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Where are northern bobwhite quail found in Pennsylvania?

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Many of Pennsylvania's new wild northern bobwhite quail are adjusting to their new home in Franklin County, and officials are looking forward to seeing quail chicks this summer.

Through a partnership with the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Letterkenny Army Depot, wild quail were reintroduced to military land in Franklin County, Pennsylvania.

In March, 87 birds from Virginia, Kentucky and Florida were relocated to the Army Depot in Chambersburg.

“They’re getting used to their new surroundings,” said Andrew Ward, head of the Game Commission’s wild bird division. “In the last few weeks they have broken away from the coveys. We've been hearing men whistling for about a week now. So that’s a good sign as we’re now entering the breeding season and hopefully we’ll have good nesting success.”

The employees at the depot were able to observe some birds.

“Letterkenny Army Depot (LEAD) Natural Resources Staff have seen bobwhite quail several times during other wildlife surveys and incidental sightings while traveling through the Bobwhite Quail Focus Area (BQFA),” said Matt Miller, Letterkenny Natural Resources Manager, via email. Mail. “The most we saw at one time was a roadside flock of at least 10 or more in early April.”

They are back: The historic release of wild northern quail will take place at Letterkenny Army Depot

Wild quail were once found in all 67 Pennsylvania counties in the mid-19th century. However, due to poor habitat conditions, they have been extinct in Pennsylvania since the 1990s.

“It was really rewarding to see these quail back in the Pennsylvania landscape,” Miller said. “We heard our first bobwhite singing on April 25 during our annual woodcock survey.”

Ward said the birds were released in a time frame that revolved around their breeding season.

“Hopefully we have good nesting success to multiply these numbers and work toward our population goals.”

Raising quail is challenging despite the right habitat.

“There were deaths. That’s what you expect, especially with quail,” Ward said.

The annual average quail survival rate for an established population is about 23%.

“So you assume that out of, say, 100 individuals, only 23 will survive a calendar year,” he said. “And they compensate for this relatively slow survival rate with high reproduction.”

Ward couldn't release exact figures on how many birds have died because they don't want any conclusions to be drawn after just a month of the program.

“The leading cause of death for bobwhite quail in general is predation,” he said. “This is what you would expect and this is what we are seeing with mortality,” he said.

Predators such as hawks, foxes, bobcats and nest predators such as raccoons and opossums target quail. “A lot of things eat quail,” Ward said.

With 87 birds housed on the property this year, he said they are counting on the birds' natural reproduction to boost population numbers.

“Our overall goal with the translocation was to achieve as close to a one-to-one ratio between males and females as possible. We came very close to that,” he said.

Fifteen birds, including eight females, came from Fort Barfoot, an Army National Guard installation in Virginia; Fifty quail, evenly split males and females, came from Tall Timbers, a Florida-based land trust, and the remaining 27 came from Fort Knox, Kentucky, almost evenly split between males and females.

The birds were released into a dense grassland habitat of approximately 400 hectares.

“We haven’t really seen them stray too far from it,” Ward said. “Usually these smaller home ranges are a good indicator of habitat quality and that the birds in that area have everything they need. If they had to travel further for some of their daily needs, this would expand their home area. If they have everything they need in a small space, that’s usually where they spend their time.”

Julia Smith, state coordinator for Pheasants Forever, Inc. and Quail Forever in Pennsylvania, is another partner in the project and said habitat will continue to improve at the site.

Pollinator species are planted there to provide food and shelter for wildlife.

“The native warm-season grasses are just starting to wake up,” she said of the fields. “The plants, bluestem and gorse, are only a few centimeters tall but will take off in May and June and reach maximum growth in July and August.”

A variety of other native grasses grow throughout the summer. The hope is that some of these pollinator species will attract insects that the young birds can eat.

“They really rely on a high protein diet and they get that from insects,” Smith said. “But insects need pollinator species that they are attracted to.” That’s why pollinator species are so important, because they don’t just serve as food for our butterflies and insects. These insects, in turn, serve as food for young quail chicks, which rely on a high-protein diet.”

Miller said crews conducted four prescribed fires in the new quail habitat area in February, March and April.

“Since bobwhites are nicknamed ‘firebird,’ it was not surprising that these quail took advantage of burned areas almost immediately after the fire,” Miller said.

Additional work included the application of some pre-emergence herbicide treatments in the area, targeting non-native invasive plant species such as stiltgrass (Persicaria perfoliata) and Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum).

“The prescribed fires and selective herbicide treatments will help immensely to create high-quality native early-season habitat that bobwhites and a host of other game and non-game species rely on,” Miller said.

The quail build nests in the shape of a bowl and also have a roof or dome for better protection from predators. The average clutch size is around 12 eggs and they take 23 days to incubate in mid-summer.

“We are definitely excited about the start of the breeding season and hope that we will have good breeding. We are excited to see how this project develops and look for ways to improve it in the future,” Ward said.

There will be similar quail relocations to the site for another two years. The Game Commission estimates it will cost about $1.5 million for habitat work between 2019 and 2026 and $460,000 for three years of relocation work. Letterkenny also plans to invest approximately $1.1 million in habitat work over seven years.

“We will use the lessons learned from our first year of relocations, as well as everything we learn over the next year, to make adjustments for subsequent years,” Ward said.

Brian Whipkey is an outdoor columnist for the USA TODAY Network's Pennsylvania locations. Contact him at [email protected] and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA email newsletter using your login name on the home page of this website. Follow him on Facebook @whipkeyoutdoorsand Instagram at Whipkey outdoors.

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