Northern Bobwhites in Pennsylvania
The northern bobwhite quail has been a long-standing resident of Pennsylvania until just recently. A native of North America, and the Keystone State, this gamebird has been beloved by all including landowners, hunters, and birdwatchers alike. The familiar rising "bob white" whistle associated with these quail was a sure sign of spring and could be heard in the early mornings across the farms and fields of the commonwealth. Coveys of quail were often seen scooting single file across dirt lanes and country roads or would sometimes give fright to the hapless wanderer as a dozen little missiles rocketed skyward. Unfortunately, bobwhites in Pennsylvania have disappeared, largely due to habitat loss and changing agricultural practices. This isn't the end of the story however; the Game Commission is working hard to restore quail habitat and bring bobwhites back to their northern range.
In 2011 the Northern Bobwhite Quail Management Plan for Pennsylvania: 2011-2020 (PDF) was drafted. The first part of this plan was to determine how many quail were left in the state and where they were located. After surveying historic routes and pursuing recent sightings or detections during 2013 & 2014, it was determined that bobwhite quail had been extirpated from Pennsylvania. This was a blow to not just hunters but to landowners, birdwatchers, and all who enjoyed hearing the morning whistle of this native bird.
The Game Commission developed a habitat model to examine the entire state and determine how much suitable quail habitat still existed. More than 140,000 acres of suitable habitat was found, but it was fragmented and in such small individual acreages that it could not support a viable quail population. Managers began to explore potential areas where both habitat and quail populations could be restored. Looking within historical strongholds of quail in the southcentral and southeast regions, several large public land areas were pursued. Letterkenny Army Depot, located in Franklin County near Chambersburg, was selected as the very first Bobwhite Quail Focus Area (BQFA). A comprehensive management plan was developed and habitat work began in 2017, including prescribed fire and over-story tree removal. Once habitat is in place, wild quail will be trapped and transferred from partner states. This program strives to bring bobwhites back to the Keystone State and return a native species to its northern range.
What is Bobwhite Quail Habitat?
Quail have very specific habitat requirements. Habitat can be broken down into three categories including nesting, brood rearing, and protective cover.
Nesting: Nesting cover is often described as bunch- or clump-grass. Warm-season grasses generally fill this need by providing overhead cover while allowing easy movement below, and good structure at the base of the plant for constructing out a nest. It is crucial that this cover doesn’t become too thick, impeding the ability for quail to move through the grass.
Brood Rearing: Brood cover can be described as a mixture of forbs and legumes. This combination provides overhead cover as well as an important food source for chicks. This mixture of plants attract lots of protein packed insects allowing chicks to increase in size quickly. Most of these plants are also seed producing, and provide important food through the fall and well into winter. Brood rearing habitat needs to have bare ground underneath to ensure that chicks the size of a bumblebee can easily move underneath.
Protective Cover: Protective cover may be the most crucial of the three categories even though it requires the least amount of acreage. Protective cover is woody cover with a high density of stems low to the ground. This provides protection from avian predators above and mammalian predators at ground level. It can also provide a barrier from snow buildup. Quail rarely venture more than 50 yards from protective cover at any time.
What is a Bobwhite Quail Focus Area?
A Bobwhite Quail Focus Area (BQFA), is a designated location being targeted for quail habitat restoration work and eventual transfer of wild quail into this area. Requirements for a BQFA are based on scientific research and were developed by Game Commission partner, National Bobwhite and Grasslands Initiative (NBGI). There are several factors that go into selecting a focus area.
- Is the location found within an agricultural landscape?
- Is there a minimum of 1,500 acres of contiguous land to manage?
- Is the landowner willing to commit to a long-term habitat management regimen (10+ years)?
- Is there sufficient resources to conduct annual surveys and monitoring efforts?
- Is there sufficient resources to complete required habitat restoration?
For more information on what a BQFA looks like or requires check out
NBGI’s Focal & Reference Area Essentials.
History of Quail in Pennsylvania
Prehistoric evidence of bobwhite quail in Pennsylvania dates back as early as the 1400s with the discovery of their bones found in early human settlements. Through the advent of recorded history, early peoples utilized quail as a food source. Early explorers found quail in large numbers upon arrival to the area and described seeing huge flocks within the great valleys of southcentral and southeastern Pennsylvania, where Native Americans had used fire to open the landscape. As exploration turned into settlement, vast stretches of forest were cleared for farming and profit, and the quail followed closely behind. By the mid-1800s quail could be found in all 67 counties of the state and had expanded in both their range and number.
As with most habitat-dependent wildlife, it wasn’t to last. Throughout the late 19th century and into the early 20th, farms were abandoned and the Pennsylvania landscape did what it does best when left alone ―re-sprouted. This, in combination with several severe winters, and over-harvest led to the bobwhite’s range restriction and population decline. The quail retreated into the southcentral and southeastern counties with a few staying along the Ohio border. With game laws firmly in place in the early 1900s, quail were found in their strongholds up through the 1960s, even though population densities were still low. During this same time, many federal-sponsored set-aside programs provided ample habitat within agricultural communities. Unfortunately, these programs disappeared in the early 1970s, and much farmland wildlife habitat was plowed under.
With the advent of “clean farming” seen towards the end of the 20th century, and an exponential increase in technology with farm machinery, quail habitat continued to disappear. Continued development due to an increasing population within the state also contributed to a permanent loss of habitat. Additionally, between the years 1932–1952, more than 400,000 pen-reared quail were released within the commonwealth from both Game Commission farms and private breeders. This influx of pen-reared birds blanketing the remaining wild population was thought to play a role in the continued decline of quail populations. Even in recent years, more than 60,000 pen-reared quail are raised and released in Pennsylvania. Quail surveys conducted by agency biologists through the 1980s into the mid-1990s saw quail populations go from a few to almost zero within their former strongholds.
How to Help?
Bobwhite cover isn’t just crucial to quail. This cover is often referred to early successional growth or old field reversion. It’s a habitat type that is threatened in Pennsylvania. The Game Commission is doing habitat work on state game lands to bring this habitat back, but Pennsylvania is more than 83 percent privately owned. It’s up to private landowners to help restore this habitat on the landscape, and there are several resources to help landowners manage habitat on their property:
Bobwhite Quail Focus Area Management Plan (PDF)
National Bobwhite Grasslands Initiative
Missouri Department of Conservation: Quail Habitat Video
Missouri Department of Conservation: Quail Food Video
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Northern Bobwhite Quail Information