University of Delaware
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Researchers study declining bobwhite quail populations

Researchers study declining bobwhite quail populations

With populations of bobwhite quail declining drastically across the country, Chris Williams, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, is turning his attention to saving grasslands and 'edge habitats' -- unkempt, overgrown areas often found on the edges of fields. Both are disappearing due to suburban development and increased efficiency in farming, Williams says.

“The farms themselves have switched so much from this small family farm to this extreme commercialized, 'clean' agriculture, farming every inch of the field you can possibly get,” Williams says. “The habitat is disappearing fast. We have to be very careful about how much land we're losing and converting away from these edge habitats.”

Bobwhite quail, a historically favored game bird, was recently named by the Audubon Society as the number one bird in decline in North America.

Although the Delmarva area has rarely been a target of quail research, the reported quail population per square mile was once one of the highest in the country, yet today is now one of the lowest.

“Because bobwhites were once an admired farmland bird and also a hunted species, we have had a lot of support to understand what's going on with the decline,” he says.

In the past few years, Williams has worked with students in his lab at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources to study the birds. From 2006 to 2008, graduate students Bridget Collins and Mike Lohr conducted a basic ecology study of bobwhite quail in southern New Jersey. Working with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, the students tracked the birds using radio collars to study their habitat, survival rates and daily life during both breeding and non-breeding seasons.

“We had 70 years worth of quail research in the country, and no one had paid attention to the Mid-Atlantic,” Williams says. “We know nothing. We don't know how they're locally using habitat; we don't know what their survival

Ken Duren, another graduate student in the lab, worked with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) from 2008 to 2009 to map ideal quail habitats in the Delmarva area. Duren visited 180 locations within the state, focusing on agricultural and grassland areas, to determine which locations would serve as suitable quail habitats.

Williams says this research will be used to focus conservation efforts on land that will most benefit the quails. Most farm lands are privately owned, so targeting key bobwhite areas will make more effective use of federal conservation funds.

“We're at a point where the populations are so low that we're going to throw everything we have at core areas and hope to bring back this favored farmland and game bird,” Williams says.