Before South Jersey was the beloved vacation hotspot we know today, the landscape was blanketed in untamed cedar swamps and beyond them, highland oaks, pine, and chestnuts. In these wilds, 17th century settlers faced the obstacle of living side by side with mountain lions, black bears, bobcats, and on rare occasions, packs of wolves. With less apprehension, settlers also found a land rich with passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets(the only parrot species native to North America), ruffed grouse, and bobwhite quail.
No, you’re not mistaken. These species were found right here in South Jersey. Where we now find Cape May and Salem, Atlantic City and Tuckerton, there was once a perpetual wild, housing some of the most petrifying and cryptic animals nature can offer.
One by one their ranks were pushed to extirpation, and in some cases extinction. The wolves were the first to go, with a bounty placed on their heads in 1688 around the vicinity of Gloucester County. Black bears and mountain lions had been extirpated from South Jersey by the early 1900’s due to diminished habitat, food supply, and hunting. The bobcat suffered a similar fate not long after that. Passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets were both hunted to global extinction by the 1930’s.
Of the species mentioned, only two survived into the late 20th century: the ruffed grouse and bobwhite quail. Yet, in only the last couple decades, both have been extirpated from South Jersey indefinitely. Whether they return is up to us.
Before colonization, the American landscape was mitigated by natural disasters. In the case of forests, the most aggressive controlling agent was wildfires. We see forest fires today as something to be avoided at all costs and as a tarnish on the environment. Rightfully so, considering its toll on human development. However, in the eyes of ruffed grouse and quail, burning woods means survival.
Both the grouse and quail thrive in young forest habitat, which are forests which have been disturbed (clear-cut, burned, etc.) and allowed the chance to regrow. The young regrowth of trees, grasses, and shrubs provide the essential foods and predatory cover for both species. In an aged forest, food and cover can be hard to come by, leaving grouse and quail vulnerable to predation and high mortality rates.
To their advantage, many farms and open fields were abandoned by South Jersey home owners in the early part of the 20th century, allowing for natural succession of their lands. The habitat produced by these abandonments created ideal quail and grouse habitat by the mid-century. But, as forest fires were quickly suppressed and as the abandoned homesteads quickly grew without any interference, quail and grouse habitat dissipated into the old oak, cedar, and pine stands we find today. By the 1990’s, both quail and grouse were virtually eradicated from South Jersey.
Another influence on quail and grouse populations is the increased presence of both coyotes and whitetail deer. Deer, more numerous now than at the time of European contact (a mid-1800’s document record deer as being scarce in South Jersey specifically), are a competitor for grouse food resources including fruits, buds, and acorns. The coyote, a new arrival to our area, is a voracious nest-raider. With nesting bobwhites and grouse already dealing brood raiding raccoons, skunks, and fox, the coyote is just the last entry to a laundry list of predators.
While competition and predators may seem like an automatic eliminator to a grouse and quail revival, quality habitat can provide the buffer. If quail and grouse have the habitat to find predatory escape and nesting cover, they can acclimate according to competition and predation. In South Jersey, one man has taken the habitat obstacle in his own hands. His name his Bill Haines and he is CEO of Pine Island Cranberry Company of Chatsworth.
Located in the heart of the Pine Barrens, Pine Island Cranberry Co. boasts one of the largest privately owned properties in New Jersey. With all that land, Bill Haines enforces rigorous forest management plan. Since 2005, the cranberry farm has been working with forester Bob Williams on properly managing their forest native wildlife. A large part of their management includes prescribing burns, or in other words, creating quality bobwhite quail habitat. In 2015, Pine Island Cranberry Co., in conjunction with NJ Fish and Wildlife, NJ Audubon, and University of Delaware, began their quail reintroduction program. Today, the quail are thriving and have had two consecutive successful nesting seasons.
One can only hope that with an increased concentration on quail by state and non-profit organizations, emphasis on the ruffed grouse will follow. Ruffed grouse, like quail, were said to once be abundant in the cedar swamps and overgrown fields of South Jersey. Yet, unlike quail, ruffed grouse undergo cyclic population cycles, hitting peaks and lows every 5-10 years. At the low part of their cycle, if the population is already low and if food, habitat, and weather conditions are undesirable, ruffed grouse can suffer irreversible mortality rates. This is an obstacle that needs to be addressed by the next generation of wildlife biologists and conservationists in New Jersey. The reintroduction efforts of quail are a step in the right direction, and hopefully the success continues, but to restore South Jersey’s wild, the ruffed grouse must be prioritized too.
Luckily for us South Jersey natives, there is many avenues to join the fight on the behalf of our native birds. The South Jersey Quail Project is an organization dedicated to seeing a revival of bobwhite quail and upland bird habitats in New Jersey. Similarly, the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) is the largest conservation organization for ruffed grouse and American woodcock, another South Jersey native. RGS works to revive successional habitats while working with state agencies on forest management efforts. You could also join New Jersey Audubon, an organization with political power working on the behalf of both bobwhites and ruffed grouse, with a $30 membership. A mere donation to any of these organizations would be a substantial assistance in the movement to bring back quail and grouse.
We disdain our city neighbors because of constraining urban development and lack of wild places. South Jersey is marked by its wide-open landscapes, for its vast catalogue of wildlife and by the people who care for it. There is no better way to protect the culture of South Jersey, or to show our hometown pride, than by protecting its wildlife. And, by that measure, there is no better way to honor South Jersey than by reviving the bobwhite quail and ruffed grouse.
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