A question I frequently hear from landowners engaged in quail habitat management programs is whether they should consider using pen-reared birds to get their population started. The short answer is no. In Missouri, it is a violation of the Wildlife Code to release bobwhites for purposes other than dog training or operation of a commercial hunting preserve. The longer answer is that even if it were legal to do so, releasing penned birds to boost wild populations is a losing proposition. Numerous studies from multiple states have proven that stocking upland game birds doesn’t work. At a recent workshop, Elsa Gallagher, Quail Forever regional biologist, provided a review of studies from throughout the quail and pheasant range. In all of these controlled scientific studies, stocking birds for population increase failed, often miserably. Read on to learn more about results from some of these studies.
In 2009, researchers from the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch assessed the efficacy of a popular surrogate-release system, in which game bird chicks are raised for five weeks in a special pen containing food, water and a heater, then released. They radio collared and tracked 120 5-week-old quail chicks on two separate sites in Texas and found that most tagged birds were dead or lost by the second week post-release. They attempted another release the following year with similar results. Their conclusion was that landowners using such systems could expect low success.
From 2007-2009, biologists with the Kentucky Department of Wildlife released more than 500 quail using a surrogate release system. Hunters with dogs failed to find or flush any birds during the seasons following releases. In Georgia, a privately owned managed hunting plantation released more than 1,600 wing-tagged bobwhites in June, August and September and another 1,000 in November. Despite being released into an intensively managed pine-savanna habitat with supplemental feeding and predator control, only 13 tagged birds were returned to bag (less than 0.5 percent).
Results for released pheasants are no better. Researchers with Nebraska Game and Parks found that pheasant survival from release until hunting season was 12 percent, and annual survival was less than 1 percent. Only 3.5 percent of pheasants released were harvested.
Another factor to consider before stocking penned birds is cost. A recent check on the cost of the most basic model of a popular captive release system revealed that the unit retails for more than $1,800. A deluxe model sells for more than $3,000. Oh, and you’ll still have to buy day old chicks at $1-$1.50 each. And food. And propane for the heater.
Unfortunately, the restoration of good habitat doesn’t always produce the population responses we’d like to see. But numerous scientific studies have shown that stocking rarely, if ever, works. The fact is that good habitat management is still our best chance at restoring game birds to our farms, and $2,000-$3,000 buys a lot of habitat management. Next time we’ll look at some biological consequences that releasing penned birds might have on wild populations.