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Bobwhite to the rescue? Southold Town considers importing quail

The latest entry in the fight against ticks in Southold Town is a bird that hasn’t been seen much in recent years.

The Southold Town Board last Wednesday discussed enacting a pilot program to import bobwhite quail into several town preserves, hoping that the birds will eat the ticks that lead to Lyme disease and other serious ailments.

Officials also hope it will help restore habitat for the bird, which was once prevalent on the North Fork but has disappeared in recent years.

“There are several different approaches we’re going to roll out in our efforts for tick eradication on town preserves,” Supervisor Scott Russell said.

Two weeks ago, the town discussed a pilot program in which an organic repellent made with cedar oil would be used on town preserves to kill ticks, he said.

“As we research it and come up with new options, we’ll try to implement them and see what works and what doesn’t work,” Mr. Russell said.

“The bobwhite population is very, very low on the island right now,” said Byron Young, president of the Eastern Long Island Audubon Society, in an interview. “There are a couple of efforts to improve it in some locations, that I am aware of.”

He said the decline of the species probably started in the late 1970s and early 1980s during the development boom on Long Island.

Bobwhites don’t like being around people or development, he said.

The increase in feral cats, which prey on young quail, and the increase in foxes are also factors, he said.

“I have not seen what I would consider a wild quail in five or six years,” he said.

“Hopefully, we can bring back the population, but it will take time,” said Jeff Standish, the town’s public works director, at the work session.

The town applied for a state Department of Environmental Conservation permit a few months ago, but recently found out the permit they applied for allowed the town to raise the quail, but only on the premises where they were going to be released.

The town resubmitted the application, seeking a permit that would allow the quail to be released in other areas.

Mr. Standish said the town plans to buy the young birds from a hatchery and then release them when they’re about six weeks old, when they are just starting to fly.

“We don’t want to be around them,” he said. “We want to teach them to be wild. We don’t want them to be pets.”

The town plans to purchase the hatchlings in late July or early August and raise them in captivity for six weeks.

After that, the town will choose which preserve properties to release them to, based on which have the best habitats for the quail.

The plan is to buy about 100 birds, which will cost approximately $207, according to Mr. Standish.

“A lot of people would like to see them around again,” he said.

“They will eat ticks; they’re a ground-feeding bird,” Mr. Young said. “But it’s not going to be like a vacuum cleaner and eat every single tick.

They need to be free-ranging to be effective.”

Still, he said the effort to control the ticks can’t hurt.

“It gets a relatively native bird back into its habitat, and if they can survive and have the population grow, it would be even better,” Mr. Young said.

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Photo: The Southold Town Board is considering importing bobwhite quail into several town preserves, hoping the birds will eat the ticks that can cause Lyme disease and other serious ailments. (Credit: Leshoward / flickr.com)