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Parent-Reared Chick System
While nearly all of the quail research Tall Timbers does is on wild bobwhite populations, occasionally we have studied released bobwhites because they are so prevalent and can potentially have negative consequences for wild bobwhites. Our studies, and others, have found that release pen-reared bobwhites have extremely low survival rates and when some do survive they produce too few offspring to grow a population of bobwhites. This is true of normal fall release systems as well as systems that imprint chicks to locations in habitat using mobile brooders. The fundamental problem with all pen-rearing systems is the lack of proper imprinting and poor genetic quality of the birds.
Imprinting is a special form of learning that begins before leaving the egg when communicating with the incubating adult, and immediately after hatch. During imprinting, the brains of quail, or other birds, fix on characteristics of the parent, and this learning is important to a cascade of behaviors later in life, including predator recognition and predator avoidance, as well as other behaviors such as brood rearing. Most anyone that has dealt with pen-reared bobwhites witnesses “goofy” behavior where birds just act oblivious to dogs, people or predators. Studies of other species demonstrate that without imprinting birds may not recognize or respond properly to mating or alarm calls.
The parent-reared chick system incorporates imprinting concepts prior to hatch and immediately after hatch. Bobwhite chicks hatched from wild-strain stock are reared in outdoor pens with bobwhite parents then released after banding and or radio-tagging so we can monitor their survival and reproduction.
We have released parent-reared chicks on several study areas, mostly in South Carolina, to determine their suitability for restoring bobwhite populations on private lands. While translocation of wild bobwhites is the preferred method, the source for wild bobwhites is often a bottleneck for interested landowners. Further, state regulations may not permit release of wild bobwhites on smaller landholdings. Therefore, we were interested in determining if a new novel method of rearing and releasing bobwhites would be useful for restoring wild bobwhite populations!
For the last three breeding season, our studies indicate that surviving parent-reared bobwhites reproduce at levels equal to wild resident bobwhites. This is a major breakthrough for released bobwhites from a pen-reared system. In fact, we know of no other research that is demonstrating a pen-rearing system producing reproductively competent game birds released into the wild.
Now we are estimating the proportion of released chicks to survive until the breeding season using radio-tagging techniques similar to those we use on adult bobwhites. While early, our results from last fall and this fall indicate survival rates are high enough to be encouraged that this technique may provide restoration potential for populations.
The jury is still out on if this procedure will ultimately help to restore wild bobwhite populations. However, the early results are encouraging enough to continue our research. Even more exciting, in South Carolina we are testing the efficacy of restoring populations using the parent-reared system versus translocation of wild birds. We will be reporting on the success of these projects as results become available.