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Shelter Islanders launch drive to restore quail: Birds valued for control of ticks

The Shelter Island Bobwhite Restoration Initiative has launched a GoFundMe drive to bring the quail back to Shelter Island and encourage their proliferation.

Voracious consumers of ticks, the little birds were once a familiar sight on the Island, but their numbers have dwindled.

Islanders may recall their distinctive bobwhite call, now rarely heard as predators and destruction of their natural habitats have taken their toll.

A group of Islanders including Sean Clark, Dan Clark, Ben Smith and others had been discussing the idea for years, and recently developed a plan of action. Sean is an officer in the Shelter Island Police Department; his cousin Dan runs the DC Tree business and is a member of the Town’s Conservation Advisory Council.

Ben Smith, who runs Island Exterior Cleaning, reached out to Ranger Eric Powers, a biologist at the Center for Environmental Education and Discovery (CEED) in Brookhaven, a nature center that provides public nature programs and events, school and community-based environmental education and conservation projects. CEED aims to create a sustainable population of Northern Bobwhite Quail on Long Island once again.

According to Kenn Kaufman’s Birds of North America, the mail quail “whistle their name from fenceposts, low branches…small flocks (coveys) run on the ground, hide in dense grass of brushy fields, open woods.”

“I remember as a child in the 90s,” Sean Clark said, “I saw little coveys around, but there’s been a significant decline in the quail population, principally from the loss of habitat. There are more houses going up, less open fields.”

Shelter Island’s Bobwhite Initiative has the following goals:

• Restore and maintain bobwhite populations in line with natural carrying capacity.

• Encourage best land management practices to improve early successional habitat.

•Decrease the proliferation of ticks and associated tick-borne illnesses through natural means.

Ticks are a long-standing concern on the Island because of the diseases they carry, like Lyme and babesiosis, infecting Islanders at high rates, often with debilitating long-term effects.

Using the quail to reduce ticks also aims at cutting down the reliance on pesticides, Mr. Clark explained.

For several years, the Island used four-poster deer feeders that would brush the hides with permethrin, a known tickicide. Concerns about negative side effects from permethrin, combined with less than high success rates for the feeders led to their discontinuation.

The Town primarily relies now on culling deer for tick control.

In recent years, Sean Clark explained, the numbers of fox on the Island have been down, as a result of mange. As they would typically be predators for quail, now seems an opportune time to re-introduce the birds.

Quail are not hardy like chickens, he said. Instead of raising them from eggs or chicks, the Shelter Island initiative will purchase adult birds, which are more expensive, to increase their chance of survival. The GoFundMe drive gofundme.com/f/bring-back-bobwhite) has a goal of $75,000, which will be used for transportation and permit costs, in addition to acquiring the birds.

The plan is to have several releases each year. At the beginning, the initiative will provide food and water to help the quail get situated in their new habitat.

So far, the plan is to place them on private land with owners’ permission. Dan Clark will go to the Town to request use of Town lands when appropriate.

“Sylvester Manor is 100% behind this,” Sean Clark added. “That’s where the majority of the release effort will be.”

He said they are also looking at Silver Beach, Hay Beach and the Ram Island causeway. Quail have a short life span and typically a 10% natural survival rate. He hopes by releasing them in spring, they will have good conditions to nest, lay eggs and survive through the summer.

Over the winter, they will do a bird count to see how many survive. One of the challenges for the initiative is reducing the risk to the quail from predators. “House cats are a huge predator for them,” Mr. Clark said.

Part of their efforts will be focused on community education, for example, encouraging pet owners to keep their cats indoors at night.