On Wednesday January 10, 2018, after a week of record below freezing temperatures and the largest snow event of the season so far in the NJ Pinelands, NJ Audubon staff and research partners, University of Delaware, and the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, were able to verify only one weather related mortality of the remaining radio collared Northern Bobwhite at the Pine Island Cranberry study site. All other radio collared birds being tracked were alive.
Using telemetry, the radio collared birds were tracked and found to be together and alive as part of coveys. Tracks in the snow also verified that the quail utilize cover provided by young pines in areas where forestry had occurred, which was observed in prior years as well. The lower branches of the young pines were bent and bowed by the snow creating a patchwork of evergreen “lean-tos” with the pine needles blocking out snow drifts and providing cover from wind.
Recent research has found that a severe winter weather event can have long-lasting impacts on Northern Bobwhite populations. In winter during periods of low temperatures, and ice and snow cover, Bobwhite face three significant challenges to their survival: thermo-regulation, food availability and predators. These three challenges can be overcome - provided the Bobwhite has suitable habitat.
Like many species, Northern Bobwhite need to burn more energy to stay warm in winter. However, they are unable to dig through the snow like deer or turkey to get to food sources buried beneath. Thus, quail may have to venture out into the open to look for food, which makes them more vulnerable to predation.
One way quail combat the cold and overcome these challenges is by grouping together in coveys. A covey functions as a unit: birds forage in the same area, rest together in the same cover, and roost together at night. As a covey, the birds seek out areas that provide the best cover and forage availability. These areas typically provide thick cover adjacent to reliable food sources. The conservation group Quail Forever has found that typically “the temperature inside a high-quality shelterbelt (area of trees and shrubs that provide thick cover) – ideal cover from the cold – can be 5°F warmer.” This is consistent with observations of quail at the Pine Island study site as the quail are utilizing young pine stands for cover and are foraging in adjacent fields and forest.
Acting as a covey also provides the quail with ‘more eyes’ to detect predators, and when roosting, helps each individual maintain body heat throughout the night. When roosting, the covey forms a circle, their tails together and their heads pointing outward like spokes from a wheel hub. If disturbed, the birds flush in all directions.
ANSWER THE CALL and be part of this historic reintroduction and recovery of this beloved iconic species and support the Northern Bobwhite Restoration Initiative! Go to NJ Audubon's Northern Bobwhite webpage: https://community.njaudubon.org/pages/quail-restoration-initiative-donation-page
Photos Courtesy of TWildlife and John Parke