Ohio State Scientists Work to Bring Back the Bobwhite

Dec 15, 2011

 
Ohio State Scientists Work to Bring Back the Bobwhite

Bird in the hand: A northern bobwhite, a native quail, gets fitted with a radio tracking collar for a study by Ohio State scientists. Bobwhite numbers have crashed in Ohio and in many other states. (Photo courtesy Adam Janke)

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio used to have more partridges in its pear trees. Today, researchers at Ohio State University are working to help the birds come back -- to bring them home for the holidays, as it were, as well as throughout the year.

Wildlife ecologist Bob Gates and graduate students Adam Janke, Mauri Liberati and Mark Wiley are studying the northern bobwhite, a disappearing native quail, with an eye on improving its habitat, especially in winter.

“Northern bobwhites are important game birds in the eastern U.S., but they’ve become recreationally extinct” -- so few they aren’t hunted anymore -- “in many parts of their historic range, especially the upper Midwest,” said Gates, who is an associate professor in Ohio State’s School of Environment and Natural Resources.

“But there is still great interest in conserving bobwhite populations from rural landowners and the general public,” said the scientist, who also holds an appointment with the university’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

As part of a broad project to help Ohio’s bobwhites, the researchers have dug deeply into where the birds spend winter, right down to favored plant types, and into their movements and breeding in spring. The goal is developing new recommendations for managing land for bobwhites -- practices that improve the birds’ survival and nesting success, especially on agricultural lands. The team has started to share its findings in farmer and landowner workshops.

Second tracking image

Mark Wiley, a graduate student in Ohio State's School of Environment and Natural Resources, radio-tracks northern bobwhites in southern Ohio. (Photo courtesy Adam Janke)

Bobwhite numbers have crashed in Ohio, having fallen by three-quarters in just 21 years, 1984 to 2004, according to previous research by Gates and a colleague. In 2007, the National Audubon Society ranked the bobwhite No. 1 among top 10 common North America birds in decline, although in Ohio, 16 counties in the southern part of the state can still support a limited hunting season.

Culprits in the drop include intensified “fence-to-fence” farming practices and urban sprawl, which damage and destroy bobwhite habitat -- fence rows and pastures, for example -- plus unusually cold, snowy winters, which can kill up to 9 out of 10 of the birds.

Bobwhites are year-round residents in Ohio, where they live at the northern edge of their range. Brown, white and chicken-like, with telltale stripes on their head, they’re well known and named for the “bob-white!” call of the male.

The bobwhite “is a sensitive indicator of ecosystem health in openlands,” Gates said, “and is just one species in a guild of edge-dependent federal trust species that depend on early successional habitats that are disappearing from much of the eastern U.S.” (Federal trust species include endangered or otherwise imperiled species, species needing special protection, or both.)

Funding the team’s research is a Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration grant from the Ohio Division of Wildlife to Ohio State’s Terrestrial Wildlife Ecology Lab, of which Gates is a member. The lab is part of the School of Environment and Natural Resources. Both the school and OARDC are part of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Microhabitats: Shelter from the Snowstorm

Mark Wiley grew up on his family’s farm in Union County in central Ohio. He’s the first one in the family line, from his great-grandfather to grandfather to father, to have never seen a bobwhite on the farm.

“I didn’t see my first wild bobwhite in Ohio until I started on this project in 2008,” said Wiley, a master’s degree student in fisheries and wildlife science. “Ohio’s bobwhite populations have not only declined dramatically, they’ve disappeared in some counties.”

For his thesis, he studied the fine-scale features of good winter bobwhite habitat. He zeroed in on small areas, or microhabitats, each about 15 yards across. Why do bobwhites use some of these areas, such as a certain corner of a woodlot, and not others? What makes them different -- these used and unused areas? He looked at such details as the makeup of the plant species and the density of their growth.

He found, for example, that used areas have more low-level cover -- from ground level up to about 3.5 feet -- and more shrubs like raspberry, blackberry and multiflora rose.

The study sites -- four total and used by Janke and Liberati for their work too -- are in Brown and Highland counties in southwestern Ohio. Each site comprises 10 to 20 farms and properties owned by cooperating landowners.

Bobwhite nest

Look closely -- there's a northern bobwhite nest in there. It's just below and behind the bent plant stem. "I was about a yard away from the nest when I took this picture," said Mauri Liberati, a graduate student in Ohio State's School of Environment and Natural Resources, "and the eggs were still difficult to find."

