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Watch a masked bobwhite quail adopt 15 chicks he's never seen before

Read the story: Sutton Center's masked bobwhite quail 'foster dads' may prove key to species recovery

BARTLESVILLE — Apparently unsure of what was happening, he seemed to just want to hide his head in the curtains at first, but within minutes he came around to the idea of “fatherhood.” Imagine, a quail transformed from pitiful to proud patriarch in a matter of minutes.

Foster Dad No. 0083 had a special day in the life of a modern masked bobwhite quail on Friday. His status in the world was lifted from pen-raised, anonymous bird to numbered dad-in-a-box with 15 youngsters.

Yeah, 15.

Next week the new family unit will go on a 22-hour road trip to be released on the wild plains of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, part of a population recovery project underway at the George Miksch Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville since 2017.

Because he is a “surplus” bird from a common gene pool, No. 0083 never even got to pair up with a hen, but he and his instant covey are one group among more than 1,000 to 1,200 individuals of the rare quail species the Sutton Center will produce this summer.

“They’ve never seen a baby quail in their life,” said Dan Reinking, a senior biologist at the center. “For some, it takes a few minutes, and for some, it takes an hour, but they will adopt the chicks. Eventually they will lift their wings and let them gather underneath. They will become real protective. It’s amazing to watch.”

“Fatherhood” is literally thrust upon them, but these new dads take their job seriously and have even attacked hens that came near their new clutch.

“They’ve drawn blood,” Reinking said.

In the wild, the male quail rear the clutch. The same apparently holds true for birds hatched in captivity. The hens are egg-layers and not much more. The researchers tried using hens for clutch rearing. It didn’t work.

The facility internationally renowned for its southern bald eagle rearing efforts 30 years ago has transformed about 10,000 square feet of its facility for quail rearing and research.

It has impeccably clean indoor breeding pens with adult pairs that produce eggs. The eggs are collected and stored in an honest-to-goodness wine cooler until they have enough ready for 21 days of synchronized incubation. Then it’s on to the hatching trays, a nice, warm rearing box for a couple of days and then they meet their “foster dads.”

A week or two later, they make the trip for release on the wild Sonoran Desert plain in Arizona at the 118,000-acre Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

The 2-day-old chicks, about the size of a quarter, know nothing but food and heat lamps, but are naturally drawn to the warmth of the male quail, explained Don Wolfe, also a senior biologist at the center.

The chicks force their way in, under and around the adult’s body and up under his wings. They even jumped on top of ol’ No. 0083. Some adults “freak out a little at first,” Wolfe said.

No. 0083 just hid his head in what amounts to a privacy curtain that divides what the researchers call a “hospital box” (an opaque plastic box often used for sick or injured birds). After about 10 minutes, all 15 chicks were under his wings and body. It was so full under there that some would push in on one side and heads would pop out from under his wing on the other.

In its second year rearing and releasing the masked bobwhite in cooperation with the Arizona refuge, the center already doubled production of the number of birds released and then devised a new way to boost their survival rates.

“Our ability to really ramp up the production of these guys gives them a better chance of success when you can release 1,000 birds instead of a couple hundred,” Reinking said.

Masked bobwhites are one of several subspecies of the northern bobwhite quail, which is native to Oklahoma. Any quail hunter, like me, who watches population trends in that popular upland bird across the nation can’t help but wonder if what the Sutton Center learns now with the masked bobwhite might be applied someday closer to home.

But the Sutton Center efforts focus on species that are all but extinct and where captive breeding and re-introduction to the wild is really the only option, Wolfe said.

The Sonoran Desert plains of southwest Arizona and northwest Mexico is home to these quail. The primary habitat area is a narrow strip, roughly 50 miles wide, that runs parallel to the Gulf of California, primarily in Mexico, but about 40 miles of it is north of the border into Arizona, Wolfe said.

Concern about the birds dates back to the 1970s and the last of the wild birds captured for breeding was in 1999.

“There really haven’t been enough wild ones to provide new genetics from that point on. ... There has not been a confirmation (sighting) of a natural wild bird at Sonora since 2013,” Wolfe said.

Even U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents of the Sonora know what the quail look like and report sightings. Attempts to involve Mexican landowners and officials are underway, as well, Wolfe said.

“There is no doubt, anecdotally, there are other birds out there, but it’s very difficult to get into a lot of the areas. Much of it privately owned in Mexico,” Wolfe said.

Birds released last year at Buenos Aires have been sighted, however.

“I can honestly say now I’ve seen 50 (masked) bobwhite in Arizona, so that’s pretty good,” Wolfe said.

Where No. 0083 comes into the picture is his protective nature — even if he isn’t experienced in the wilds — and the importance of the first three months of life for those chicks, Wolfe said.

“The real critical time is that first three months, about 15% will survive,” Wolfe said. “Of those, about 20-25% will survive to the next year.”

That doesn’t seem like many, but it’s a higher rate of survival than for a release of a like number of birds all raised to adulthood in captivity, he said. Raising one adult for every 15 young released and achieving higher survival rates for the group is a big boost in efficiency with more birds on the ground.

“The goal is to get to a viable population,” Wolfe said. “We don’t know if it will always need augmentation to some degree for five or 10 or 20 years or not, but we’ll see.”

Kelly Bostian

918-581-8357

kelly.bostian@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @KellyBostian