On a calm day, the sound of quail whistles can be heard throughout the property of the George Miksch Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville. It’s where important work is underway to bring back an endangered bird species.
The Sutton Avian Research Center is credited with helping bring back Oklahoma's bald eagle population and contributing to the removal of the bald eagle from the endangered species list. Now it's working to do the same with the masked bobwhite quail, a species senior wildlife biologist Don Wolfe said vanished from the United States around the turn of the 20th century.
”They were thought to have been totally extinct from Arizona by the early 1900s,” said Wolfe. “They're [native to] semi-arid, semi-desert grassland portions of the Sonoran Desert and northern Sonora or extreme southern Arizona.”
And now they're also found at Sutton in Bartlesville where Wolfe and his team are working on a recovery project to reintroduce masked bobwhite to their native territory.
“This is essentially bringing a species back that has already disappeared in the wild,” Wolfe said.
Sutton is in its third year of the masked bobwhite breeding program and already seeing success.
“We've already documented reproduction in the wild from birds that were released in previous years,” said Wolfe. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife had the foresight capture some birds several years ago and start a captive population with the idea that we would start reintroductions in Arizona.”
Sutton will send about 12-hundred chicks to the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona this year where they’ll be released on the properties 118,000 acres of protected land.
More than 300 chicks from Sutton are there now ready to head into the wild this week.
“We're happy to see them released. I don't think we have an emotional attachment to the birds. We have more of, I'd say, an emotional attachment to the species,” Wolfe said.
The chicks are paired up and released with an adult foster dad that’s tagged with a tracking collar.
“The foster parents basically protect the chicks, teach them how to find food, keep them warm during the cooler nights, and will warn them when there are predators,” said Wolfe.
In addition to captive-raised adult masked bobwhite males, Wolfe said they also pair some chicks with wild northern bobwhites that have been captured and sterilized.
“They've survived a year or two years in the wild, they know how to escape a cooper's hawk, they know how to find food, they know how to seek thermal or protective cover. And they are better parents,” he said.
As Wolfe puts it, quail are food for everything, so the survivability rate isn’t exceptionally high, but that doesn’t make their mission to rebuild the population impossible.
“The first year we had 20-percent, last year was about 12-percent. Both of those are acceptable numbers. We'd like to see higher, but we don't expect to see higher. We really are expecting anywhere from a 10 to 15-percent survivorship of the birds that we release each year,” he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are 200 masked bobwhite quail on the refuge now from previous releases.
“When you start at zero, 200's quite an improvement,” Wolfe said.
It’s an improvement the researchers at Sutton plan to keep building on in the years to come until endangered birds can make it on their own.
“We want to see the species make a comeback and persist and be self-sustaining in the wild, so that's the ultimate goal,” said Wolfe.
Sutton has a breeding program the Attwater Praire Chicken, an endangered grouse native to Texas and Louisiana gulf coastal areas.
George Miksch Sutton Avian Research Center relies heavily on donations to keep up its important conservation work. You can learn more about how to join in on that effort HERE. You can also follow updates on the Sutton Center's Facebook Page