The Masked bobwhite quail is an extremely rare and fragile subspecies of the more popular and widespread Northern bobwhite. The Masked bobwhite is and has been endangered from the moment it was discovered. These quail are very susceptible to habitat loss. They are native to the desert grasslands of Arizona and Mexico, but have been pushed to the brink of extinction due to cattle farming (Hollingsworth). Now they can only be found in small areas in Mexico and in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refugee in Arizona where they have been reintroduced and are heavily protected. This species has been struggling to make a comeback since we found it, with the help of humans maybe we can help them create a sustainable population.
The Masked Bobwhite was originally in the late 1800s. The first specimen collected by a man with the last name Ridgway in 1884 near Sonora in the southwestern part of Mexico (Hernández, Fidel, William P. Kuvlesky et al. 2006). For years there were arguments over the taxonomy of this bird. Some thought it belonged to the Mexican bobwhite family and others thought it was a subspecies of the Montezuma quail. Ridgway fought to have this bird classified as its own species, but in 1944 it was decided that it would become the subspecies C. virginianys ridgwayi (Randy W. Deyoung 2006). After genetic testing it was determined that the Masked bobwhite was most closely related to the Northern bobwhite quail that resided in Texas.
These quail were considered to be “abundant” in the 1860s but the areas in which they were abundant were small, few and far between. As soon as humans began colonizing the land the Masked bobwhite’s population took the final plunge. By the 1890s they were completely wiped out from their Arizona habitats (Randy W. Deyoung 2006).
The Masked bobwhite has very specific habitat requirements; this is probably the main reason as to why they are extinct in the wild. They haven’t really been hunted or affected by global climate change. These birds live in desert grasslands at elevations ranging from 1,000 to 4,000 feet (Tomlinson 1972). Like most quail species they spend most of their time on the ground scavenging for seeds, insects and grasses. They don’t fly all that much and need small shrubs and woody bushes to take cover from aerial predators. This makes the chaparral-like desert grasslands perfect for them. They also are fond of grassy riverbeds and large plains at moderate elevations (Hernández, Fidel 2006).
These birds survive best in tall grasses with plants that produce an abundance of seeds for them to eat. They also have been known to forage in more spread out grasslands for things like insects. They mainly eat plant material, both green vegetation and seeds, but also eat bugs on occasion. Seeds from acacia, ground cherry and panic grasses have been found in their stomach contents, as well as grasshoppers (Hernández, Fidel, William P. Kuvlesky et al. 2006).
One of the most notable characteristics of this bird is its call. It literally says its own name. The males call out a “bob-WHITE” or a “bob-bob WHITE” sound. These birds have plumage similar to the Northern Bobwhite. The males have a dark black neck, head and throat with a cinnamon colored chest (Robinson 2008). They sometimes have white patches on and around their head and neck often showing a white stripe from the eye to the top of the head. This is what gives them their “masked” look. The plumage on the rest of their body is a mix of black, light brown, cinnamon, bright white and buff. There is no method to the madness and these colors are random on the plumage. The females are more dull (naturally) and have a brown, white and black head with a rust color throat. The rest of her body is an array of white, brown and black (Robinson 2008).
Masked bobwhites have a very late and very short breeding season. They begin the breeding season in early August with the males calling. Their calling and nesting only last about 70-90 days (Tomlinson 1972). Specific humidity triggers the breeding season. Males call only when the daily temperatures are 13C and there is 25% humidity (Tomlinson 1972). However; these conditions change depending on the origin of the population. Scientists have found that native species and reintroduced species have different breeding requirements and don’t like to breed with each other. This causes a lot of trouble when trying to establish new, self-sustaining populations.
These birds create their nests on the ground in shallow depressions under shrubs and other ground cover. The female will usually lay anywhere from 10-20 eggs (Robinson 2008). The incubation period begins in late August and hatching doesn’t occur until late July and concludes in mid September. Only around 11 of the offspring will hatch (Robinson 2008). The parents form monogamous pairs and both males and females help care for the nest and protect the eggs. They stay with the young until the following spring.
Causes of Decline
Interestingly enough, these birds aren’t so rare because of us hunting or eating them, it’s because of our ignorance. We have destroyed almost their entire natural habitat for cattle farming. Removal of shrubs and tall grasses makes it difficult for the bobwhites to hide or take cover from aerial predators (Stokley 1952). Also, these quail are very reluctant to cross breed captive born and wild born linages. This creates difficulties when it comes to reestablishing the populations as well as keeping the populations stable.
Conservation Efforts and Results
These quails have been protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and cannot be hunted by humans. The populations that are left are heavily monitored and counted. They are also protected by the Lacey Act and the Fish and Wildlife service have created a plan to help re-introduce self sustaining populations of these birds into the wild (Freeman 2002). The ultimate goal is to delist the species all together but this is hard to do for any creature. There are places like the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refugee that are focusing on these birds. Breeding programs are successful in captivity, but keeping the populations stable once they are reintroduced into the wild is a tricky situation.
There are issues with the captive bred species having a thin blood lineage. Inbreeding causes issues and to make matters worse the wild-bred species are reluctant to breed with captive bred individuals (Randy W. Deyoung 2006). Biologists are trying everything to keep these birds from being wiped off the face of the earth. It is hard to keep them safe when there is nowhere for them to go after the release. As of now we only have them in refugees and in captivity (Freeman 2002). Hopefully the conservation efforts remain successful and the reintroduction efforts become perfected and this species of bird will be able to live for centuries to come.