Jessica James, who summered in Montauk as a child and lives there full-time now, remembers a time when the bobwhite quail was a regular sight — and its characteristic “bob-white” call a recognizable sound — in backyards and grasslands throughout the hamlet. But over the past 25 years, the birds have vanished.
Now, if all goes according to plan, hikers in Theodore Roosevelt County Park in Montauk can look forward to a day in the not-too-distant future when they will be startled by a quail being unintentionally flushed from its cover in the deep grass.
Working with Suffolk County, the Third House Nature Center has launched the Montauk Quail Restoration Project, an effort to reintroduce the birds to Montauk. On Saturday, August 11, at 11 AM, the first of about 25 birds will be released in the park. The public is invited to attend.
James, the project’s coordinator, has been hatching eggs purchased from a game farm in Pennsylvania. She said a limited number will be released this year and she will continue to raise others in pens in her backyard for release in the spring. She added that she was looking for other suppliers in an effort to broaden the birds’ gene pool. The goal of the five-year program is a simple one: that sufficient numbers survive and breed, reestablishing their presence in Montauk.
“I don’t know why no one has tried this before,” said James, who described herself as having a passion for animals and animal husbandry. The idea of reintroducing quail “has been a bee in my bonnet since I moved back to Montauk in 2007,” she said.
James said when she inquired of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation about obtaining the needed permit for the project, she was told the DEC has written off Long Island because it no longer has suitable habitat for quail. “I wondered if this guy had ever been to Montauk,” James said. “Montauk is about 70 percent preserved open space.”
While not willing to get involved itself, the DEC did issue the permit, allowing James, who also obtained the green light from the county and the nature center, to move ahead with the project.
Quail have a limited range of about 1000 yards, so if they successfully over-winter, James believes they have a good chance of gaining a foothold. “They need cover, food, and a source of water,” she said. Quail, like many other ground-dwelling birds, feed on bugs, and James is hoping they will put a dent in the resident tick population.
Although foxes, one of the bobwhite quail’s chief predators, have been largely absent from Montauk in recent years, James said the large number of feral cats likely decimated the population. Another theory holds that the last birds in Montauk were wiped out by an early spring ice storm about 25 years ago.
“Survival rate for quail in the wild is generally low, and so we will continue to release birds over a number of years until we can establish viable breeding colonies,” said Ed Johann, the nature center’s president, in a release. “This first year of our program we have spent most of our energy establishing best practices for hatching and rearing healthy birds, and we will only be raising about 300 quail in 2018. In future years we intend to increase those numbers substantially.”