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Pennsylvania’s $3M ‘firebird’ revival effort

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(The Center Square) — Sometimes, bird migration comes by plane ticket, not by feather.

This spring, after capturing dozens of bobwhite quail overnight in Florida, the Pennsylvania Game Commission chartered a flight to bring them to Franklin County and then released the birds into a new world.

The effort is part of a $3.2 million push to reintroduce the northern bobwhite quail to Pennsylvania, a small bird that was once common across the commonwealth.

“This is primarily a restoration effort,” said Andrew Ward, a quail, pheasant and dove biologist for the commission. “Our goal here is to re-establish a population of wild bobwhite within part of their historic range.”

The quail, nicknamed “the firebird” because it’s dependent on fire to maintain its habitat, peaked in the mid-1800s, but by the 1920s were relegated to the southern Pennsylvania and Ohio border.

After a small recovery in the 1960s, the bobwhite went into a rapid decline over the 1970s-1990s. The commission estimated it was likely gone from the commonwealth by 2014.

The commission’s efforts, after several years of preparing habitat at the Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, will bring quail from Ft. Knox in Kentucky, Ft. Barfoot in Virginia, and Florida over three years to create a stable population in Pennsylvania.

“For our Florida birds, we’re working with Tall Timbers research and they’re pretty much the foremost experts in quail translocation,” Ward said. “They captured birds for us down there, they captured all 50 birds in one day, one night, then in the morning had chartered a flight to bring them up in a small plane.”

As of mid-March, the commission has released 76 birds, with one more release scheduled this year. According to the commission’s management plan, officials estimate they’ll need 800-1,000 quail for a successful reintroduction.

Through 2026, the commission estimates the effort will cost $2.8 million for habitat-related expenses and $460,000 to translocate the birds.

“Northern bobwhite are a native species to Pennsylvania and at one point they were in every county in the commonwealth,” Ward said.

But changing farming practices destroyed their habitat. Bobwhite quail need grasslands and shrubs to thrive rather than forests because they provide cover and give them space to walk on the ground.

When overgrowth gets too thick, the birds can’t maneuver. When forest replaces grasses and shrubs, quails lose that protective cover.

“Our bobwhite dwindled until they were completely extirpated — we didn’t have anymore breeding populations in the entire state,” Ward said

More quail will be brought into Pennsylvania in 2025 and 2026 to goose the numbers. The commission has prepared about 2,700 acres for them at the Army Depot, almost double what it estimated it’d need for a viable population.

“When translocating bobwhite, it’s important to have as short of a window as possible that you’re actually holding those birds,” Ward said. “So anytime we’re trapping, birds are being released the very next day.”

Moving them during the early spring will get quail numbers up through breeding instead of capture-and-release.

“This time of the year, the birds are still in groups called cubbies,” Ward said. “Pretty soon, they’ll break out of those cubbies and pair off and that is really what we’re relying on to increase those numbers to reach those population goals.”

Bobwhite quail have a low survival rate in the wild and rely on a high reproduction rate to replace the birds taken by predators. Cooper’s hawks, goshawks, foxes, raccoons, skunks and opossums all hunt quail.

“It’s been a long path to try to get where we are now,” Ward said.

The commission doesn’t have a set population goal to hit on a certain schedule, but previous efforts have guided their approach, Ward said. The commission has focused on American martens, hellbenders, and the ruffed grouse in recent years.

In the 1980s, attempts were made to reintroduce the quail in Adams County, but only had short-term success before they disappeared again. Fewer than 100 birds were released and little effort was made to improve habitat to ensure they could survive.

If the repopulation effort succeeds, more may be in store for the future.

“We’re not quite ready to declare any of our follow-up plans, but we’re certainly looking to expand beyond Letterkenny here in the near future, hoping to work on private land a little bit and allow for this population to expand naturally,” Ward said. “In the coming years, we’ll make assessments on what our next plans are.”

He called the reintroduction a great collaborative effort: the Letterkenny Army Depot, conservation groups Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the University of Delaware, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, and several other groups have been involved in returning the bobwhite quail to Pennsylvania.

Residents in the area may not see them, but they could hear them.

“The way to detect them most easily is by sound,” Ward said. “Their call is their namesake. Males, especially, give out this ‘bob-bobwhite’ call — it’s a beautiful call that brings a warm feeling to a lot of folks who grew up around them or worked with them.”

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