Nature Notes: The Call of the Bobwhite

Bobwhites have become scarcer and scarcer with each passing year
Girl Scout Troop 1971, a.k.a. the Quail Scouts, sponsored a bobwhite quail release at Feisty Acres Farm in Jamesport on Saturday. Terry Hartmann

Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye! The Long Island hunting season for bobwhite quail starts on Nov. 1 and ends on Dec. 31. The bag limit is six per day, 40 per season. One wonders if there are still 40 bobwhites left on Long Island to hunt, least of all on the South Fork, where I haven’t heard one piping for several years running. As a boy growing up in Mattituck on the North Fork, I would often hear that pleasant bob-bob-white call on a spring morning. 

I first learned that call before I was 2 listening to the Rinso advertisements during my mother’s morning soap operas, many of which were sponsored by soap companies. Some of you may remember it: “Bob-bob white, Rinso white happy little wash day song.” Radio soap operas have gone the way of the Hudson, Nash, DeSoto, and Studebaker automobiles, and knickers. The Rinso white ditty died out with them. 

In the 1930s and 1940s the bobwhite was as well known as the robin and the mockingbird, two other birds that often found their way into the lyrics of the popular songs of the day. Every schoolchild knew the names of those birds. Ironically, perhaps, our own native bobwhite, Colinus virginianus, is doing better in many other parts of the world, such as Italy, to which it has been introduced from American stock. Today how many American kids have heard a bobwhite singing outside their windows? I bet very few.

Just as the ruffed grouse has disappeared locally, bobwhites have become scarcer and scarcer with each passing year. The last time I saw some was 20 years ago on the grounds of the Peach Farm on the south side of Northwest Road in East Hampton when I frightened a covey that took off in all directions with a loud whirr of wings. In my mind’s eye I still see that event clearly.

Lately, however, with all the news about ticks and the diseases they carry, Lyme, ehrlichiosis, and babesiosis, bobwhites have found a new level of popularity. Apparently the adults and young eat ticks. Thus, the Town of North Hempstead in Nassau County this year raised several native quail and released them a few weeks ago, while Southold Town, across the bay, has been making plans to do the same. On the South Fork, the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt are thinking of doing it in 2018. That organization let some go locally several years ago, but they quickly disappeared, apparently eaten by hawks, foxes, and feral cats.

Having had a very bad bout with Lyme disease in the past and, perhaps, still suffering sporadically from chronic Lyme syndrome, and also being a lover of bobwhites, I am seriously thinking of doing what North Hempstead did and Southold is planning to do. 

That is why I attended a bobwhite quail release at a fowl farm on Manor Lane in Jamesport in the Town of Riverhead on Saturday. It was hosted by a former model, Abra, who with her husband raises all matter of fowl, mostly for the restaurant trade, but also to let go in the wild at their Feisty Acres Farm.

The local Girl Scout Troop 1971, or the Quail Scouts, as they have renamed themselves, sponsored the event, the second quail release of the year, at Feisty Acres. Indeed, the Girl Scouts were the ones who released the quail from the specialized brooder pens, made with raised wire bottoms to keep babies off the ground as a sanitary measure. Abra explained that these bobwhites are already able to fly, but are not imprinted on humans and are not set in their ways as adults can be, and so are at the perfect stage for release.

At the appointed hour, several excited Girl Scouts lifted the top of the brooder opening, freeing the birds to take to the sky. And take to the sky they did, but only a few feet off the ground, as quail in the wild do when frightened. Most flew in the direction of the nearby hedgerow, but a few had to be redirected.

We will see what happens. Foxes are few and far between, hawks are more plentiful than in the second half of the last century, and there are several diseases that quail and other gallinaceous birds are prone to. But even if a handful of the more than 30 released quail survive, it could be the start of a rebuilding of the population.

It’s a crapshoot at best, but wait, think of the wild-caught turkeys from upstate New York that were released in Hither Woods, Montauk, by the State Department of Environmental Conservation in the late winter of 1971. How they have prospered since then! Let’s hope that releases of bobwhites here and there on Long Island will eventually bring the population back to pre-1950 levels.

It has been argued that their habitat is gone, but there is as much undeveloped land left on eastern Long Island as developed, thanks to the action of the five eastern towns, in particular their community preservation funds, and to Suffolk County and New York State. The large majority of that undeveloped land is ideal habitat for bobwhites.

Would a resurgence of our bobwhite population help reduce the tick population? That remains to be seen. In the last 10 years the lone star tick, the one that isn’t a Lyme disease threat, has greatly outnumbered the black-legged tick. I would think that those white spots on the backs of the otherwise brown disease-carrying female lone stars would make perfect targets for the pointed bills of the bobwhites.

Woodsmen, please spare those bobwhites. In taking even one a day or one a season, you might be further depleting a number which today one can hardly count on the fingers of one hand.

 


Larry Penny can be reached via email at Larrypenny9@gmail.com.