UF study: Wildlife officials may need to restrict hunting to boost quail numbers
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — More hunting restrictions may be needed if wildlife managers are to bring back declining populations of the northern bobwhite quail, a new University of Florida study shows.
The population of the popular game bird, which gets its name from its distinctive call, has been declining in the southeastern U.S. since the 1980s largely because of habitat loss.
UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researchers, in a paper published in the current issue of Wildlife Research, report that hunters play a role in reducing the numbers of quail including some that don’t get a chance to reproduce.
The research took place in the Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area. In this 66,000-acre area of publicly owned land in southwest Florida’s Charlotte County, food strips are planted in long, narrow plots to provide bobwhites with a supplemental food source in winter. Also, the area is burned extensively to improve habitat.
The Babcock-Webb area is divided into five management zones, four of them open to hunting from mid-November to late December. In the fifth zone, hunting is only allowed for two days in late January.
In the summer, quail in all five zones had similar survival rates. But winter survival was much higher in the zone where hunting was only allowed for two days.
Researchers put radio tags on more than 2,000 bobwhites from 2002-2008 to discern specific causes of death in the birds. Predation is usually the cause of bobwhites’ demise, but from October to March, hunting was to blame for almost half of the dead quail. Annually, 40 percent of the deaths were due to harvesting in the four heavily harvested zones, in contrast with only 8 percent in the fifth, lightly harvested zone.
“The three different approaches used in the study lead to the same conclusion,” said Virginie Rolland, the UF Wildlife Ecology and Conservation postdoctoral researcher who led the study. “And that was that hunting has had a substantial impact on winter survival.”
But Rolland and a co-author of the research paper, Franklin Percival, who leads the UF-based Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, stressed that when it comes to assessing a species’ health, many factors, such as predation and habitat quality, are often at play, and pointing blame at just one of them doesn’t work.
Tony Young, media relations coordinator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s hunting and game management division, said hunters must be licensed to hunt quail, but because hunters aren’t required to tag the birds, it’s difficult to get a precise count of how many are taken each season.
In the past, state wildlife managers have restricted hunting for other decreasing animal populations, such as alligator, deer, turkeys and black bears, he said, and those efforts have paid off with population increases.
Many factors seem to be at work with quail, Young said, such as the spacing between trees in pine forests, controlled burns, and increases in predators, such as Cooper’s hawks.
The commission funded the research project and is working with the UF research team to determine management solutions for quail declines in the Babcock-Webb area.