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Concerning Pen-Raised Quail

It is well known that bobwhite populations have declined substantially throughout the southeastern U.S.. Several possible reasons have been proposed including land use changes, weather, and predators. More disconcerting, however, is that populations on private lands managed specifically for wild bobwhites have shown similar declines, indicitive of more range-wide, rather than site specific, problems including weather, and predators.

Stocking pen-raised bobwhites to increase breeding populations of quail is generally considered unjustified by most biologists due to low survival rates, and has been implicated in the decline of native quail populations because of the potential for disease introduction, food and/or mate competition, displacement of wild quail, increasing wild quail mortality, and dilution of the native gene pool or reduction of brood rearing ability through cross-breeding. Additionally, disease and parasite loads may vary widely from breeder to breeder and if infected quail are released, a problem may result, not only for native quail populations but also other species of native birds.

Using pen-raised birds to supplement harvest, however, has become common on many southern plantations and shooting preserves. In addition, many owners of small farms release quail on their land for family entertainent. Biologists have long wondered what effect these releases may be having on native populations. Pen-raised quail are slightly larger, theoretically have little nesting/brood rearing or survival instincts, and are generally less suited for wild existence.

Pre-season releases (release of pen-raised birds 1-2 months prior to the hunting season) are common in the Southeast. This time frame allows released birds to adjust to their new environment, develop flight capabilities, learn how to avoid predators, and allows for dog work on newly released coveys. Harvest rates for these types of releases commonly range from 10-35% and second year harvest rates are usually less than 1% . Banding studies on pen-raised quail have indicated that overwinter survival rates vary from7% to 58%.

Pen-raised quail should be released in coveys of 18-20, and release sites established by raking an open area in a thicket of young hardwoods or pines which provided overhead cover. This protective cover is very important for birds which are used to wire protection and have never left a pen. The security provided helps shield birds from the eyes of predators and helps newly released coveys to orient to a shady piece of cover.

Boxes containing coveys are brought to the release sites in early morning and left open to allow birds to walk out. Empty release boxes should be picked up before dark the same day to reduce the chance that some critter might pick up the scent of the release box and find the covey. Allowing released birds a full day to orient to a site without disturbance, which so often comes after dark, also helps birds orient to the general release area. A standard poultry waterer can be filled and left on the site, and cracked corn and milo was scattered on the ground. Feed should be placed at the release sites at least once a week for the first 2 weeks, and feed should be checked regularly thereafter. An alternative to this common release technique is to use the Smith/Oneil or Anchor Covey system. Recent research is suggesting that this release system can increase survival rates up to 20% above those associated with standard releases.

Survival of wild quail over the winter is around 40%, both on areas where pen-raised birds are released and on strictly wild quail areas. Survival for pen-raised quail is around 20% through the winter.

Table 1.** Sample size (n), survival percentage (%), by period of wild off release areas, wild on release areas, and pen-raised quail.

n Control n Release area n Pen-raised
pre-release 34 92.9 31 66.5 -- --
winter 85 41.4 92 35.8 184 17.8
summer 10 45.1 142 57.4 17 32.1

**Adapted from DeVos, T., and D. W. Speake. 1995. Effects of releasing pen-raised northern bobwhites on survival rates of wild populations of northern bobwhites. Wildl. Soc. Bull. 23(2):267-273.

Table 2.** Summary of control, release area, and pen-raised northern bobwhite mortality agents on Fort Rucker (FR) and Peachburg (PB) study sites in Alabama, 1990-1992.

  Control Release area Pen-raised
Mortality agent (Winter) n %

n %

n %

Predation 34 87 41 93 91 88
Avian 25 64 29 66 55 53
Mammalian 4 10 11 25 27 26
Unknown 5 13 1 2 9 9
Harvest or Poaching 5 13 3 7 11 11

0 0

0 0

1 1

Total 39 100 44 100 103 100
Avian 5 72 9 56 10 67
Mammalian 1 14 5 31 5 33
Unknown 1 14 2 13 0 0
Total 8 100 16 100 15 100

**Adapted from DeVos, T., and D. W. Speake. 1995. Effects of releasing pen-raised northern bobwhites on survival rates of wild populations of northern bobwhites. Wildl. Soc. Bull. 23(2):267-273.

Both pen-raised hens and cocks which survive into the summer usually pair normally and attempt to reproduce. Cross-pairing (wild x pen-raised) does occur. Types of nesting and brood rearing habitat used by pen-raised birds is identical to that used by wild quail.

Low winter survival rates for pen-raised quail indicate the release of pen-raised quail for restocking depleted quail habitat is unjustified and relocation of wild quail is a better option. However, the majority of release operations in the southeast are not conducted with restocking as the primary objective. The main function of these pre-season releases is to increase the number of birds in the harvest. Because of increased hunting pressure and the consistent decline in wild bird populations, frequently the most practical way managers can meet higher demand is to release pen-raised quail.

Mortality of pen-raised birds from release to the beginning of hunting season is nearly 40%. Birds which survived this initially heavy mortality hold better for dogs, fly farther and stronger, and flush as a covey. By 1 or 2 months post-release, most pen-raised quail mimick wild bird behavior, and are difficult or impossible to distinguish from wild quail in the field. Survival of these pen-raised quail to the end of the hunting season (end of February) is about 25%, compared to around 50% for wild quail.

An antecdotal story indicates the tenacity of these pen-raised quail; on one day when radio-tagged quail were being released, a mild drizzle occurred all day long and by the time the last boxes were put out around noon, crowding in the misty boxes had soaked the majority of birds. We didn’t see many of the released birds when we picked up the boxes, but by late afternoon it was apparent that the years first frost would occur during the night. Around midnight I radio-tracked in on the last 5 covies released, expecting these birds to suffer very high mortality from freezing. Much to my suprise, all birds were dry and roosted normally. The following day, all birds were checked and no direct mortality was attributed to the freezing, raining weather. As indicated previously, the use of healthy quail in release operations is imperative.

Interactions among released and wild quail is an important consideration. Shortly after release of pen-raised quail, wild quail are often located <50 yds from pen-raised coveys possibly due all the calling at new released coveys. These introduced birds do not displace wild birds from their established covey ranges, but often the two groups mix.

The utilization of pen-raised quail in depleted or heavily hunted preserves, plantations or small private farms is apt to continue at the present rate or increase Managers using released quail often espouse 1 type of release technique or another to increase survival and flight ability, however, providing good quality cover and feed would seem the best techniques for increasing survivability. Undoubtedly, feathering, flight ability, conditioning, age, and season of release all contribute to pen-raised quail survival. They apparently nest, hatch and raise chicks normally in the wild, but it is unknown whether these offspring have similar annual survival rates. The assumption might be made that chicks raised in the wild will exhibit "normal" survival curves.

An additional question is whether we are "training" predators to hunt and capture quail or increasing populations of larger or more mobile predators, such as hawks or larger mammals, on these highly stocked areas. The jury is still out on this one and research continues.