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SALT LAKE CITY — It’s not difficult to find California quail scurrying around Utah's urban areas.
It’s a species that isn’t native to the state but has been a fixture in Utah for more than 150 years now. So why are wildlife biologists capturing the species in urban areas and relocating them to public lands in rural parts of the state?
Unlike cougars or bears, which are captured when they enter urban areas because they are a safety risk, California quail are captured each winter to help increase the species’ population in other areas of the state, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. They are also moved to create better hunting opportunities for the bird, said Avery Cook, the division’s upland game project leader.
There are some quail species native to Utah, but California quail ties to this area date back to 1869 — decades before Utah was even a state. Wildlife biologists typically are involved when a species is introduced to a new location nowadays, but California quail were actually introduced to Utah by U.S. Army General John Gibbon, according to the DWR.
Gibbon released 14 pairs of the bird near Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, and the first quail chicks were reported two years later. Cook said the species was first introduced for hunting purposes, and the birds have been able to thrive in Utah’s environment since then.
“More recently, they have done pretty well in urban settings,” Cook said. “A lot of our Wasatch Front urban communities have thriving California quail populations because you have sort of that mix of thick shrubs and weedy grasses that they need.”
The state doesn’t have California quail population estimates quite like it does for ducks or geese, but DWR believes the abundant populations in cities could be captured and relocated to more rural or backcountry areas that don’t have much of the species. That, in turn, wouldn't just lead to new opportunities for Utah’s hunters, but it would then help the conservation of the birds and landscape since hunting fees go back toward those efforts, Cook explained.
So, each winter, DWR biologists have worked with volunteers using walk-in traps to capture quail from their yards along the Wasatch Front. Those birds are then dropped off to DWR pens where biologists collect them until there’s enough for a release on public land, Cook said. The birds are also banded so that they can be tracked for biologists to learn more about migration patterns.
The agency reports that about 65 birds were captured this winter. According to DWR spokeswoman Faith Heaton Jolley, the quail captured this winter was recently released in the northwestern part of the state to establish new populations there.
“California quail are a game bird in the state,” Cook added. “The primary motivator for starting new populations is to get a self-sustaining population that would support some hunting pressure to provide hunting opportunities.”