Sometime this fall a hunter in that rocky wild corner of Arizona south of Tucson may bring down the rarest game bird in the country—a masked bobwhite quail. The shot will be perfectly legal, for there is no law protecting the masked bob. No law has been needed; the bird has been extinct in Arizona for some 70 years, the last authenticated specimen having been shot near the town of Calabasas (pop. 27) in 1897.
Yet this fall a hunter may very well knock one down, and if he does—and turns in the band on the bird's leg—he will not be criticized by the experts in the Rare and Endangered Species unit of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife of the U.S. Department of the Interior, a body ordinarily sparing in its praise of people who shoot rare birds.
The masked bobwhite is an exceptional fowl in many respects. Arizona's most famous bird, it is a rust-breasted, black-faced little quail. Colinus virginianus ridgwayi, renowned for its handsome colors and for the extraordinary fact that it disappeared almost as soon as it was discovered. Never common, the bird had a very limited range. It was found only in northern Sonora in Mexico and the southern part of central Arizona, roughly between the Baboqu�vari Mountains on the west and the Huachuca range on the east, perhaps a hundred miles east and west and 40 or 50 miles north of the Mexican border. The masked bobwhite lived in expanses of tall grass, and while its existence was known from the earliest settlement days, it was not until 1884 that specimens were collected and classified by ornithologists. Only 14 years after it was first described, the masked bobwhite was extinct in the U.S.
Hunters may have killed some, but the human ability to alter an environment, not human predation, caused the extermination of the bird. Between 1870 and 1890 the long-horned cattle population of Arizona increased from 5,000 to a million. Among other consequences of overgrazing, the short-grass prairies of southern Arizona were devastated. The insulating, water-conserving grass was stripped away, exposing the thin soil to the sun, drought and erosion and converting thousands of acres into mesquite and burrobrush scrubland. Cattle died by the thousands for lack of forage and water, ranchers went broke by the hundreds for lack of cattle and, down toward the bottom of the list of casualties—if you are inclined to think of such things in terms of size—was the masked bobwhite, which depended on the grass for food, cover and nesting materials.
The way the masked bobwhite died off almost instantly, and the fact that very few men had actually seen the bird, made this Arizona race of quail precisely what early students of the area's birdlife called it: almost mythical. Occasional reports came that specimens lived in grassy pockets of the mountains, but they were unconfirmed, and authorities generally agreed that the bird was gone from Arizona forever. In 1938 a Southwestern ornithologist, J. Stokely Ligon, found coveys of the bird in Mexico and trapped a few. On a second trip in 1949 he trapped more live birds and had moderate success in breeding them in pens on his New Mexico ranch. Shortly before his death in 1961 Ligon gave four pairs to Seymour and Jim Levy, businessmen and gentleman naturalists of Tucson with a passionate interest in Southwestern wildlife problems. The possibility of restocking the bird on suitable grasslands was discussed at the time. A definitive work, The Birds of Arizona, published by the University of Arizona in 1964, expressed skepticism, saying, "There is no ungrazed grassland within the former range in Arizona" and warning of a waste of funds "in vain attempts to introduce the masked bobwhite in high grasslands where it never thrived. Ours is not the hardy old New England bobwhite."
But the Levy brothers, who rediscovered several flocks in Mexico, began badgering wildlife authorities to do something about the bird before it was too late. The Rare and Endangered Species unit—concerned with basic research on 92 birds and mammals that are either rare or in danger of extinction—was established in 1966, and the following year the masked bobwhite was included in the first group upon which the agency would focus its research.
The Levys sent four pairs of their captive birds to the Rare and Endangered Species laboratory in Laurel, Md. A young, energetic research biologist, Roy Tomlinson, was assigned to the birds and has remained—federally speaking—as their official guardian, student and spokesman. Tomlinson found that only two colonies of masked bobwhite were known to survive in Mexico. The last large flock, which may number as many as 1,000, is in a colony on a duchy-sized Sonora cattle empire owned by one of Mexico's most influential ranching families. According to Tomlinson, the conservation-oriented management of the ranch is the chief reason why enough prairie habitat remains to support a large flock of the birds. "If conditions stay as they are in their Mexican range," Tomlinson says, "these survivors are in pretty good shape. But anything might happen to alter the habitat and their status. The birds can't be considered out of danger until they are firmly established in several sections of their historic territory."
In the Maryland laboratory physiologists, nutritionists and ornithologists pondered the problems of propagating the birds and returning their chicks to the wild. In general, scientists feel that the release of captive-bred creatures is one of the most promising techniques for improving the survival chances of a variety of endangered species. It is a method both for increasing the numbers and widening the distribution of hard-pressed feral populations. If captive transplants can be induced to take up residence in places where their kind once lived, the newly occupied territories will give the species a valuable hedge against natural or man-made disaster; in short, a new application of the adage about not putting all your quail or whooping crane eggs in one basket.
Two years ago Tomlinson trapped 36 wild bob in a Mexican study area, and these have produced more than 300 chicks at the Rare and Endangered Species laboratory. Among these chicks were 160 birds hatched last summer and released in Arizona in March of this year. Raised together in artificially simulated covey groups, the birds were put out on two isolated tracts, selected because of their resemblance to the region in Mexico where the wild birds still live.
They were released in nine coveys in areas that were fenced and posted. Since then Tomlinson and Arizona state game men have intentionally avoided scrutinizing the area too often or too thoroughly, not wanting to harass the birds by over-Observation. Three weeks after they were freed Tomlinson flushed one covey near where they had been turned out. He later kicked up five or six birds at another location. Ranch hands also claimed to have seen some, but the sightings were infrequent.