By Karen Zautyk
Recently, checking with someone about possible story ideas, I was told (by the someone who shall remain nameless): “A group of Kearny High School students are going to be watching a whale hatch in their classroom.
” I was given neither a name nor a contact number, so as intriguing as this sounded (I mean, how big must that egg be?), it went on the brain’s back burner, where it percolated for fully two days before the alleged brain realized: “Wait a minute. Whales don’t hatch. They’re mammals.” Duh.
Fortunately, I was then emailed the correct info. It wasn’t KHS; it was Washington School. And the students had watched QUAILS hatch.
The second-graders in teacher Marie Altobelli’s class were now nurturing 32 Bobwhite chicks through the Quail in the Classroom project sponsored by the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance and the N.J. Division of Fish Wildlife.
It is part of an effort to raise children’s awareness of the delicate balance of nature and the need for wildlife conservation.
While Bobwhite quail are not technically an endangered species in New Jersey, they are now in the category of “species of concern.”
As Pola Galie, operating manager of the Lighthouse Center for Natural Resources Education, located in Waretown, told us, quail were “once plentiful in New Jersey, but the last count, in 2010, indicated there were only about 600 left in the wild in the entire state.”
In the world of birds, 600 is a worrisomely low number, a substantially decreased population threatened, in the words of the Outdoor Alliance, by “its devastating loss of habitat.”
That should come as no surprise to anyone who has recently ventured into what used to be the hinterlands of the Garden State. Where forests and meadows and farmland once graced the countryside, there are now mini-malls and office parks and condo complexes and McMansions. Good for the tax base; not so good for the birdies and the beasties.
So the Alliance came up with the Quail in the Classroom project, which offers interactive workshops for educators with the goal of motivating students to become environmental caretakers. Thirty-two baby quails, chirping and feeding and fluffling their feathers and growing day-by-day, can be some motivators. And the Washington School children aren’t just bystanders. Their quail companions have become part of their lessons. For example, each of Altobelli’s students has produced a journal on the project; they are learning about the birds’ habitat and behavior and even the predators that might threaten them.
In the class, we learned something about that ourselves. Altobelli told us that, when quail are in the wild, they group together in a “covey” (one of the students provided that correct term) of 10 to 16 birds, sitting in a circle and all facing outward. That way, they can see a predator approaching, and if one appears they can all fly off in separate directions without crashing into each other. Smart quails.
The quail eggs (they are very, very small) were delivered to Washington School on March 27 and kept in an incubator set at exactly 99.5 degrees, with humidity strictly controlled. “If the humidity is too high, the eggs go soft; if it’s too low, they get brittle,” Altobelli explained. In either case, they then won’t hatch.
The first Washington School quail hatched Friday, April 19. On that Saturday there were a dozen, and a dozen more by Sunday. It was a weekend, but Altobelli was at the school. “And I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since,” she joked. “The custodians were so kind,” she noted, thanking them for allowing her access to care for the newborns.
In all 33 Bobwhites were hatched, but one, sadly died. The children named that one Miracle. All 32 have names now, ranging from Franco and Stella to Sundance, Jolly Rancher and Hershey Kisses, to Beast.
They are in two large cages at the back of the classroom, but there’s also a tiny camera that projects live images onto the smart board at the front, so the children can keep an eye on the chicks all day.
The cages have feeding bowls and lots of fresh leaves (a quail delicacy) and water bowls, but Altobelli provided water bottles, too — the sort you see hamsters using. And she taught the chicks to drink from them, by tapping the spout and sprinkling a drop or two of water on their beaks. They caught on immediately and now stand in line to wait their turn.
Altobelli said the quail will remain at the school until mid-June. Then the Outdoor Alliance will assume custody, putting them in larger cages and then flight cages and finally releasing them in wildlife management areas.
The Alliance is also working with N.J. landowners to encourage them to create quail-friendly habitats on their property, the better to promote repopulation of the species.
Although Quail in the Classroom has been around for several years, Washington School is the first, and only, school in North Jersey to participate, and Altobelli thanked both Principal Jon Zimmerman and Kearny Superintendent of Schools Frank Ferraro for their enthusiastic support.
“Taking care of animals has a profound effect on young children,” she told us. “I wanted to involve my students in a project that would impact their attitudes and understanding of wildlife management and its importance.”
Altobelli can remember when the quail’s distinctive cry was not a rarity in N.J. “There’s no Bobwhite call anymore,” she said sadly.
But we heard it, for admittedly the first time, the other afternoon in her classroom.
And it was beautiful.