Review suggests wild bobwhites missing from Pennsylvania
HARRISBURG — Ground zero.
That’s where the Pennsylvania Game Commission apparently is going to have to start if it wants wild bobwhite quail in the state.
That’s because, as far as researchers can tell, there aren’t any to be found.
The commission has embarked on a plan to bring quail — once found with regularity in at least parts of Pennsylvania — back, if not to huntable levels, at least to the point where they are common again. Goal one of its quail management plan calls for “determining the current distribution, population status and trends of northern bobwhite in Pa. and protecting any residual wild populations.”
There’s nothing to protect, though, said Julian Avery, an instructor in Penn State’s department of ecosystem science and management. He told commission board members Monday there “is no evidence of a wild-breeding population in the state.”
The reason, Avery said, is primarily lack of habitat. Quail require a “patchy mosaic” of open space, brushy areas and the like. Land fragmentation, reductions in the use of fire as a habitat management tool, and changes in silviculture and farming practices have limited that across much of the national landscape, though, he said.
It certainly seems to have limited their numbers here, based on what researchers found, or didn’t.
Avery and a team from the university examined a variety of surveys, including two statewide Breeding Bird Atlas efforts and Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, that are used to identify and quantify the birds living in the state. Some of those have been conducted annually since 1900.
They suggest that quail never have been overly abundant here, or even present in any one place consistently, Avery said, noting that populations have instead tended to “wink” in and out.
Some people — including in-the-field Game Commission employees contacted via survey — have reported hearing quail, or seeing individual birds, but those are likely individuals stocked by the multitude of propagators or hunt clubs found around the state, Avery added.
The commission will continue working its quail plan, said Cal DuBrock, director of its bureau of wildlife management. It next calls for identifying areas of the state that either have or, with work, could have suitable quail habitat, then introducing birds into those places.
“This is just the first step in a series of steps,” he said.