FLIRting with Chicks

Dr. Theron Terhune has been mastering his FLIRting technique – FLIRting with Northern Bobwhite Quail chicks that is. As the Fall’s first speaker in the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Seminar series, Dr. Terhune discussed his ongoing research as the Game Bird Program Director at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Fire is used to manage the habitat at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy resulting in a low-growing, scrub understory.

Tall Timbers Research Station is located in the rolling Red Hills region of Florida and Georgia, between Tallahassee and Thomasville. Originally the property of Henry Beadel, a hunter, conservationist and visionary, Tall Timbers was established to study the effects of fire on wildlife and plants. Through research, conservation, and education Tall Timbers has become the leading example of how land should be managed with fire.

The Northern Bobwhite Quail (NOBO), a major focus of research at Tall Timbers, is a popular and economically important game bird. While their numbers have been steadily declining across their entire range, the populations at Tall Timbers are larger than ever previously recorded. Dr. Terhune’s research aims to understand what drives the success of these quail populations in order to inform management of the species as a whole. The fire-controlled landscape of Tall Timber’s has created the ideal breeding ground for these quail, thus it is the perfect place to conduct research on them.

NOBOs are non-migratory, ground-dwelling birds with mottled plumage that provides them excellent camouflage. While they can exploit a variety of environmental conditions, they seem to thrive in scrubby, frequently burned habitats such as those found at Tall Timbers. These habitats have characteristic pine stands with low growing foliage as ground cover (see picture above). This species exhibits a complex breeding strategy and while they are not long lived individually, they produce many offspring, which helps to drive the population numbers. Quail chicks hatch with the ability to leave the nest and feed themselves, however, they require parental care for staying warm. A better understanding of quail breeding habits and the early days of a chick’s life are essential to fully grasping the drivers of NOBO populations.

Wing tags are used to identify individual chicks when they are recaptured by the Game Bird crew throughout the season. (Photo by Tall Timbers Research Station)

When scientists perform tracking studies that follow quail movements and behavior they are generally looking at birds that are at least 3 months old. This is problematic because on average quail only live about 6 months. A major gap in knowledge exists from when the chicks are born to the time they are three months old. Dr. Terhune discussed three different ways he and his team went about estimating the survival of chicks ­‑ a major factor in overall success of the population.

First, to better understand what the chicks themselves are doing the game bird crew located nests with unhatched eggs and set up corrals to keep all the chick inside a certain area. After hatching the team would collect all of the chicks and mark them, the first time with permanent marker, and once they were larger, with wing tags. These chicks would be recaptured three more times, once in the Fall and twice in the winter in order to track their survival. Dr. Terhune found that 1/4 of the chicks survive until they are large enough to be hunted. As Dr. Terhune was tracking these chicks he was also taking note of environmental conditions such as temperature and rainfall. When comparing chick survival with the weather he found that many chicks could not survive heavy rainfall in their first three weeks of life. This finding poses some interesting questions, like, what type of vegetation is better suited to protect broods with young chicks from rain, and does having more chicks in a brood improve the adult quail’s ability to keep the chicks warm? Dr. Terhune will explore these questions in his upcoming research.

Second, The NOBO team used FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) cameras to count the number of chicks in roosts of radio tagged adults. These cameras use infrared radiation to create thermal images of the birds. In these pictures cold areas are black and warm areas are purple, orange and white. The resulting video footage shows a heat signature of the roost, as well as little purple and orange balls flying off the screen which are the chicks leaving the roost. By following the roosts for 21 days and repeatedly counting how many chicks were at each with the infrared camera Dr. Terhune’s crew estimated that survival of chicks was a little less than 1/2. However, when he combines this figure with survival rate of 1/4 that he found by marking and recapturing chicks he estimates that survival until the Fall drops to 13.5%. This is an interesting discrepancy because even though the survival was so low, the overall quail population of the same year was considered very high.

Finally, Dr. Terhune and his team wanted to test out if they could radio tag chicks as young as 10-12 days old. To do this they had to develop a new technique suitable for use on much smaller birds. Luckily, Dr. Terhune’s wife, a veterinarian, had some suggestions. They found that with the new technique not only did the tags successfully stay on the chicks, but the chicks with tags survived equally as well as chicks without tags. This is an exciting development for the Game Bird Program because now the movement of the chicks can be directly followed rather than assuming that the chicks are following the adults.

Dr. Terhune’s future research goals are to better understand how chicks use and move through their habitat, the strategies behind behavior, such as multiple broods joining together, and which predators pose the greatest threat to NOBO chicks. Tall Timbers Research Station has already proven that with proper land management, populations of NOBO can increase. With the help of these exciting new chick-tracking techniques, future research from their game bird lab will help to better inform management decisions that will continue to improve not only quail populations, but also the ecosystem as a whole.

If you’re interested in learning more about Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy or Dr. Terhune’s research check out Tall Timber’s website: talltimbers.org.

And, if you’re a hunter check out the iOS apps Dr. Terhune has developed to record bird sightings (Bird’s App, out now) and keep an eye out for his Quail Trax and Invasive Tracker apps.

 

By Lauren Trotta, M.S. graduate student, Wildlife Ecology & Conservation Dept.