Habitat & Conservation  |  03/27/2023

Keeping an Eye on the Prize


Bobwhite quail monitoring is no small feat in Georgia

By Dallas Ingram and Dr. Jessica McGuire

No matter what species you are managing, the question is always the same, “What does the data say?” Quail Forever’s own “Quail Hunting Forecast” relies on data that is reported by state small game biologists. Monitoring is critical for measuring success, and bobwhites are no exception.

Bobwhite quail are an “R-selected” species that have high reproductive rates coupled with high mortality rates. Populations can fluctuate widely from year to year depending on weather, habitat, predation, and other factors. so yearly monitoring is needed to effectively track changes. With most animals, it is impossible to count every individual, so we use multiple methods to help track population changes. Some methods only provide an indication of presence or absence of the species and others give us an estimation of population structure and size, but all methods allow us to track trends over time. This information can be used to gauge effectiveness of management programs, identify areas that are lacking, and to direct state wildlife agencies in setting harvest regulations.

In Georgia, much like many other states, we use several methods to monitor bobwhite populations: breeding bird counts, in late spring and early summer, fall covey counts and harvest reporting data. 

Breeding bird counts are conducted from mid-May through mid-June and are the least labor intensive of all three surveys. We listen for the male’s classic “Bob-White” call along with calls from several other bird species that utilize similar upland habitats. This method provides presence and absence data which we use to determine where bobwhite are present. The number of males in the spring helps provide an estimate of abundance in the fall and measures trends over time.

Fall covey counts give us the best estimates of reproductive success. They provide a population index that allows us to set regulations and see if habitat management efforts have been successful. These counts are labor intensive, requiring participants to be in place 45 minutes before sunrise to listen for the “koi-lee” call of the coveys as they wake up each morning in the fall. Weather is a big factor in determining how well the coveys call, and there are a couple of formulas or models that use the information to calculate an estimate of the fall population, that can be turned into the bird per acre density numbers that many people are familiar with. Fall and spring counts are implemented on wildlife management areas and privately owned properties within Georgia quail focal landscapes.

Hunter Bridges
Harvest reporting by hunters provides two types of information. One is a type of mark-recapture data and requires us to place bands on a certain number of quail. The birds are released in hopes that hunters report their total harvest, including birds with and without bands, allowing us to combine data and conduct a rough estimate of population size on that property. Hunter harvest reporting also includes time spent hunting, coveys flushed, the number of birds per covey and hunter satisfaction. This information helps track hunter effort and success along with total harvest per property and helps the agency identify areas needing improvement and to determine if harvest levels can be increased providing more hunter opportunity or need to be lowered to sustain huntable populations.

Banding quail requires substantial resources and staff effort in setting/ checking traps and collecting data from birds. Georgia has expanded efforts to include placing radio collars on a subset of the birds captured. These birds will be tracked through a collaborative research project with the University of Georgia. This information will help us analyze habitat use by bobwhites throughout the year in relation to various habitat management practices and characteristics.

Georgia DNR and Quail Forever have also added Acoustic Recording Units (ARU) or song recorders to our list of tools. These automated recorders are placed in similar locations as human observers for spring and fall counts and are set out for up to five days. The recordings are run through a computer program that can “listen” with high accuracy for predetermined calls. The use of these ARUs will help increase the number of areas we can survey and reduce the pressure for staff time.

Georgia DNR’s Bobwhite Quail Initiative, with help from Quail Forever staff and volunteers, invests a lot of effort into monitoring bobwhite quail populations. This information has led to an increase in hunting opportunities on several properties and focused management on areas with the greatest potential for success. It has also allowed us to engage students and volunteers in the future of bobwhite quail. We are excited to see our efforts continue to grow along with the bobwhite population in our state. 

We would like to take this time to thank the Red Hills Chapter for donating ARUs to the project.

Listen to this article’s authors, Dallas Ingram and Dr. Jessica McGuire, in episode #195 of On the Wing Podcast wherever you download podcasts.

Dallas Ingram is the state quail biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division. Dr. Jessica McGuire is Working Lands For Wildlife Bobwhite Framework Coordinator for Quail Forever.
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This story originally appeared in the 2023 Spring Issue of the Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Quail Forever member today!