Habitat & Conservation  |  06/06/2024

Discovering the Bobwhite


A Research Opportunity Leads to a Passion for Quail

By Olivia Lappin

I won’t lie. Three years ago, I had no idea what a bobwhite quail was.

I might regret having written that. But when Dr. Mark McConnell selected me to study bobwhite quail at Mississippi State University, I wasn’t necessarily jumping with excitement. What did interest me was studying wildlife in working landscapes and obtaining my master’s degree. Bobwhites were honestly just an afterthought at the time.

Let it be known that I am originally from Maine, so 1) I had never seen a bobwhite, 2) I never heard stories about bobwhites and 3) I was not cut out for Southern heat and humidity.

Nevertheless, I packed up my car and headed south.

One five-minute walk from my car to class and I was drenched in sweat. Sitting in class, sweaty, facemask on, listening to Dr. McConnell talk about the fundamentals of research methods, had me severely questioning my life decisions.

Fast forward a few weeks and Mark took me out to Prairie Wildlife in West Point, Mississippi, where I put my hands on a bobwhite for the first time. It was the most adorable and fascinating thing I had ever seen.

There were plenty of 4:00 a.m. mornings, late nights and Bob-White calls heard. I was hooked.


I spent most of my next three years at Prairie Wildlife. I, five technicians and numerous volunteers spent countless hours traversing through fields filled with ticks, chiggers, poison ivy, snakes, and blackberry brambles. We were determined to try and better understand two things:

» Where do bobwhites roost during the breeding season?

» What determines whether or not a male bobwhite calls during the breeding season?

To answer our research questions, we first had to capture, radio-collar, and track birds using radiotelemetry.

To understand where bobwhites roost, we tracked birds to their roost site after dark. The next day we collected vegetation data at the roost site and compared the vegetation to the surrounding area that the bird could have roosted in but didn’t.


To answer our calling behavior questions, we conducted 10-minute surveys each morning at sunrise. Surveys involved recording the number of times a radio-collared male called and how many times other males around him called for 10 minutes.

We also recorded environmental variables such as temperature, cloud cover, and change in barometric pressure.

We discovered that bobwhites in spring selected roost sites with higher average vegetation height, less bare ground, and more litter cover.

That was an interesting finding because during the fall and winter, when bobwhites form into coveys, they tend to select sparsely vegetated sites that have shorter vegetation and more bare ground. This is likely because coveys contain 10 to 15+ birds that roost in a ring-like formation with heads facing outward and tails facing inward. This formation provides greater vigilance to see predators, and the sparse vegetation allows quick escape.


However, during the breeding season, when birds roost alone, individuals might require taller vegetation for better concealment from predators.

Similar to research done by Chris Lituma and colleagues in 2017, we found that bobwhite males are more likely to call when other males around them are calling. This may pose challenges to getting accurate population counts, especially in low-density areas, because if there are fewer bobwhites around, they may be less likely to call. If birds don’t call during a survey, you can’t count them. This may lead to inaccurate population estimates.

What did I take away most from my research?

» First: bobwhite quail are way cooler than I initially thought. How a species that seems to have everything going against it manages to hang on year after year, singing their sweet song, is simply extraordinary. Furthermore, every day I spent around these birds, I was learning something new. Whether it was hearing new quail vocalizations, tracking quail that went on 3+ mile walkabouts, or monitoring one particular radio-collared quail (lovingly nicknamed “Waylon”) that lived to be one year old, only to be hit by a car … there wasn’t a day in the field where I wasn’t perplexed.

» Second: Creating a patchwork landscape with different vegetation structures is essential for bobwhite habitat. Altering the timing of burns throughout the season can balance and maintain adequate roosting cover throughout the breeding season while also creating that mosaic and multi-structured landscape.

» Third: As researchers, we haven’t yet determined the best way to count quail. Current research is looking at using audio recording units (ARUs) to record calls and technology, possibly with drones, to help to count birds. Statistical methods are also used to account for missed birds during surveys. If you want the most accurate population estimates, the best thing to do currently is conduct multiple surveys for at least 10 minutes throughout the breeding season, and multiple covey counts in fall. Surveying the same point, ideally three times for 10 minutes, will increase your chances of hearing a bird that is there.

» Fourth: Productive agriculture and wildlife conservation are not mutually exclusive. We can improve these landscapes to support a whole host of wildlife, including pollinators, and of course, benefit the landowner and our beloved bobwhites.

Everyone knows the sentiment, “Do what you love, and you won’t work a day in your life.”

Sure, some days are more grueling than others. But spending each day working to help bobwhites, other wildlife, and landowners is incredibly rewarding. Being the primary Quail Forever seed representative for the Southeast, I frequently receive phone calls from landowners who are excited to purchase habitat or food plot seed. What could probably be a 5-minute phone call often turns into a 30-minute-long conservation about the landowner’s passion for land management and wildlife. Calls like these make my day.


Similarly, working as the Rights-of-Way & Energy (ROWE) coordinating wildlife biologist in partnership with industry professionals (such as oil/gas, electric and solar) allows me to provide technical assistance to industry leaders by assisting in the development of sustainable, integrated habitat management plans to help industries achieve their sustainability objectives, engage local communities, and increase habitat acres and habitat connectivity.

With an estimated 35 million rights-of-way and energy acres across the United States, many of them in what is or could be good quail range, there is immense opportunity for bobwhite habitat improvement.


I often remind myself of this passage from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: “We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world, we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads up high and receive the respectful acknowledgment of the rest of Earth’s beings.”

Of those beings, the bobwhite quail is very special indeed.

Olivia Lappin is an Integrated Habitat Management Rights of Way & Energy Coordinating Wildlife Biologist for Quail Forever in the Southeast.

This story originally appeared in the 2024 Spring Issue of Quail Forever Journal. To support Quail Forever’s habitat mission and to receive every issue of Quail Forever Journal, become a member today.