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News Release

Restoring a Species

Jeff Woods

Dr. Theron Terhune and Joe Rice hunt for quail at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Northern Bobwhite Quail

Sportsmen were alarmed, landowners worried as they watched the northern bobwhite population plummet at the turn of the century. In the last 50 years, annual populations are down 85 percent in the United States. Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation on a continental scale has silenced its iconic call across rural America. In Florida, a former private hunting plantation is leading the way to bring quail back. At Tall Timbers, a research station and land conservancy, scientists study fire and its effect on quail and wildlife on the nearly 4,000-acre property listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

THE TALL TIMBERS STORY began when the plantation owner, Henry L. Beadel, befriended the renowned naturalist Herbert Stoddard, who had been brought to the area to investigate the declining quail populations in the early 1900s. Stoddard’s research revealed that improper application of fire had destroyed the bird’s habitat. His conclusion was at odds with the land management agencies of his day, and the results were suppressed. In 1958 Beadel bequeathed his land so that scientific research on fire ecology would not be subject to censorship.

Today scientists study fire ecology, native plant communities, longleaf pine, ornithology, herpetology and invertebrates. Tall Timbers is providing solutions to the threats that face quail as well as other fire-dependent wildlife in the Southeast. Dr. Theron Terhune is carrying on Stoddard’s legacy. The game bird program director is a modern academic, an old school outdoorsman. He crafts his own hunting arrows and hand-ties fishing flies while he deploys modern technology to investigate the topics first studied by Stoddard.

“He was a phenomenal naturalist and astute observer. It blows my mind how he didn’t have any of the gadgets or high-tech tools we do, but he was right more than not,” Theron says. Wildlife experts reference Stoddard’s 1931 book, The Bobwhite Quail: Its Habits, Preservation and Increase, the “quail Bible.” Theron says he re-reads it once every two or three years to keep his current work grounded.

“Stoddard largely worked with private landowners, putting boots on the ground, conducting research and making observations rather than posted in a university office. That model is still important today, providing landowners a direct line to the information they need to better manage and have more quail,” he says. So far Theron has created a quail hunting app called Birds Up, quail monitoring Quail Trax App, and, the Invasive Tracker App.

Theron and his staff collect insect samples and monitor cotton rats, snakes, avian predators such as hawks and meso mammals that include racoons, opossums, fox and skunks. “They are all interconnected,” he says. When cotton rat numbers go up, so do quail. Understanding the predator-prey dynamics helps explain quail demographics and population cycles. Understanding how timber and fire management influence vegetation, composition, diversity and structure helps inform best management practices for bobwhite quail.

“For us, our biggest knowledge gap is chick ecology, from the time of hatching to three months of age,” he says. On average, only 36 out of 100 chicks make it to three months of age and if they can improve that number by 10-15 percent, they will realize significant gains towards recovery overall. His wife, Dr. Heather Terhune, is a veterinarian, and helped Theron develop a procedure to suture tiny radio transmitters onto 12-13-day old chicks to study the factors affecting their survival. Paring these data with miniature solar-powered GPS units on parents and drone technology to capture spatial data will advance chick ecology and habitat management.

Research Cycle
Call count surveys in October and early November count coveys and estimate quail density as they broadcast the less familiar vocalization, the “koilee” call, about 20 minutes before sunrise. The covey call establishes home-range territories as well as to relocate each other after they have been scattered by predators. Biologists, technicians and students capture adult birds three times a year in November, January and March to band and put radio collars on them for research projects and to obtain demographic information. The goal is to capture and tag 30-50 percent of the annual population. After spreading bait for a couple of weeks, game bird lab manager Diana McGrath and technicians trap birds for two to four weeks. She leads her staff out on ATVs after dark to take the quail out of the traps and bring them back to the lab in transport boxes.

Early the next morning they work fast, checking and recording data on each bird about its condition, sex and age, weight, and uniquely numbered leg band. Radio collars are custom fitted onto a designated number of birds. Staff stuff the quail into the boxes and release them back into the areas where they were captured. Radio telemetry helps researchers collect data on quail behavior, habitat use and survival rates. 

In June, July, and August the radio collars on adult birds tell biologists where the quail are nesting. The nests are monitored until the chicks are 12 days old and can be captured for research. Diana and her staff hike into the forest at 3:30 a.m. while the birds are still resting and erect a corral surrounding the brood-roosting area. When dawn breaks, they begin pulling all the vegetation in the enclosed area, working from the corral edge to the brood-roosting location. As the technicians close in, the quail scatter and they scramble to catch the chicks and carefully place them into pillow cases. Each bird is marked with wing tags. A few chicks get tiny radio transmitters as part of the new research to shed light on those vulnerable first few months of life. 