“(Janke’s) research has provided valuable information about landscape-level requirements of bobwhites in Ohio,” Wiley said. “My own research will hopefully build on that and identify for landowners and wildlife managers exactly what they can do on their property to improve the bobwhite habitat.”

Where to start? It might be in the woods. While mature woods, ones with tall trees and shade, usually don’t have enough undergrowth for bobwhites, thinned-out or livestock-grazed woodlots often do -- or can be easily managed to have it. A selling point: Productive farmland isn’t involved.

Wiley, who should graduate this spring, earned his bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology at Ohio University, was on his high school’s FFA wildlife team and is an Ohio 4-H alumnus. He said bobwhites are part of Ohio’s farming history.

“Their (previous) high numbers were a product of habitat created by historical agricultural practices -- lots of brushy fence rows, patchy weeds, small pastures, harvested woodlots. Those are mostly gone now,” he said.

“One of the biggest challenges of bobwhite conservation is that good bobwhite habitat often looks messy and neglected, which isn’t popular with farmers or landowners.” Changing that perception, he said, is key to the bird’s future.

“Productive agriculture and bobwhites can co-exist if we can manage the unproductive or odd areas of our farms and properties to maximize their quality as quail habitat.”

With that would come something deep-down familiar.

“A person may not recognize any other bird calls,” Wiley said, “but will know a bobwhite when they hear it.”

Bleak Midwinter? Get Thee to a Shrubbery

Adam Janke grew up a hunter in northwest Indiana. He didn’t hunt bobwhites. There weren’t enough around. But sometimes he would see a few when hunting other species. After graduating as a wildlife major from Purdue University, he contacted Gates about studying “some kind of game bird” with him at Ohio State.

“At that time, Dr. Gates had an opening on the bobwhite project,” Janke remembered. “He convinced me that it was the right opportunity for me, and he was certainly right.”

A fisheries and wildlife science major who graduated just this month, Janke studied habitat use and survival by bobwhites during their October-to-March non-breeding season.

“The non-breeding season is particularly important for bobwhites in northern states like Ohio, because the severe winter weather can really drive down survival rates and decrease the population’s ability to grow,” he said. 

“The project is unique among contemporary bobwhite research projects in that we work on privately owned lands that are agriculturally productive and not managed for bobwhites,” he added. “The approach has allowed us to identify the areas on private lands in Ohio that can be beneficial for bobwhites.”

Among the findings:

  • The hot spot in winter is shrubby woody cover.

“Keeping this kind of cover in the landscape is really important for bobwhites,” Janke said. At the study sites, he found most of the shrubby cover in ditches and fencerows.

  • Woodlots don’t cut it unless they’ve had cutting.

“In general, woodlots don’t provide enough cover at the bobwhite’s level. But woodlots that have a more open canopy, from cutting timber or firewood or a history of grazing, do allow the growth of good shrubby cover near the ground,” Janke said, echoing Wiley. “These areas are really good opportunity areas to actively manage, through cutting timber, to provide good shrubby cover for bobwhites.”

  • You can check how suitable your habitat is by throwing a softball into it.

“What we always tell landowners who want to provide good habitat for bobwhites is that they should be able to hide a softball next to their crop fields during periods of snow cover,” Janke said. “Bobwhites are about the same size as a softball and are really vulnerable to avian predators -- hawks and owls -- in winter. They use woody cover near food sources -- crop fields -- to escape.

“If you can’t hide a softball in your fencerows, woodlot edges or ditches,” he said, “you can’t support bobwhites.”

  • Related to that, the best plants for hiding bobwhites (and softballs) in winter, Janke said, are blackberry and raspberry thickets.
  • Finally, leaving a few rows of crops at the edge of a field, ideally near shrubby cover, is an extra help. 

“Food generally isn’t a limiting factor for bobwhites in Ohio except during periods of snow cover,” Janke explained. “A few rows of standing crops can provide the necessary food to get the birds through the bad weather.”

Janke, like Wiley, was in 4-H when he was younger. But his projects involved hogs, not birds. He admires, he said, the bobwhite’s “long-standing cultural significance.” And also its resilience.

“Bobwhites are native to Ohio, but they only persisted in small pockets of frequently disturbed habitats -- near native settlements or fire-maintained grasslands. The arrival of European settlers facilitated a rapid and widespread population increase, as the birds thrived in the newly cleared, small-scale agricultural landscape,” he said.

