ASOTIN - Seventy-three mountain quail from Oregon recently were released in southeast Washington's Asotin County, in an effort to boost a population of the native birds that has nearly vanished locally.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists, University of Idaho researchers and others transported the quail to the Asotin Wildlife Area on March 12 and released them in the brushy, streamside habitat the birds favor.
The quail were captured in southwest Oregon in December and held at a game farm in southeast Washington until weather conditions permitted their release. Before the release, 50 of the birds were fitted with radio telemetry equipment to allow researchers to monitor their movements, habitat use and productivity over the next six months.
"We hope these birds help restore a healthy population," said WDFW wildlife biologist Paul Wik of Clarkston. "We thought the species was extirpated from this area until a valid sighting was reported near the Asotin Wildlife Area last summer."
The Mountain quail (Oreortyx pictus) is an 11-inch bird with gray-brown plumage above, chestnut throat outlined in white, gray breast, and chestnut sides boldly barred with white. It bears two long, thin head plumes that often appear as one-longer and straighter than the head plumes of commonly seen California quail.
Washington's only native quail species, mountain quail are at the edge of their range in the state, with historically larger populations in Oregon and California. Western Washington locales in Kitsap, Mason, Grays Harbor, Thurston and other counties support populations large enough to allow a limited hunting season, but the eastern part of the state is closed to mountain quail hunting.
Eastern Washington mountain quail numbers are thought to have declined in recent decades due to habitat degradation, fragmentation or removal of the riparian or streamside deciduous shrub thickets they depend on in arid areas.
"They don't usually move far," Wik explained, "so when suitable patches of habitat were lost, they probably became isolated."
The released birds are likely to disperse across public lands such as WDFW's wildlife areas or U.S. Forest Service property where riparian habitats are protected.
Future mountain quail releases are planned for next year if more birds are available from Oregon or other areas with robust populations.
If an eastern Washington population does well over time, a limited hunting season may be possible in the future, WDFW game managers say.