The distinctive singing of wild quail had all but disappeared from Bill Haines' forests and fields in Burlington County.

The chorus of "bobwhite" calls began fading decades ago along with the bird's habitat across New Jersey. Choked forests, paved roads, housing developments, herbicides, and pesticides destroyed the bird's food sources and nesting grounds.

But early Wednesday morning, the songs remembered so fondly by Haines as he grew up on the land were on their way back again.

Eighty northern bobwhite quail - captured this week in Georgia - were radio-tagged for monitoring, driven about 15 hours, then released into a haven in Chatsworth specially created for them using prescribed burns and tree-thinning practices that produced the optimum surroundings on about 1,500 acres adjacent to Haines' Pine Island Cranberry Co. operations.

With the flutter of wings, the birds took flight from wooden boxes and began exploring their new Pinelands home.

"Hopefully, the quail will thrive," said Haines, who provided the land for the project. "The last time I heard them was in the late '60s when I was in my early teens.

"We never had air-conditioning, so I grew up with the sounds of locust, little frogs we called peepers - and quail," he said. "You would see them and hear them."

When land loses a species, "it's an indicator you could lose more," said certified forester Bob Williams, owner of Pine Creek Forestry in Laurel Springs who has helped transform the forest into a quail habitat. "When you lose a piece of the puzzle, the puzzle is incomplete; there's a breakdown of the web of life.

"I'm out every day and I haven't seen a quail in years," he said. "There's no question that they wouldn't rebound on their own" without help.

Fifty years ago, wild bobwhite quail were plentiful across parts of the state. Coveys of them were common. Hunters flushed them out by the scores while walking through brushy fields.

The number of birds has fallen off so precipitously that - except for small pockets - they're close to extinction in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and barely holding on in Delaware, wildlife ecologists say.

Only 600 wild quail were estimated to remain in the southern half of New Jersey, according to a state survey in 2010 - and those numbers have not likely changed much, state officials said.

Wednesday's release was part of a three-year collaborative conservation initiative involving Haines, one of the nation's largest cranberry growers; Williams who manages forests on Haines' 14,000-acre property; New Jersey Audubon, which has overseen the quail project; the Tall Timbers Research and Land Conservancy, which collected the birds; the University of Delaware, and wildlife biologists.

Eighty more birds will be released in the second year and another 80 in the third year.

"That was very cool," Haines said after watching 10 quail take off from one of eight boxes. "They were gone in a second and a half."

The quail were the first to be relocated from the South to New Jersey, said Theron Terhune, game bird program director for Tall Timbers. "They have a high mortality," he said. "But we've never had a translocation that's ever failed."

Conservationists see the project as a possible model for other such research and restoration projects across the state and the nation, and as a productive new avenue of cooperation for forest and wildlife officials.

"This is significant because this is the first time in 20 years that this has been tried in New Jersey," said John Cecil, vice president of stewardship of New Jersey Audubon. "The habitat here is exceptional - the way it's supposed to be."

But the state needed birds to get started. "Because quail don't migrate and the population was extirpated from New Jersey, it's important to bring them up from the South," said Jean Lynch, South region stewardship project director for New Jersey Audubon. "They're here just before breeding."

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife is also collecting data on its own habitat restoration efforts intended to benefit quail in Cumberland County. The results of their efforts will be compared with habitat characteristics at the Pinelands release site.

Agriculture and conservation can move together "toward a common goal," said John Parke, north region stewardship project director for New Jersey Audubon. In the future, if the quail thrive at the Haines property, "theoretically, we could move some from there to Cumberland County."

In addition to the property, the Haines family - through its foundation - provided $50,000 toward the preparation of the land and other expenses. The University of Delaware provided $7,000, and the rest of the $187,000 project was covered through grants.

In addition to the Haines site, two quail habitats on Maryland's Eastern Shore have been selected as places to reintroduce the bird.

Quail are not doing well anywhere except Georgia and Florida, with some populations in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

"The hope is that we will reestablish them in New Jersey," said Parke, who hopes the work will demonstrate "the need for good forest practices, especially in the Pinelands."

The bobwhite "is the poster child for the need for stewardship," said Williams.

Now, because a forest has been restored and several groups have worked as a team, "you will hear the song of the quail again," he said. "You can say I went to a forest where quail were extinct and I heard them."

That means the environment "is being taken care of," said Haines. "It means we've done all the work of managing the forest and it's paying off."

ecolimore@phillynews.com

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