The Secret Life of Quail: A Collaborative Monitoring Effort

The Jones Center at Ichauway regularly partners with regional universities and non-governmental organizations to answer natural resource research questions. One such example is a collaborative bobwhite quail monitoring effort with Mississippi State University (MSU) and Tall Timbers Research Station (TTRS).  

Quail trapping efforts began at Ichauway in Fall 2021 by the Center’s Conservation Biologist, Zach Henshaw, with guidance from the Albany Quail Project staff, part of the TTRS Game Bird Program. Quail were captured and fitted with a collar containing a radio transmitter to track their locations using radio telemetry. Periodic tracking was used to monitor survival, nesting rates, habitat selection, and use of recently burned areas.

Zach Henshaw (right) processing a captured bobwhite quail.

Since the project began, two MSU graduate students have led research objectives: recently graduated Jeff Grayum, and current student lead, Jordan Baron, both co-advised by MSU’s Dr. Mark McConnell and the Center’s Dr. Mike Conner. 

A female (left) and male (right) bobwhite quail outfitted with radio collars.

Grayum’s analysis included 134 radio-tagged quail from trapping in Fall 2022 and Spring 2023. These birds experienced an annual survival of 20.2%. Grayum found approximately 10% of tagged quail were in burned areas within a few days of an active prescribed fire and their use of recently burned areas increased to approximately 35% as the growing season progressed.   

More recently, Henshaw led Conservation staff in trapping efforts in Fall 2023.  They captured 150 birds of which 114 were leg-banded, 68 were radio-tagged, and 4 were outfitted with a backpack-style GPS tracker being assessed for broader research use.   

Baron took over as the student lead in Spring 2024. While Grayum focused his research on nest monitoring and use of recently burned areas, Baron will focus more on investigating quail habitat use as related to presence and location of feed trails. Feed trails are predetermined routes within quail hunting complexes where feed –predominantly grain sorghum – is cast from a spreader buggy to provide supplemental forage for birds. 

A quail is fitted for an experimental backpack-style GPS tracker.

The Trapping Process

Prior to trapping, Baron selected 56 sites for a two-week pre-baiting period using current bobwhite locations, hunting observations, and escape cover availability. This gradual, pre-baiting process encourages quail to utilize the intended trapping area, ultimately leading to a higher capture rate. All 56 sites were prepped by raking to bare soil and removing roots over roughly 1 square meter. 

Cracked corn deployed in an arrow-like shape in set traps (left) to encourage birds to travel through the trap entrance. Pine branches were used for overhead cover on traps (right).

Baron deployed cracked corn at each site during the start of the first week of pre-baiting, distributed across a large area (approximately 10 square meters) including the area of prepped, bare soil. During this 2-week period of pre-baiting, Baron distributed the corn over smaller areas with decreasing frequency. He also took note of any flushed covey or potential quail sign to assist in trap site selection. 

Baron removed 10 bait sites that were deemed unused or in poor locations. Ultimately, he deployed and set 46 traps before sunrise of trap day 1, reapplying corn in an arrow-like formation. Each trap was covered with pine limbs to add overhead cover. 

Birds are removed from a metal wire ground trap and placed in a wooden handling box for processing.

Traps were left to sit all of day 1 to catch quail during the morning and afternoon feeding periods. Traps were checked after sunset on day 1, midday on day 2, and after sunset on day 2. Birds were removed and processed at the trap location each time they were checked.  

Processing included obtaining weights, determining sex, aging (juvenile vs. adult) based on the molt of primary wing feathers, attaching a numeric leg band, and – for some birds attaching a radio collar. Baron aims to radio-tag 3 to 5 birds per covey trapped and only birds that are large enough to carry the equipment. Standard practice is to not exceed 5% of an animal’s weight with instrumentation (collar or backpack).  

Aging a quail using primary feather molt patterns.

Spring 2024 trapping efforts resulted in 115 quail captures, 70 of which Baron outfitted with a radio collar. Of the 115 caught, 15 were recaptures from earlier project trapping. 

Since the project’s inception, we have conducted six trapping efforts, processed over 600 individuals, and tracked 382 quail at over 12,000 locations.   

Jordan Baron with a radio-tagged bobwhite quail.

All bird banding was conducted with appropriate permits. 

Read more about the work of The Jones Center at Ichauway’s Wildlife Ecology Lab