“At the start of the Industrial Revolution, however, bobwhites began a long, steady decline that was first discussed by concerned sportsmen and naturalists in the early 1900s. (We) talk about that same decline today, driven largely by the same factors -- changes in land management.”

The team’s research may spur further changes -- back to bobwhite-friendly practices that reverse the fall.

“Despite over a century of decline, bobwhites still evoke strong feelings from many Ohioans,” Janke said. “There are still opportunities to maintain bobwhite populations in Ohio.”

I Will Follow: How They Trap, Track Bobwhites

Mauri Liberati comes from Maryland, where she’d never seen a bobwhite, although they live there. 

“I didn’t grow up in a hunting culture, had never worked in an agricultural landscape, and my previous research had focused on songbirds,” she said.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology at Virginia Tech, then came to Ohio State. Now she not only sees bobwhites but tracks their every move.

The project drew her, she said, because she had wanted to study the breeding ecology of birds, and it gave her a chance to do it. Her own research looks at spring dispersal by bobwhites -- where and how far they travel after winter -- and their breeding behavior and ecology. Where do they nest? How many eggs? How many young survive? And more.

Nest with eggs

A northern bobwhite nest with eggs. During the breeding season and all year round, bobwhites need suitable plant cover near the ground. (Photo courtesy Mauri Liberati)

“Bobwhites are a resident species here and therefore have the opportunity and capacity for prolonged breeding seasons. These breeding opportunities have a direct impact on huntable fall numbers and ultimately the long-term persistence of the population,” she said.

“My tracking data and detailed vegetation measurements at the nest sites will hopefully provide managers and landowners with information on habitat requirements for breeding bobwhites to maximize their breeding potential.”

Getting that data gets her close to the birds. Sometimes they’re right in her hand.

“We’re able to study bobwhites throughout the year in detail because we attach radio collars to wild birds,” she said. “We catch wild birds with baited, non-lethal funnel traps and with pointing dogs. The dogs point the coveys” -- bobwhite flocks -- “while we set up mist nets, which are 12-foot-long nets strung between two 10-foot-high poles.”

Then the covey is flushed -- made to fly. Hopefully into the net.

“Once we catch the birds, we take measurements and outfit them with aluminum leg bands stamped with unique identification numbers and a phone number for band returns,” Liberati said. Each bird, too, gets a necklace-type radio collar.

“The radio is about the size of a quarter and hangs around the neck to rest just below the throat, while the antenna lies along the bird’s back. Each radio has a unique frequency that we use to home into the bird’s location,” she said.

“Bobwhites will ‘hold tight’” -- sit still to hide before flying as a last resort -- “which allows us to radio-track individuals to within 10 to 15 meters of their actual location before flushing. This allows for very accurate documentation of habitat use and movements across the landscape.”

One thing she’s discovered is that in spring, while bobwhites prefer walking to flying, they still can disperse -- spread out and travel -- up to 12 miles from where they spent winter. It proves, she said, that they can come back -- that “bobwhites do have the physical potential to recolonize parts of their historic range.”

In all, Liberati said, working with bobwhites has been “a tremendous learning opportunity,” a chance for “personal and professional development.” Like Wiley, she’s on track to graduate with a master’s degree in fisheries and wildlife science this June.

Bobwhite ‘Has Endeared Itself’

In January, Janke, Liberati and Wiley will present their findings at the Quail VII Research Symposium in Arizona. They spoke at Ohio State’s Farm Science Review trade show in London, Ohio, this past fall and gave workshops in southwest Ohio last winter. “We always appreciate opportunities to share what we’ve learned,” Liberati said.

In 1933, Ohio-born ecologist S. Charles Kendeigh published a report in The Ohio Journal of Science called “Abundance and Conservation of the Bob-White in Ohio.” He wrote, “The bob-white is a very attractive and beautiful bird with a loud cheery song, and has endeared itself to all lovers of nature and to country folk in general. … The intelligent farmer has good reason to wish that the species be maintained in its normal numbers.”

Thanks to Gates, Janke, Liberati and Wiley, bobwhites in Ohio may have more to sing about soon, and simply more places to do it.

  • Learn more about improving wildlife habitat on farmland, including for bobwhites, in a fact sheet by Ohio State University Extension at http://go.osu.edu/G3U.
  • OSU Extension also has a fact sheet on planting shelter belts for wildlife, which are especially helpful in winter, at http://go.osu.edu/G3S.
  • Read more about Ohio State’s Terrestrial Wildlife Ecology Lab at http://twel.osu.edu/.

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