NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Outside Rutgers Gardens and a few other choice spots, this city and its high-rise apartment buildings and busy streets seemingly bear little connection to New Jersey's vast woodlands. Yet from this urban center, Rutgers University has managed to impact the wildest stretches of the state.
Just look at the northern bobwhite quail.
Not long ago, the lack of young forests all but wiped out the bird in this state, according to experts. But a trio — whose members are all linked to Rutgers University — have made strides in recent years to change that. Under the leadership of the environmental group New Jersey Audubon, they have begun to reinvigorate South Jersey's quail population — and, with hard work and some good fortune, its forests.
“Quail were here before.This is something that was pretty common back in the '70s and even the '80s. Then they literally just kind of vanished,” John Parke, stewardship project director for New Jersey Audubon, which spearheads the quail restoration effort.“The main goal here, though, even with bringing back the birds, is to look at these forest systems and see what the problems are.
“And believe me: Forests are in big trouble in this state.”
A potential quail habitat in South Jersey. Photo: John Parke
New Jersey Audubon's quail translocation project sounds complex, but the idea is simple. The birds boast a healthy breeding population in Georgia. So workers capture some in the wild there and bring them up to the Pine Barrens. Each bird is then collared and tracked.
In 2015, Parke said, the first known quail nesting since the 1980s occurred in the Pinelands.
As a whole, the state and its forests need more management, and the quail act as a motivator for private landowners and others to do just that, he said.
Here's where one of the project's several links to Rutgers comes in: The state's largest private landowner, Pine Island Cranberry Co., in Burlington County, has played a big role in returning quail here. And, as reported in a spring 2017 Rutgers Magazine piece, a university alumnus and his family own the 14,000 acres, most of which is untamed forest.
Bill Haines Jr., who graduated in 1975, has always needed to maintain healthy forests for the sake of his cranberries. For 17 years, that job has largely fallen on Bob Williams, a seasoned forester and fellow member of the Class of 1975, according to Rutgers.
Together, their work made Haines' land a strong candidate to host reintroduced birds.
The first quail nest of 2017. Photo: John Parke
Fate stepped in when Parke took an agricultural leadership and development class through Rutgers, in partnership with other state groups. He and his peers visited a number of sites throughout the state. And the first was Pine Island Cranberry Co.
There, he met a woman named Becca Fenstermaker, Haines' daughter. She and Parke hit it off, he said, and began to discuss how New Jersey Audubon and Pine Island could team up. Parke then met Haines and Williams, and from there they launched the larger, three-year quail research project to restore the birds to the wetlands.
“Those connections were unbelievable,” Parke, who teaches a bird identification class at the university, said. “Rutgers is a hub for all these different connections throughout the state and getting the word out.”
For Williams, Haines and any number of South Jersey landowners, the project whose seeds were planted at Rutgers more than 40 years ago has big stakes. It could help rejuvenate local forests, improving habitats and the wildlife that depend on it.
It could also help ward off a catastrophe.
“We're going to have a bad fire in South Jersey if something isn't done,” Williams told Rutgers Magazine. “We're going to be on CNN for days.”
But something is being done. Just how much it will help New Jersey's forests is unclear. If the birds are any indicator, though, things are looking up. As of August 9,New Jersey Audubon researchers have already identified 12 quail nests in the area.