Classified as a distinct subspecies of Northern Bobwhite, the Masked Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus ridgwayi) is found only in the Sonoran Desert and semi desert regions of southern Arizona, USA, and northern Sonora, Mexico. Although they were originally described as a separate species, they were reclassified in 1947 as a subspecies based on what were deemed significant vocal and plumage overlaps with the Northern Bobwhite. Females of each type do appear similar; however, male Masked Bobwhite would never be mistaken for their Northern cousins (see photos). Likewise, emerging genetic analysis is beginning to indicate a possible divergence between Masked Bobwhite and other bobwhite populations, perhaps vindicating the full species designation. Regardless of the classification, the Masked Bobwhite is certainly a unique and irreplaceable thread of nature that is in great need of intense conservation efforts to save it from outright extinction.
The rangewide decline of Masked Bobwhite has been primarily attributed to intensive livestock grazing in an ecosystem that cannot rejuvenate quickly, particularly during the beginning of the 20th century. So rapid were the declines that wildlife officials actually declared Masked Bobwhite extinct more than once over the past century. Yet the bird, known as “Codorniz Mascarita” in Mexico, held on at ranches in central Sonora. From those populations a captive flock was established in Arizona for the purposes of captive-breeding birds for release in the United States. By 1985, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service had acquired a large ranch in the Altar Valley of southern Arizona, which became the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge (BANWR). This 118,000 acre refuge was the only place in the USA where Masked Bobwhite had been known to regularly occur and the refuge was to be managed specifically for the preservation of this critically-endangered quail and its habitat. Despite the best efforts of all agencies involved, the Masked Bobwhite continues to hover on the brink of extinction and, sadly, has not been verifiably reported from its last stronghold in Mexico for the past five years.
While the outlook may seem bleak, there is also cause for optimism. A sizable captive breeding flock exists at BANWR, and captive breeding efforts with these birds have produced many offspring. However, reintroducing these offspring into the wild has not yet re-established a self-sustaining population and, as a result, large-scale releases were halted in 2007. Since that time the BANWR staff has refocused resources into habitat management and those efforts appear to be making gains at restoring conditions suited to the Masked Bobwhite. Various rearing methodologies are now being tested to better ready captive-bred individuals for the large-scale reintroduction efforts that will hopefully be resumed in the near future.
So that not all captive Masked Bobwhite exist in one facility, BANWR staff worked with colleagues in Puebla, Mexico to transfer 70 birds to a separate facility at the Africam Safari Zoo in 2015. They plan to transfer another 70 birds there in 2016. The Africam flock will serve both as a hedge against a catastrophic event that could wipe out almost the entire global population currently housed at BANWR, as well as provide captive-bred offspring for release in Mexico since moving any species across international boundaries can be very complicated and drawn-out.
The Sutton Center’s commitment to the conservation of rare birds, and particularly our experience with gallinaceous birds, led the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to approach the Sutton Center about possibly becoming another breeding facility for the critically-endangered Masked Bobwhite. In the spring of 2015 we were in a position to begin serious conversations with the Masked Bobwhite Recovery Team about the potential partnership and, since that time, the Sutton Center has started preparatory work for this project.
Senior Biologist Don Wolfe has been selected to join the Masked Bobwhite Recovery Team, which oversees all aspects of the species’ conservation efforts. And in June of 2015, Don and Dr. Jeremy Ross deployed temperature data loggers along an elevational gradient and in different vegetation types to begin a long-term thermal mapping program. As with any bird species, bobwhites have specific thermal tolerances, as well as particular habitat needs and vegetation preferences. Even at small scales the difference in temperature in areas of respite from the searing heat or freezing cold, called thermal refugia, can be life-saving for bobwhite. Determining the thermal characteristics of BANWR can, therefore, aid in guiding vegetation restoration efforts as well as delineating areas where future releases are most likely to be successful.
The Sutton Center has also taken the lead on setting up informational posters in southern Arizona about the rarity of Masked Bobwhite and how sightings can be readily reported to us. We are in the process of recruiting capable volunteers in southern Arizona and Sonora that can assist in verifying such reports. Across the vast and remote area where Masked Bobwhite once existed, this volunteer verification team will be of tremendous value in confirming hopeful reports that this bird may still exist in the wild.
The Sutton Center is exploring possible modifications to our existing facilities to allow us to accommodate a modest proportion of the BANWR’s captive Masked Bobwhite flock.
Ultimately, this would be the first stage of heavy involvement by the Sutton Center in the preservation of this rare bird. We feel that our experience with raising captive birds and vast research experience with grouse could make such an endeavor not only feasible, but perfectly suited to our mission statement and commitment to conservation. If you may be interested in helping to make this effort a reality, either through funding, logistical support, or in-kind donations/volunteering, please contact Don Wolfe to work out how you may contribute. You can also earmark for the Masked Bobwhite project your donation to the Sutton Center by adding a “for Masked Bobwhite” comment in the donation form.