Reversing quail decline won't be a quick fix Low populations caused by variety of conditions, state DNR official says

December 01, 1996|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Although the Department of Natural Resources is initiating a hunter survey on bobwhite quail in Maryland, a game manager with DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Division said last week that the results of the study might do little to solve the complex riddle of the bird's low population in the state.

"I'm not too optimistic for quail numbers to return to the numbers of the mid-years of the century unless there is drastic change in the state," said Upland Game Program Manager Joe Shugars. "But in the mid-'50s, wild turkey and deer were at the same place quail are now -- and look what happened."

Wild turkey populations have been reintroduced to every county in the state, and deer numbers are thriving.

But, said Shugars, quail face different problems than did deer and turkey.

Maryland is the northern limit of the range for quail, which thrive in southern states, he said, and current agricultural and societal land uses have made large areas of the state unsuitable for quail populations.

"Farm fields have gotten larger; many farms have been converted to houses or shopping centers and so on," said Shugars, naming only a few of the changes that have impacted the quail population. "Even hay growing has changed. and the pesticides and insecticides used have an effect as well.

"So you can't put your finger on a single factor; it is a whole $$ number of factors."

According to an annual survey taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the quail population here has declined by 82 percent over the past 17 years.

As suitable habitat has disappeared, populations of upland game and birds have dropped across the board, with quail and pheasant showing the sharpest declines.

What DNR's survey of 1,000 quail hunters and any interested volunteers hopes to determine is hunting practices and trends in different parts of the state -- how, when and where quail hunters hunt and how well they do.

Shugars said the number of quail killed by hunters each year is so low that the key to rebuilding numbers of quail is to restore habitat that will shelter and feed coveys of the bird.

DNR would, however, like to have a closer look at late-season hunting patterns, because late fall and winter populations hold the key for the following year.

"The time we have the highest number [of quail] is midsummer, the peak of the breeding season," Shugars said. "But by the time we get to January and early February, what is left is the survivors, the breeders for the next year."

One question Shugars would like to answer is the effect late-day hunters have on coveys late in the hunting season.

"A covey has to have at least five birds when it is below freezing to huddle together and keep warm," Shugars said. "Late in the season, when the nights get colder, if a covey is dispersed and doesn't regroup, then it is possible the birds will freeze to death."

Funds for quail studies have been limited, Shugars said. But the hunter survey will help DNR quantify quail hunting by geographic areas and might lead to radio-telemetry studies in select areas in the future.

"But unless we can find that right combination of factors to work for quail," Shugars said. "Then we might see some returns in 10 or 15 years. But I don't see a return to the numbers of the mid-century for perhaps 50 years -- and I am being conservative when I say 50 years."

Estimated game kills

The following are the estimated takes of upland and webless migratory game in Maryland from 1975 through 1993. Figures are taken from Maryland's Hunter Mail Survey.

Year ...... Pheasants ...... Quail ..... Rabbits ..... Doves ..... Woodcock

1975 ...... 72,966 ......... 251,975 ... 381,448 ..... 489,478 ... 9,508

1976 ...... 75,116 ......... 208,909 ... 371,459 ..... 441,105 ... 13,091

1977 ...... 53,187 ......... 195,010 ... 387,621 ..... 368,126 ... 9,734

1978 ...... 51,983 ......... 131,763 ... 277,261 ..... 299,637 ... 7,507

1979 ...... 52,033 ......... 92,209 .... 262,059 ..... 406,618 ... 5,999

1980 ...... 34,595 ......... 133,907 ... 255,545 ..... 442,604 ... 11,622

1981 ...... 39,264 ......... 130,520 ... 288,595 ..... 485,829 ... 7,154

1982 ...... 30,183 ......... 115,858 ... 266,282 ..... 381,002 ... 4,826

1983 ...... 29,281 ......... 153,404 ... 261,767 ..... 386,383 ... 4,244

1984 ...... 19,376 ......... 91,057 .... 224,033 ..... 392,188 ... 3,347

1985 ...... 20,943 ......... 98,433 .... 248,337 ..... 348,204 ... 4,266

1986 ...... 13,671 ......... 119,020 ... 237,403 ..... 481,861 ... 4,405

1987 ...... 11,955 ......... 86,799 .... 212,836 ..... 450,503 ... 6,546

1988 ...... 13,310 ......... 81,398 .... 218,397 ..... 380,568 ... 5,019

1989 ...... 11,386 ......... 50,869 .... 187,986 ..... 368,438 ... 4,181

1990 ...... 7,345 .......... 45,023 .... 124,376 ..... 243,601 ... 6,577

1991 ...... 2,576 .......... 46,134 .... 161,023 ..... 273,699 ... 3,425

1992 ...... 4,998 .......... 41,043 .... 176,973 ..... 300,931 ... 3,604

1993 ...... 5,097 .......... 52,200 .... 175,328 ..... 319,595 ... 4,408

Source: Department of Natural Resources

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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