as “the firebird” due to its reliance on fire to preserve its habitat, reached its highest population in the mid-1800s. However, by the 1920s, their numbers had significantly declined and they were limited to the southern Pennsylvania and Ohio border.

The bobwhite population experienced a slight recovery in the 1960s, but it faced a rapid decline throughout the 1970s-1990s. According to the commission, it is estimated that the bobwhite would have disappeared from the commonwealth by 2014.

The commission has been working tirelessly for several years to prepare the habitat at the Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg. Their goal is to bring quail from various locations, including Ft. Knox in Kentucky, Ft. Barfoot in Virginia, and Florida, over a span of three years. This initiative aims to establish a stable population of quail in Pennsylvania.

According to Ward, the northern bobwhite used to be found in every county in Pennsylvania, making them a native species to the state.

But their habitat was destroyed due to changes in farming practices. Bobwhite quail require grasslands and shrubs in order to thrive, as they offer cover and ample space for them to walk on the ground.

When the vegetation becomes too dense, it hinders the birds’ ability to navigate effectively. In addition, when forests take over grasses and shrubs, quails no longer have the protective cover they rely on.

“Our bobwhite population declined to the point where they were completely wiped out. We no longer had any breeding populations in the entire state,” Ward explained.

In order to boost the population, Pennsylvania plans to introduce more quail in 2025 and 2026. The Pennsylvania Game Commission has allocated approximately 2,700 acres at the Army Depot for these new arrivals, which is almost double the estimated space required to support a sustainable population.

“When we translocate bobwhite, it’s crucial to minimize the time between capturing and releasing the birds,” Ward emphasized. “Therefore, we ensure that the birds we trap are released the very next day.”

To increase quail numbers through breeding instead of capture-and-release, it is recommended to move them during the early spring.

According to Ward, during this time of the year, the birds are still in groups known as cubbies. However, in the near future, they will break out of these cubbies and form pairs. This is crucial because it is the pairing off of the birds that will help increase their numbers and ultimately reach the population goals.

Bobwhite quail face a low survival rate in their natural habitat and depend on a high reproduction rate to compensate for the loss of birds to predators. Quail are preyed upon by a variety of animals including Cooper’s hawks, goshawks, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and opossums.

“It has been quite a journey to reach the point we are at today,” Ward reflected.

The commission does not have a specific population target to achieve within a designated timeframe, as stated by Ward. However, their previous endeavors have influenced their strategy. In recent years, the commission has prioritized the conservation of American martens, hellbenders, and ruffed grouse.

In the 1980s, there were attempts to reintroduce quail in Adams County. However, these efforts only saw short-term success before the quail population disappeared once again. During this initiative, less than 100 birds were released, and there was minimal effort to enhance their habitat to ensure their survival.

If the repopulation effort is successful, there may be even more possibilities in the future.

“We don’t have any specific plans to share at the moment, but we are definitely considering expanding our efforts beyond Letterkenny in the near future. Our goal is to work on private land and facilitate the natural growth of the population,” Ward explained. “As time goes on, we will evaluate our options and determine our next steps.”

The reintroduction of the bobwhite quail in Pennsylvania has been a remarkable collaboration. The Letterkenny Army Depot, alongside conservation groups like Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the University of Delaware, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, and various other organizations, have joined forces to bring back the bobwhite quail to its natural habitat. This collective effort showcases the dedication and commitment of these groups towards the conservation of this iconic bird species.

Residents in the area might not catch a glimpse of them, but they have the potential to hear them.

According to Ward, the easiest way to identify them is by their sound. Their distinctive call, which sounds like “bob-bobwhite”, is especially prominent among males. This beautiful call evokes a sense of nostalgia for those who have grown up around them or have had the opportunity to work with them.

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MBS Staff
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