This research program is focused on using translocation as a tool to restore wild quail populations to locations where they have disappeared over previous decades. Beginning in 2013, the Rolling Plains Quail Research Foundation (RPQRF) began testing the feasibility of trapping wild quail from robust populations and relocating them to areas with quality habitat, but few wild birds. We have conducted 6 translocations across the Rolling Plains of both bobwhites and scaled (blue) quail since initiating this program. Our goal is to improve the effectiveness of translocation as a management tool to reestablish wild quail populations in Texas.
Efforts to restock bobwhite populations using pen-reared birds failed due to low survival. Quite simply, pen-reared quail don’t retain enough wild behaviors, such as predator avoidance, to survive and persist on harsh wild rangelands. Translocation of wild caught birds has been used for decades to successfully reestablish populations of many different gamebirds across the U.S. Within Texas, TPWD’s wild turkey translocations have proved to be exceedingly successful at reestablishing turkeys across much of the state. While researchers in Georgia have developed an effective protocol for reintroducing and reestablishing wild bobwhites to well managed pockets of habitat throughout that state. Their translocation program has resulted in a revitalization of wild quail, so much so, that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources implemented an official wild quail translocation policy to allow landowners a means to use translocation to restore quail on their lands.
In Texas, the overall decline of bobwhites and scaled quail has resulted in a range contraction that has played out over several decades. Populations of both species faded from east to west across the state leaving isolated populations and pockets of habitat with no birds. Small populations are inherently more vulnerable to extinction, particularly in a boom and bust species such as quail. Quail are capable of incredibly irruptive population growth when the circumstances align (as we witnessed in 2015), but the flipside is equally rapid population crash. This may result in quality habitats with populations too low to support themselves long term. In these circumstances a “transfusion” of additional quail may jumpstart the population.
Another, often overlooked, application for translocation is on properties that have undergone habitat restoration. The classic paradigm of wildlife habitat management is “if you build it they will come.” But it’s not always the case. This paradigm is based on the innate ability all wildlife possess for dispersal and quail are no exception. Although the typical quail lives out its entire life on a section of land or less, we have documented quail from RPQRR dispersing up to 25 miles. However, it is a very small portion of the population that chooses to disperse. The overall decline of the quail population means that fewer birds are available to disperse and landscape level changes make it more difficult for those individuals to do so successfully. Landowners that restore lands for quail may not then be able to reap the benefits of their investment without the ability to reestablish quail populations through translocation.
Our efforts began on bobwhites translocated to a well-managed property in Shackelford County (Downey et al. 2017) and scaled quail translocated to RPQRR in 2013. Both projects focused on the short-term feasibility by documenting hen survival, nesting success, and monitoring relative abundance. These translocations documented vital rates within published ranges for bobwhites and scaled quail suggesting that translocation could be feasible. In Fisher County we observed a large increase in scaled quail abundance post-translocation (Figure 1). Prior to the translocation, scaled quail had disappeared from all 4 of the population monitoring techniques we use to evaluate abundance. In 3 years post translocation the population size had tripled.
Figure 1. Minimum known population of scaled quail pre- and post- translocation determined from extensive annual trapping at RPQRR.
Following those efforts, we facilitated translocations of scaled quail in Cottle County to the Matador Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and bobwhites to a property in Stephens County. The focus of these translocations was to compare soft vs. hard release strategies. A soft release strategy means that the birds are held on site prior to release, whereas, a hard release strategy means that the birds are let go immediately after arrival to the release site (usually less than 24 hours post capture). Our decision to pursue release strategy was based on the success of soft released scaled quail at RPQRR and evidence in the scientific translocation literature that social species, such as quail, may benefit from a soft release because it allows them to build social relationships prior to being let go in unfamiliar territory. Those social relationships translate to less dispersal from the release site. In Stephens County, survival of soft released hens was slightly greater than hard released and more comparable to a sample of resident hens radio-collared during the same time interval, but was not statistically different from either.
In 2016, we initiated our largest translocation effort to date in Knox County for scaled quail. We were able to identify over 100,000 acres of contiguous private lands within the Wichita River drainage that offered quality habitat for scaled quail. Over two years we released over 800 birds and continued research on release strategies by varying the length of holding time from 1 to 9 weeks to determine optimal holding period in terms of maximizing survival and decreasing dispersal off site. We also incorporated the effect of source populations into our assessment. Source population refers to the location where translocated quail were trapped. We trapped scaled quail from within the Rolling Plains ecoregion and the Edwards Plateau. Previous research has suggested that quail trapped and translocated within the same ecoregion will perform better than those from outside ecoregions. Results from this study are still pending, but cursory analyses showed that 80% of the translocated quail stayed within 1 mile of their respective release point (certainly a plus if you are trying to establish a population!) and that they survived and nested at rates comparable to other non-translocated populations.
Monitoring Translocation Success
One of the shortcomings of most translocation research is the lack of monitoring and reporting post-translocation. Translocation success can be highly variable and is often dependent on a variety of factors. Without reliable monitoring techniques, gaining an understanding of the factors that influence translocation success is impossible. Many studies rely on short-term monitoring that focuses on the vital rates of founding individuals, typically, in the first breeding season post-release. However, if the long-term goal of a reintroduction is to establish a self-sustaining population over many years, then monitoring approaches that can assess success or failure at the appropriate time scale are needed. Currently we are assessing two potential techniques for monitoring the success of translocation efforts: genetic assessment and occupancy surveys.
Studies on translocated sage grouse have assessed the genetic contribution of the translocated population to current populations on the release sites as a method to evaluate the impact of a translocation efforts in other species. We are evaluating the feasibility of applying these methods to scaled quail populations. Recent advances have made genetic tools more accessible and cost-effective. Thus the practicality of these approaches for monitoring and evaluation purposes has improved. We will compare the genetic characteristics (using DNA from feather samples) of the scaled quail translocated onto RPQRR with a large sample of birds from the current population. This will allow us to assess contributions from to the current population from translocated quail. This research could provide a framework for evaluating the impact of future bobwhite and scaled quail translocation efforts.
Recent research has highlighted the importance of large landscapes for sustaining quail populations. It follows that translocation may also need to be conducted on similarly large landscapes to increase the probability of success. However, large landscapes present a challenge for monitoring release sites pre- and post- translocation. Multi-season occupancy is a potential monitoring tool in large landscapes because of the efficiency with which the data can be collected. These analyses make use of visual and auditory presence/absence data collected within the survey area. Our translocation site in Knox County provides an opportunity to apply occupancy techniques for use in monitoring large scale translocation efforts. Our objectives in continuing this survey are two-fold: 1) to monitor the spread of the population throughout the study area using multi-season occupancy and 2) evaluate landscape and habitat characteristics that influence how a reintroduced scaled quail population colonizes a novel habitat post release.