By Talia Amorosano
A record number of bobwhite quails were released this year, and many of the students, teachers and parents who raised the birds helped welcome them to Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown on Saturday.
For 12 years, Eric Powers, a biologist and wildlife educator, has been at the forefront of organizing the annual quail release at Caleb Smith and other parks in the area. He described this year’s event as the largest one yet, as a record number of schools raised the quail chicks and 1,400 quails were released.
“The idea of bringing back the quail is to bring balance back to our ecosystem,” Powers said at the rainy morning release.
Unlike nonnative guinea fowl, which “eat good wildlife” like salamanders and dragonflies, northern bobwhite quail are native to Long Island and play a vital role in controlling tick populations without harming other native species, according to Powers.
Those in attendance included volunteers, students, teachers and Long Island comedian Joey Kola, who said that he “saw this program and jumped on right away” after personally experiencing Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a tick-borne illness transmitted to humans through a tick bite.
Attendees initially gathered inside the park’s nature museum, where they learned about the quail, viewed preserved eggs and touched feather samples before listening to Powers’ talk.
“What we see is we get this immediate clearing of ticks [after the quail are released],” Powers said, but “cats are outright hammering these birds.”
Powers described indoor-outdoor cats as the biggest threat to quail upon their release, and suggested people make use of what he referred to as “catios” — enclosed patios where cats can get outside without hunting native animals.
However, because this is the first year the Caleb Smith quail cage has reached overcapacity — forcing a few hundred quail to be released earlier — Powers is optimistic the quail population may begin to take hold on its own if school and community participation continues to increase.
Kids and adults alike were certainly enthusiastic about the release, as they gathered in the pouring rain to watch 500 birds abandon their cage and taste freedom for the first time. The quail were tentative at first, but as soon as one group took flight others ran through the crowd and into the woods. The remaining quail were released later on in the day.
A few observers got a truly interactive experience when frantic quail landed on their umbrellas and even perched on their arms. And after the initial release, teachers and students took boxes of quail to various locations around the park and carried out their own private releases.
Only time will tell how many of the birds will survive in the wild, but with increased community awareness that quail have the potential to lower the population of disease-ridden ticks, and a better understanding of the dangers posed to quail by cats, it seems likely that the birds most recently released will have a better chance of survival than those released in the past.