February 22, 2016


by Steve Lang, Sul Ross News and Publications

mdcaptureDocumented research on the ecology of Montezuma quail remains sparse, and Sul Ross State University graduate student Karlee Cork offers one possible reason.

“They’re hard to catch,” said Cork, Carlin, NV. Cork and fellow graduate student Liz Oaster, Hanover, PA, are in the second year of a Borderlands Research Institute (BRI) project studying the elusive bird. They are conducting their research on a 72,000-acre Bureau of Land Management (BLM) tract between Ruidoso and Capitan, NM. Since Fall Semester 2014, they have alternated 10-day stays in the area, and also have collaborated on capture efforts.

During 200 hours – or five 40-hour weeks – in the field, Oaster and Cork have trapped 31 quail. “In comparison, researchers studying other species, like scaled, Gambel’s or bobwhite, have trapped thousands,” said Cork. “Our number is still the second-largest sample size (a previous study recorded 70).”

Cork and Oaster are specifically studying Montezuma quail activity in a 365-acre area that has had reduced canopy cover through removal of some pinon pine, and will undergo a prescribed burn. “My (Master’s degree) thesis will deal with the reaction of the quail in this thinned out area,” said Oaster.

The researchers are counting on updated technology to catch more birds and provide a broader survey sample. Specifically, they intend to attach GPS (Global Positioning System) “backpacks” to 10 captured quail. By monitoring their movements, they hope the “Judas quail” will retreat to their respective coveys, improving the chances of trapping several birds at a time.

Although progress has been slow, both due to elusiveness of the query and some equipment malfunctions, Oaster and Cork caught a male Montezuma in November, fitted it with a GPS pack, and recaptured it in late January. The capture and subsequent GPS fitting is the first documented implementation of the equipment, said Dr. Ryan Luna, assistant professor of Natural Resource Management and the students’ adviser.

Luna said the new backpacks will allow Cork and Oaster to switch out VHF (Very High Frequency) equipment, which requires location by sighting. GPS monitoring provides signals or “points” every few hours, “and we can use the signals to go in and catch the covey.”

“To my knowledge, Karlee and Liz are the first and only people to have fitted GPS on Montezuma quail,” said Luna. “This can lead to a lot of information on a finer scale, including movements, daily patterns and activities. This should help us understand how thinning areas affects habitat use, which in turn will provide a lot of information for management recommendations to develop good habitat for quail.”

Both students noted that the habits of the Montezuma quail differ from other species. Consequently, conventional capture techniques, such as funnel nets baited with milo, have not been successful. Cork and Oaster have changed tactics frequently, using trained pointing dogs, net guns, noose nets and speaker calls during various times of the year.

“Covey seasons are shorter, coveys are smaller – 15 is a big covey – and Montezuma quail have different diets,” said Cork. “They are diggers. They are called ‘hog quail’ because they are like a Roto-tiller. They go after tubers under the soil and they also like insects.”

Montezuma quail are reluctant to run, and often flush only when about to be stepped on, Oaster said.

Cork and Oaster, along with Luna, presented their findings on capture methods at the annual meeting of the Texas Chapter of The Wildlife Society this past week (Feb. 18-20) in San Antonio.

Oaster summed up her research thus far as “a love-hate relationship.”

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but it is so frustrating when a bird dies or a backpack fails,” she added. “But when you catch a bird, everything you have done is totally worth it.”

Cork said, “There have been bumps in the road with failing equipment, but we are hoping with the new GPS backpacks we will get some really good data. I love it (research). I am really interested in the research and in the birds.”

To learn more about BRI's desert quail research, please contact Dr. Ryan Luna, or visit the Desert Quail Research Page.