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Nov 27, 2017 10:34 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

The Tick and Bobwhite, Opossum and Barberry Connections

Bobwhite quail. PRESS FILE
Nov 27, 2017 10:34 AM

A covey of a dozen bobwhite quail were reported by Liz Joyce on her property near The Bridge Golf Club, Noyac, in mid-November. These were most likely the same dozen birds released on the The Bridge property earlier this fall by Group for the East End.Raising bobwhites for release into the wild has long been a popular conservation tool here on Long Island and elsewhere. This was done by the NYSDEC until the 1960s, and continued by game clubs, hunters, and interested conservationists today.

Some years ago, one of my colleagues here on Long Island started a quail release program under the guise of them being an effective natural tick control. The chicks are insectivores during their first summer, consuming all sorts of insects, arthropods and other tiny but high protein animals they can glean off the ground and low plants. By fall they switch to a largely vegetarian diet which they continue through winter and spring.

The quail-tick research project garnered lots of media attention, but has not shown that quail reduce tick numbers in the parks where they’ve been released. I cannot find any studies to substantiate claims that bobwhites can significantly reduce tick populations.

During the past century, bobwhite populations throughout most of its range, including New York, have shown steady declines. Bull’s 1964 publication, “Birds of the New York Area,” states that the decline here on Long Island began in the 1970s, and lists a number of factors for this, including habitat loss, excessive hunting, severe winter mortality, and the introduction of southern and western stock that has reduced the vitality of the original native population.

The latter is somewhat ironic in that the actual reintroduction programs are thought to be a big part of the conservation problem. The lack of consideration of maintaining regional genetic stock in reintroduction programs has created problems in other wildlife reintroduction efforts. Today all such programs are required to show that the reintroductions are of a similar genetic stock as what was originally found in the proposed reintroduction area.

Although a fun and interesting activity, very few, if any, of the domestically released bobwhites survive the winter to breed the following spring.

Another tick consumer that received lots of press this year is the opossum. As a slow-moving, relatively long-haired creature that spends a lot of time rummaging around in the leaf litter, the opossum apparently collects lots of ticks which it efficiently disposes of during its daily grooming routine. A study published by the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, found that more than 90 percent of the ticks picked up by opossums were groomed off and swallowed. Extrapolating from their data, they estimated that an opossum can consume 5,000 ticks in one season.

That’s a lot of ticks. But if you considered the average home range and density of opossums in a given area, I wouldn’t count on them making a significant dent in the local tick population. That being said, every little bit helps, and the odd-looking opossum could use some good press.

Another interesting find linking ticks to another species is the relationship between ticks and Japanese barberry, an invasive species. Unlike the native vegetation it outcompetes and replaces, barberry’s dense foliage creates a more humid microenvironment that is preferred by ticks. A study found that the number of infected ticks beneath barberry infestations averaged 120 per acre, while the average number in adjacent natural areas was 10 per acre.

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