by Andrew T. Whitman
Bobwhite quail have been in decline nationwide for at least four decades.
But finally, state governments have begun to take notice and express some concern in recent years.
You can get involved in the recovery effort by raising quail yourself but check local and state laws first and obtain any required permits before getting started.
Some states such as Missouri allow the rearing and keeping of a limited number of bobwhites, while releasing them is not allowed except for shooting and dog training purposes.
I personally had a special permit in Virginia to raise and release quail where the practice is encouraged, and it was a very rewarding experience.
While this article doesn’t go into all the details of hatching quail eggs, the basics of brooding, the importance of high protein feed and the like, there are many well-written books on those subjects.
However, the importance of “imprinting” the young birds is often an overlooked and little understood element of their overall health and is essential for their long-term survival.
Many people handle baby quail as little as possible, thinking that human contact is detrimental to their well-being.
However, newly hatched birds must imprint on something in the first few hours of their life or they fail to make key connections in their brain. It’s important to note that they cannot imprint on an inanimate object like the heating element.
Physical contact and gentle nurturing are crucial for proper development, and yet their natural instincts remain intact. Bobwhites instinctually know by sight what is good for them food-wise. They do not have to be taught.
They also come hardwired to avoid predators. For instance, they will crouch and hide at the shadow of a bird overhead in case it might be a hawk. They can also spot snakes slithering in the grass and any other potential dangers without being shown. They do need some extra conditioning for the bad weather, however.
Pen-reared birds do not preen enough to keep their feathers in top condition, which is essential for outdoor survival. The pen adds unnatural shelter and protection from the elements, therefore birds can become lazy about feather care.
Bobwhites should be conditioned to “wax” their feathers with an occasional misting of water from a spray bottle in the days and weeks prior to their release. Increase the intensity until they develop a regular habit of thorough preening. Also, provide pans or dishes of fine dirt on a regular basis so they can dust their feathers and keep themselves free of parasites.
Bobwhites should be released in groups of 6 or more to form natural coveys, and where there is good habitat – similar to where rabbits like to hide.
This includes the right kinds of grass (preferably not fescue, which is too thick), lots of prime escape cover (such as overgrown fencerows, thickets, and early successional growth), and a nearby source of water. Quail are very adept at drinking dew from leaves in the early morning hours, but a trickling stream or small pond surrounded by brush is so much better.
Also, release them from mid-summer to early fall when natural food is abundant and the weather is generally milder.
Do pen raised, hand-reared quail lose their fear of humans? Perhaps temporarily, but they quickly learn how blend into their new environment and “vanish” after being released.
Humans are not their chief problem, by the way. Their biggest struggles are finding food, surviving harsh weather conditions, and avoiding predators.
Enjoy the satisfaction of improving their dwindling numbers by raising and releasing a few Bobwhites each year.