Bobwhite quail were introduced to Idaho by our pioneers

An illustration of a bobwhite quail by Ric Thornton.
An illustration of a bobwhite quail by Ric Thornton. McClatchy file

Among the many changes settlers from the East and Midwest brought to Idaho in the 1870s was the introduction of species of game birds not native to the region.

Many of our pioneers had hunted bobwhite quail in their former homes and missed the sport. On Jan. 3, 1871, the Idaho Statesman reported, “The Boise Valley Quail Association has received another installment of their little feathered proteges, this time from Missouri. Mr. Slater informs us that he has 39 more, which will be emancipated among us at noon today.” A month later the association received another shipment of 75 Bobwhites; 11 had failed to survive the trip. The paper noted, “The association have now turned loose, altogether, 11 of these famous music makers and worm destroyers.”

Years later, H.C. Riggs, founding father of Ada County, was credited with being one of the first to introduce the bobwhite to Idaho. The Emmett Index of Dec. 6, 1906, says that Riggs had introduced “Missouri quail” to Idaho in 1870, and that the first shipment of the little birds from Independence had arrived in Kelton, Utah, on Jan. 30, 1871, and were brought to Boise later that spring. Riggs may have been a member of the Boise Valley Quail Association, as might Cyrus Jacobs. He told the Idaho Statesman in October 1891 that there were plenty of quail down the valley, descendants of some he imported over 20 years ago. The two pioneers were proud that they had had a hand in bringing the birds to Idaho, whether on their own initiative or as members of the association.

California quail, now seen regularly within Boise’s city limits, were also introduced to Idaho around the year 1900.

On Aug. 10, 1872, the Statesman reported: “Lave Lindsay and Dick Puckett took a stroll along Dry Creek on Thursday, and mamiloosed 67 prairie chickens. Birds were rather scarce or they would have made a good day of it. Talk about going hungry in this country.” These were probably sharp-tailed grouse, often called “prairie chickens,” because neither greater nor lesser prairie chickens are native to Idaho, and if introduced could not have become that numerous.

In response to a reader who thought he had seen partridges along the Snake River and asked whether they had ever been introduced into Idaho, the Statesman replied in July 1875, “We are of the opinion that none ever have been introduced here, but neither have prairie chickens, grouse, ducks, wild geese, pheasants, fool hens, sage hens been imported but they are here nevertheless.” It was apparent to the paper that there was considerable confusion over different kinds of birds called “partridges.” That the Statesman itself was unsure what to call the different kinds of game birds is revealed in a brief item on Aug. 10, 1875: “Prairie chickens are selling for 25 cents apiece.”

The bobwhite quail that had been introduced to Southwest Idaho at no small trouble and expense were protected by law in 1875, and there was concern that they might not survive hard winters. In January 1879, “Large flocks of quails, which have been multiplying in the valley since they were brought here several years ago and turned loose under protection of law, have congregated at the Warm Springs where there are no hay stacks or other source of food, they are now being fed grain contributed by the citizens here for that purpose.”

In October 1881, peddlers were on Boise’s streets with “wagon-loads of honker geese, mallard and pintail ducks, widgeon and teal. They are as cheap as beef and afford an agreeable change of diet.” In December another man who brought a load of ducks into town told a Statesman reporter that game was very plentiful and that he had taken 49 ducks in just six shots. Obviously there was no limit that year.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.