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Northern Bobwhite Restoration and Population Recovery

Release of Translocated Birds on a research study site in New Jersey

Release of translocated birds on a research study site in New Jersey. Photo by John Parke/NJ Audubon.

Grassland and early-succession birds are a source of conservation concern because this group has been subject to precipitous population declines during the past few decades, more so than any other guilds of North American bird species. In particular, Northern bobwhites have been experiencing declines on average of 5.4% per year across their historic range. Fragmentation, degradation or complete loss of habitat associated with changing land use practices have reduced early-succession ecosystems on the landscape and have negatively impacted bobwhites and other grassland obligates. Fire suppression or exclusion has facilitated succession of forests favoring hardwood encroachment and resulting in a shift from open pine savanna woods to a more closed canopy forest in much of the Southeast.

Despite range-wide population declines in bobwhite abundance, proper application of frequent fire combined with sound forest management has yielded bobwhite densities of 4-8 bobwhites/ha in the Red Hills and Albany regions. Thus, where sound management occurs good bobwhite numbers usually persist. Therefore, all restoration and population recovery programs should start with proper habitat management! However, in cases where restored habitat patches are small or isolated, the probability of natural repopulation remains low. Translocating Northern Bobwhites prior to the breeding season is a nascent technique for replenishing native stocks where populations are absent or too low to respond following the implementation of other management techniques, such as habitat improvement (see Terhune et al. 2005, 2006).

What is Translocation?

TranslocationReleaseNewJersey_MichaelEin

Translocation release. Photo By: Michael Ein

Translocation involves the capture and movement of wild bobwhite quail from one site to another. This technique has become a valuable tool for restocking bobwhites in numerous states over the past decade. We began studying wild quail translocations in the late 80s with more intensive studies occurring during 1997-2004. These efforts contributed to the development of an official translocation policy implemented by the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in 2006 and similar programs in other southeastern states.  A series of projects since that time has resulted in wild birds being moved to 13 different properties in 4 states and even more in the pipeline for the next couple of years.  Each of these projects began under unique circumstances but all have an underlying theme.  They all result in new acreage through intentional management and serve as population hubs for wild quail through the creation of quality habitat from scratch, renovation of existing habitat, or conversion from pen-raised bird operations to strictly wild birds.

The Utility of Translocation

Translocation has become a reliable conservation tool for establishing, reestablishing, or augmenting existing populations. The ultimate goal of translocation is to increase population abundance and reduce the risk of local population extinction; its efficacy, however, is predicated on site fidelity and survival of the individuals being released to confer genetic and demographic benefits. This, in turn, is linked to the quality and quantity of habitat on the release site. When the quality of habitat is good to high and when the property size is large enough to hold the birds, we have never experienced a failed translocation.  We believe four primary mechanisms contribute to the success of translocation: (1) large target release area; (2) quality habitat on the release site; (3) an available source of wild bobwhites; and (4) timing of release. Given adequate habitat management and a valid source of wild bobwhites, we also recommend translocating individuals 3–4 weeks prior (during March) to the breeding season to provide ample time to acclimate to their new surroundings, but not longer than 3–4 weeks prior to breeding season to reduce mortality (see Terhune et al. 2006, 2010). We also recommend (based on movement and dispersal data from previous research – see Terhune et al. 2010) that release sites be as large as possible, but minimally should be at least 600 ha to reduce dispersal outside managed habitat.

Can translocation benefit your property?

Translocation is not a panacea for preservation or broad scale restoration of bobwhites and should not, by any means, be viewed as a substitute to habitat management or even a common management practice. However, the technique should remain a pragmatic conservation option instituted on a site-by-site basis, and decisions governing its implementation should take into account knowledge of the species’ life history and ecology. This approach would ideally increase the efficacy of translocation and help to guide its role in conservation planning and management for the species of concern. Results from our research demonstrate that when implemented under stringent criteria and the right conditions it is very effective and successful. The minimum conditions we require of a landowner to participate in a translocaiton include, but are not limited to, the following criteria:

  • Your property should have good to high quality bobwhite habitat;
  • Your property is a minimum of 600 ha (or ~1500 acres) – habitat must be largely contiguous;
  • Your property’s bird population is less than 1 bird per 4 acres;
  • You have a 3-year management plan which incorporates the appropriate burning regime (frequency, scale and season) to ensure long-term quality bobwhite habitat;
  • You provide the financial support for game bird research, cost associated with translocation (e.g., permitting, health screening, etc.), and membership of Tall Timbers;
  • You agree to a population monitoring plan prior to, during and following translocation; and,
  • You agree to become a future donor of wild bobwhites, if your property exceeds 1 bird per acre 5 years following translocation on your property.

If you would like to learn more about whether translocation is an option for your property please contact Dr. Theron M. Terhune.