CORVALLIS - Researchers at Oregon State University are investigating why the largest quail in North America is disappearing from its eastern Oregon habitat.
Mountain quail still are abundant on the west side of Oregon's Cascades Range, but Michael Pope, an OSU doctoral student, and John Crawford, a professor of wildlife ecology, say in eastern Oregon the bird has been in decline for 50 years.
The population of mountain quail has dipped so low in eastern Oregon that it is listed as a sensitive species, in danger of slipping further into the threatened or endangered species status.
A lack of information about the mountain quail's life habits complicates recovery efforts to reverse and remedy its decline.
In 1997, Crawford started a four-year research project involving the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Researchers are collecting information about the quail in Wallowa County, where the birds are in decline, and Douglas County, where quail are abundant.
In addition, a small reintroduction program is studying the results of moving birds from Douglas County into Wallowa County. The goal is to develop guidelines for reintroducing other mountain quail to habitat from which they've disappeared.
That habitat once was extensive. Lewis and Clark noticed the abundance of mountain quail during their first glimpse of Oregon in 1805, calling them partridge. In 1940, ornithologists commented that mountain quail were found in every county in Oregon.
Yet the last 50 years have brought changes to eastern Oregon that have not favored the mountain quail. Among the likely contributors to the decline of the mountain quail in eastern and southern Oregon are conversion of its wildlands habitat to agriculture and dam construction, according to Pope.
Changes in the way fires occur also is a factor, he said.
Historically, small fires in eastern Oregon, often caused by lightning, cleared out underbrush and stimulated the growth of seed-bearing plants that provide the quail's food. But a policy of fire suppression set the stage for huge, hot fires that destroyed habitat and sterilized seed supplies.
Overgrazing by cattle in the first half of the century also contributed to the quail's demise, Pope said, as their streamside foraging grounds were trampled.
Pope and Crawford's research has yielded some valuable new clues about the life habits, diet requirements, mating rituals and nesting strategies of the mountain quail.
In the course of trying to figure out why the bird is vanishing from eastern Oregon at an alarming rate, the researchers have observed unusual reproductive strategies used by mountain quail.
The breeding pair creates two nests at the same time. The male incubates one while the female incubates the other.
"These birds exhibit an extraordinary ability to produce a tremendous number of young during one time period, with the female laying up to 26 eggs during one nesting period," said Pope.
Known as "rapid, multi-clutch monogamy," this nesting strategy has never been reported in any other monogamous species.
When the covey of quail hatches, the male and female watch over them separately until they are old enough to flee from predators. Then the two broods and parents combine into one large covey and stay together indefinitely.
The reintroduction program is generating important information on how well transplanted birds survive and nest in settings differing greatly with the ones from which they were taken, Pope said. The program may be expanded in coming years by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to bolster other low populations on the east side of the Cascades.
Field work in the research program is expected to continue through next summer. The hope is that the numbers of mountain quail will increase to the point where limited hunting of them can resume east of the Cascades.