Long Island Deploys Bird Armies to Fight Ticks

The small bobwhite quail is proving to be an effective weapon in the fight against tick populations. . (Photo: Dick Daniels/Wikimedia Commons)

In the battle to win back parks and other natural areas now infested with disease-carrying ticks, some towns on Long Island are increasingly turning to an unlikely ally: the bobwhite quail.

Small and round, with alternating colors of brown, gray and white, the bobwhite quail is a voracious ground hunter with an appetite for anything below knee height. Its daily menu includes insects such as spiders, grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars and lots of ticks. With regards to the latter, this makes it a particularly effective weapon for towns fighting record tick populations in surrounding parks, woods and other recreational areas.

Despite being native to the region, natural populations of bobwhite quail have declined by 85 percent from 1966 to 2014 due to habitat loss from development and an increase in one devastatingly effective predator.

“Cats take a massive toll on our ground-dwelling wildlife, such as the bobwhite quail, which turns out to be our front line of defense against ticks,” Eric Powers, a wildlife educator who first started the quail release program in 2002, told Long Island Weekly. “So the biggest help anyone can do is to keep your cats inside. If the community wants my help re-establishing quail populations around Long Island to combat ticks then I need your help in return...please keep your cats inside.”

Powers has taken his bobwhite quail program and turned it into an education program for schools, with teachers and students helping to incubate the tiny quail eggs and raise the hatchlings. In New York towns such as Smithtown and Northern Hempstead, dozens of the birds are then released into parks areas to help control tick populations.

You can see an example of a recent bobwhite quail release undertaken by the Seatuck Environmental Association in Suffolk county in the video below.

For Town of North Hempstead supervisor Judi Bosworth, this new chemical-free option is exactly the weapon they were looking for.

"We wanted to find a way to deal with insects that carry diseases that could harm our residents and our pets in a way that would not, in fact, add toxins to the environment," she told Fox5.

While the threat of ticks used to seem remote to most Americans, populations today now exist in all 50 states. Once attached to a human host, the small arachnids can transmit as many as 20 diseases, with Lyme disease the most well-known of the lot. The threat from ticks is now so great that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are responsible for more emerging diseases than mosquitoes.

For Powers, combating ticks with ground-nesting birds such as quail is an opportunity to not only avoid using chemicals, but also help return a once widespread species back into the environment.

“The idea of bringing back the quail is to bring balance back to our ecosystem,” Powers added.

For those interested in raising their own bobwhite quail army to help control ticks, Powers has created a series of how-to videos available here.