Wild northern bobwhite quail, once numerous in New Jersey, have been nearly wiped out over the decades, as their habitat was transformed into housing developments, strip shopping centers, and open farmland that made survival difficult.

Can the tiny birds make a comeback?

Last week, John Parke of NJ Audubon returned to a clearing on a cranberry farm deep in the Pinelands, attempting to see how many — if any — of 80 wild quail released shortly after a nor'easter had survived.  Transported from Georgia, the covey of quail had been released from a crate just days after 10 inches of snow fell and trees came crashing down in the wind.

At the time, Parke was concerned about the weather, but more worried about coyotes, snakes, cats, raccoons, and other predators.

John Parke of NJ Audubon recently released wild Northern bobwhite quail from Georgia on a cranberry farm in the Pinelands.
Courtesy of Jimmy Sloan
John Parke of NJ Audubon recently released wild Northern bobwhite quail from Georgia on a cranberry farm in the Pinelands.

When Parke returned last week, it was much warmer. He fanned out with Mike Adams, a student at the University of Delaware, and Jimmy Sloan, a biologist with the state's Bureau of Wildlife Management, in search of the birds.

Adams grasped a long antenna tethered to a display that beeped whenever it picked up the frequency of one of the radio collars on the quail.  The surviving birds were scattered on a small portion of the 14,000-acre Pine Island Cranberry Co. in Chatsworth, Burlington County.  It marked the final year of releases onto the cranberry farm's property as part of a four-year pilot program to see if the quail can not only survive, but thrive, in New Jersey.

The search for one of the brown-and-white speckled birds hiding amid tall switch grass, broom sedge, and pitch pine trees proved akin to trying to find a camouflaged needle in a one-acre haystack.  Adams knew the birds were near his feet by reading the digital display; he just couldn't see them in the wild as they scurried under cover.  The quail grow to only about 10 inches.

Mike Adams, a graduate student at the University of Delaware, tracks the quail with a telemetry device that picks up radio signals transmitted by collars on the birds.
Frank Kummer / Staff
Mike Adams, a graduate student at the University of Delaware, tracks the quail with a telemetry device that picks up radio signals transmitted by collars on the birds.

Wild quail are different from pen-raised quail, which are used for hunting.

The wild northern bobwhite quail population in the Northeastern United States is more elusive.  Its population has declined by 82 percent since 1966.  New Jersey has expressed an interest in bringing the bird back since 2008 and made recommendations for monitoring and habitat restoration. There is even a separate South Jersey Quail Project organized by sportsmen.

New Jersey, which has 14,000 acres annually taken by development, had its last known coveys of wild, native quail on state-owned lands in Cumberland County, but those numbers are dwindling. The bird is considered extirpated, or nearly extinct, in the Garden State.

NJ Audubon chose Pine Island farm for its project because the owner, the Haines family, actively manages the land.  It's also easier to run such a program on private property.

Stephanie Haines, a spokeswoman for the 126-year-old cranberry operation, said the farm uses prescribed burns, thinning, and other land management techniques that make it a good habitat for the birds. The techniques increase the diversity of both plants and animals, while also controlling invasive species.

The farm has worked with forester Bob Williams of Pine Creek Forestry since 2005 to develop its land management plan.  Williams' plan was initially meant to ensure water quality, but it resulted in greater biodiversity.  As a consequence, it became a better habitat for not only wild quail but other wildlife, too.

Parke, NJ Audubon's director for the quail project, credits the land management plan on the private property as critical to the experiment.

"We've got a big smile on our faces," said Parke. "Preliminary results show that the birds from Georgia can make it up here."

The quail were first released on the Haines property in April 2015.  That summer, a nest was discovered, and since then, dozens of eggs have hatched.  Each year, the project releases 40 males and 40 females onto the property.  The project was initially scheduled to run three years until 2017, but Parke and his group extended it to a fourth year.

The birds have an average lifespan of about a year, though many die early, killed by predators.  Once, the group tracked a frequency to the belly of a snake that had eaten one of the birds.

In the fall, researchers at the University of Delaware will analyze all four years of data, including GPS points where the birds were located, to compile a report on how the quail fared.

A nest on the ground with hatched quail eggs.
Frank Kummer / Staff
A nest on the ground with hatched quail eggs.

As of now, it's difficult to say precisely how many birds have survived. And it's impossible to track the wild quail that were born on the property.  Parke said the state will examine the data from the project to decide it additional translocation of quail should be done.

He sees the quail's recovery as a bellwether of the land's health: habitat important to the bird is also important for other species in decline.  .

"There are so many other species that rely on the same habitat," Parke said. "It creates this incredible mosaic the quail needs to thrive. But it goes way beyond quail."

Sloan, the wildlife biologist from the state, said his agency has a keen interest in the quail project's success.  He works for the Division of Fish and Wildlife, a stakeholder in the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative.

"This is a game species," Sloan said.  "So the Division of Fish and Wildlife is the steward of this species. When a species goes extirpated, we are responsible for restoring it."

Sloan said the separate state-run project in Cumberland County started about five years ago, but it's unknown how many wild quail have survived.  It was about 600 birds in 2011, he said, the last good estimate.

"I have a feeling it's a lot less now," Sloan said. "A lot less.  There may be none."

So NJ Audubon's work at Pine Island is being closely watched.

"If it's successful," Sloan said, "there's a hope to restore this population."