Good Habitat
A diverse mix of vegetation comprised of about one-third forbs and legumes, one-third grasses, and one-third low, woody species. Bobwhites require frequently burned open pine savannas and rangelands for foraging, nesting, brood-rearing and escape cover. A properly managed timber stand with an open canopy allows sunlight on the ground to grow the appropriate mix of plants. Clumps of bunch grasses such as bluestems, Indian grass and wiregrass make excellent nesting sites. Forbs such as ragweed, partridge pea and beggar tick provide food, cover and the bare ground essential for travel and finding seed. Shrubby areas with plants such as green briar, blackberry, plum thickets and oak scrub give quail roosting and escape cover from predators. 

When restoring the land doesn't bring quail back, Theron and his team have perfected the technique of capturing and transporting wild birds to create population hubs in select locations. Birds raised in captivity and released have very low survival rates, with less than 3 percent living to breeding season. Through the translocation of wild birds, Tall Timbers has recovered wild quail on 70,000 acres of private land in the Southeast coastal range from Florida to New Jersey. 

“Too often people look for a panacea to bring quail back. But the range-wide reduction of bobwhite did not occur overnight and was not attributed to just one thing, but rather a collective change in land-use practices. Bringing them back is going to take intentional management, plenty of resources, collaborative effort and dedication,” he says.

Private property makes up almost 70 percent of the land in the United States. Conservationists could never set aside enough public land to reverse the species decline, says Don McKenzie, director of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, established in 2002 to coordinate state recovery plans for the game birds. “Farm Bill programs focused on private, working lands are essential to the bird’s recovery,” he says.

Through Farm Bill programs, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service helps agricultural producers restore quail habitat on private lands. The northern bobwhite quail is a nationally identified target species of the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) partnership, which provides technical and financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to restore their habitat. The gopher tortoise is also a targeted in this program and helps landowners develop habitat that benefits quail.‚Äč NRCS is working to restore longleaf pine across its historic range -- from Texas to Virginia – through the Longleaf Pine Initiative. Assistance provides planning and cost share to implement conservation practices that restore habitat, such as prescribed burning, timber stand thinning, planating longleaf pine and removing invasive plants.

Since 2008, Tall Timbers has used NRCS programs to control 187 acres of invasive species, prescribe burn 5,424 acres and plant 47 acres of longleaf pine. “They are getting the job done on a regional setting,” says Steve Tullar, NRCS district conservationist. “They have the best management in the Southeast for the bobwhite quail,” Steve says.

A male northern bobwhite quail.

The male mating call in the spring.
The covey call is a special whistle about 15 minutes before daylight communicates with other coveys.

A white throat patch distinguishes a male northern bobwhite, a female’s is yellow or buffy brown.
Weight: 5-8 oz.

Length: approximately 10 inches long.

Wingspan: 9-11 inches.

Diet: small seeds, fruit, tender leaves and insects.

Lifespan: Maximum of five years, but most average of seven months, predators kill 80 percent.

Community: Quail are social birds, living in small groups of three to 20 birds called coveys. They don’t migrate. Membership in the covey is not fixed and some individuals move from covey to covey. A covey roosts at night with members in a circle, shoulder to shoulder, facing outwards towards danger.

Family life: Quail lay one to three clutches a year with an average of 12 eggs per clutch in nests hidden under weeds or grass clumps. Predators destroy about half.  Incubation lasts 23 days. The hen may incubate the eggs and raise the young, or the male may do this job, leaving the female free to find another male for a new nest. Chicks leave the nest hours after hatching, weighing only ¼ ounce, tiny puff balls following their parents. They fly at two weeks and mature in three to four months. Adult quail brood their young for two to six weeks after hatching, teaching them how to forage, roost and avoid predators. During breeding season, quail live alone or with their chicks.

Enemies: Predators of adult quail include hawk species and mammals such as bobcats. Nest predators include snakes, raccoons, opossum and armadillos. 

Not Just quail
The quail’s well-being indicates the fate of other at-risk and endangered species. Bobwhite conservation promotes habitat beneficial to numerous species such as the Gopher Tortoise, Eastern Indigo Snake, Southeastern American Kestrel, Red-cockaded woodpeckers, Tiger salamanders, Indigo buntings, Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, Bachman’s Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark and Diamondback rattlesnakes. “If we lose quail, we will lose a host of species,” Theron says.

More information on Bobwhite Quail is available at the NRCS Wildlife Habitat Management Institute, the National Bobwhite Quail Initiative, Quail Forever, or The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.