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)
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.
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.
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
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
“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.)
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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."
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
“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.
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:
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.
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.”
can check how suitable your habitat is by throwing a softball into it.
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.
can’t hide a softball in your fencerows, woodlot edges or ditches,” he said,
“you can’t support bobwhites.”
to that, the best plants for hiding bobwhites (and softballs) in winter, Janke
said, are blackberry and raspberry thickets.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
research may spur further changes -- back to bobwhite-friendly practices that
reverse the fall.
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
comes from Maryland, where she’d never seen a bobwhite, although they live
“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
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.”
that data gets her close to the birds. Sometimes they’re right in her hand.
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.”
covey is flushed -- made to fly. Hopefully into the net.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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/.