The song of the bobwhite quail can now be heard in West Virginia.
Forty-eight of the popular little game birds were released last week at the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in Logan and Mingo counties. State wildlife officials hope they will thrive on the area, more than 50 acres of which have been specially converted to accommodate the birds.
Gov. Jim Justice, who released the quail, said the species’ return ends a long absence from the Mountain State.
“There’s no question we’ve lost favorable habitat for quail over the last several decades,” he said.
Bobwhite numbers had been in decline for years before the harsh winters of 1977 through 1979 essentially wiped them out. Biologists at the time believed a lack of small-farm habitat caused the species’ initial decline.
Justice acknowledged an overall dearth of habitat, but said there is still “a significant amount” of brushland and grassland on the Tomblin area where bobwhites can survive and thrive.
It’s there because workers for the Division of Natural Resources put it there. DNR director Steve McDaniel said the project started more than two years ago, when Justice, an avid bird hunter, approached him about starting a quail reintroduction program.
“We were down at Tomblin, looking at the site where we released elk, and the governor asked what we could do there to try to restore quail,” McDaniel continued. “There was probably no better place more suited in the state than Tomblin, because we’ve created a lot of habitat for elk there.”
Quail, like elk, thrive on grassy savannas interspersed with thick brush. The birds feed on grass seed and other grains, and they hide in thickets to keep away from hawks, bobcats, coyotes and other predators.
“Creating and maintaining quail habitat requires a lot of time and a lot of resources,” McDaniel said. “The guys down at Tomblin have done a great job getting the place ready for quail.”
The birds came from Texas. McDaniel said the original plan was to conduct the first stocking last spring, but a drought in the Lone Star State prevented biologists there from trapping enough to send.
“We provided some of our turkeys to Texas in exchange for the quail,” he explained. “The ones we stocked are the first of what we hope will be several stockings.”
Some of the newly introduced birds were equipped with tiny radio transmitters that allow biologists to track their movements.
“They tell me that the quail’s survival during the first two weeks will be critical,” McDaniel said. “We lost four birds to predators during the first week, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on them from now on.”
To keep the quail from wandering out into the open looking for food, DNR workers have hidden seed caches underneath brush piles and bushes, McDaniel said. “We want to keep the quail away from predators, at least until things start to green up and the vegetation helps to hide them,” he added.
Mike Peters, the DNR’s game bird and small game project leader, said the goal is to create a self-sustaining population. He added, however, that it will probably take several years to gauge the effort’s success or failure.
“With the support of Gov. Justice, we have the interest, financial backing, and support that will allow this long-term, management-intensive project to succeed,” he said.
Peters said information biologists gather during the project might ultimately help provide private landowners and small-plot farmers to reintroduce and manage quail on their own properties.