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"Patterns of Bobwhite Covey Activity"

by D. Clay Sisson and H. Lee Stribling
Auburn University Dept. of Zoology/Wildlife Science

Every year at this time, our thoughts turn to bird dogs, quail and quail hunting. The summer hatching season is over and it’s time to get down to the serious business of hunting this year’s bird crop. An important part of any type of hunting is understanding the habits of the animal you are pursuing, and this certainly applies to quail hunting. In an effor tot increase this understanding, the field staff of the Albany Area Quail Management Project (AAQMP) conducted a study during the 1996-1997 hunting season that intensively examined patterns of bobwhite covey activity and factors affecting these patterns. The AAQMP is a field station of Auburn University’s Zoology and Wildlife Science Department and is located in the heart of southwest Geogia’s quail plantation country near the city of Albany. In place since 1992, this project focuses on doing very practical research designed to answer specific questions that landowners, managers and hunters have concerning bobwhite quail management and hunting. This article on our "Covey Activity Study" is the third in a series (see Quail Unlimited Magazine, November-December 1994 and 1995 issues) designed to report on and give results of various aspects of our work.

The specific objectives of the covey study were to 1) determine daily and seasonal activity levels and movement patterns of bobwhite coveys, 2) determine the effect of weather on these patterns and, 3) evaluate how the information could be used to increase hunting success. To accomplish these goals, we trapped and radio-tagged six to eight birds in each of four separate study areas. Each transmitter was on a different frequency so that we could locate and identify not only individual coveys, but individual birds as well. Each transmitter was also equipped with a motion sensitive switch that allowed us to know when the bird was moving. These four coveys were designated A, B, C, and D and were monitored on a rotating basis so that a different covey was monitored every day. Location and activity level were recorded every 15 minutes from daylight until dark, six days a week, for then entire hunting season (Nov. 16, 1996-Feb. 28, 1997). Weather data for the same time period was collected independently at the NOAA weather station 15 miles away at the Albany airport.

This continuous monitoring of coveys took a monumental effort and could not have been accomplished without the dedicated work of two of our field staff, Jerald Sholar and Daymond Hughes. These two guys did most of the field work for this project, both spending more than 400 long, lonely hours living with these coveys under all sorts of weather conditions. The result was 86 days of continuous monitoring and over 4200 readings on location and activity levels. These data were then compared and analyzed statistically against the weather service data from the airport. In addition to the technical data, a journal was kept by the field personnel that recorded each worker’s observations on covey activity, behavior, and calling as well as other observations from out in the woods. An occasional aside on current events, and even a poem or two showed up in these journals as well.

The first part of the data we looked at were the records kept on the data sheets as well as in the journals on calling activity. Most of the calling heard was early morning covey calls as you would expect with a second, but less extensive, amount of calling heard just before dark. Very little, and sporadic, calling was heard during the rest of the day. Most of the covey calls occurred just at daylight with the calling being intense, but short-lived as can be illustrated by the journal entry dated Nov. 20, 1996-DAY 4: "At 06:30 birds were inactive and woods were quiet. At 06:35 chaos broke loose, and quail were calling from what seemed like everywhere. By 06:40 the calling had stopped. Quiet once again." Morning covey calling was more widespread and intense early in the season and then tapered off and became sporadic and unpredictable by January and February. The most intense calling seemed to occur as the fall shuffle was ending, and coveys were "settling in" to their winter ranges. It seemed as if they were claiming their territory and letting everyone else know where they were.

daily covey activity

The biggest part of the data we collected were the reading taken on covey activity levels. Using the motion sensitive radios, covey activity level was ranked for each 15 minute interval of day on a scale of one to three. A rank of one indicated little or no activity by any of the birds in a covey; three indicated all the birds were highly active; and two was anything in between. The first figure shows a summary of the activity level data for the entire hunting season. Results of this data were really about what you would expect, but interesting nonetheless. The highest level of activity occurred early in the morning, usually during the second hour of daylight. This peak of activity would last for an hour or an hour and a half and then taper off until midday when there was usually a three to four hour period of very little activity. Activity levels would then start to pick up some around 3:00 with a second shorter and less pronounced peak later in the day.

A typical day would be something like the following:

  • 07:00 -covey A was roosted in its usual spot down in a small bottom of old-filed vegetation
  • 07:10- covey became active and began moving out to open pine woods on field edge
  • 07:20-covey A has not called but heard three other coveys call
  • 08:30-birds still active in open pine woods
  • 09:00-moved back down into bottom into thicker cover
  • 11:15-birds have showed moderate activity through the morning, but not moved around much
  • 11:30-14:45-same location, no activity
  • 15:00-16:45-moderate activity, same location
  • 17:00-moved back out to where fed this morning in open woods near field edge
  • 18:00-went to roost near field edge

This same pattern was observed over and over again where a covey would come off the roost and be very active early in the morning. Some moderate activity would occur throughout the morning with the covey often times moving off into heavier cover such as a thick bottom or planted pine stand to spend the middle of the day loafing and inactive. Activity would usually pick up again around 3 pm with the covey going back to feed later in the afternoon just before roosting time. Long distance movements were uncommon with most coveys moving no more than 200 to 300 yards all day and having ranges of only five to ten acres for the whole season. This was most likely influenced by the high quality and uniformity of the habitat along with the supplemental feeding program.

The last part of the data look at was the effects of weather on quail activity. These results were somewhat disappointing in that there were few real strong correlations between weather and activity. This is likely due again to the high quality of the habitat and the intensive supplemental feeding program on this property. Studies on other species have revealed that activity and movements of animals with access to an abundant, high quality food resource are not influenced as much by weather patterns. There were some relationships indicated by our data, and these are shown in the second figure. These correlations would probably be even stronger under most circumstances. Basically, what we found were that coveys were more active in cold weather, high relative humidity, and light winds.Weather activity Decreased activity was associated with hot weather, low humidity, high winds and rain. The strongest correlation to a weather event was very little activity any time an east wind was blowing. We are unsure why this is, but apparently the old saying "wind out of the east…find birds the least" has some merit. Another interesting phenomenon was that activity levels tended to increase the day before a change in the weather, suggesting that quail can sense an approaching weather event. In general, the best days for quail activity were cold and overcast with a light wind. Bright, sunny, low humidity "bluebird" days are pleasant to be out in, but are not especially good weather for quail activity. Likewise, warm weather (which can be common in south Georgia in February) or windy and/or rainy days will decrease activity levels.

One of the main reasons for having done this project was to see if we could get any information to help make quail hunting more efficient, and we feel as if there are some lessons to be learned from the data. The main ones may be that quail get up and are on the move early and are often very vocal coming off the roost, but only for a brief time period. Both of these can be used to the hunter’s advantage. Many old-time bird hunters (and a few modern ones) were in the woods before day to listen for and locate as many coveys as possible. They then knew where to start and were hunting early, which our data clearly shows is the most highly active time of the day. Our data also shows that most coveys don’t move far between roosting and feeding areas, which means that most of the time, they will be close to where they were heard calling. If you have a hunting partner or two, a good strategy may be to spread out and try to hear as many coveys as possible on the roost, and then hunt these coveys early in the morning. This would be especially useful in new or unfamiliar territory. Another obvious trend was for coveys of birds to move to heavier cover and be much less active during midday. This may be a good time for you and your dogs to rest, or if you do hunt, to look in the heavier cover near where birds are usually found feeding. Three o’clock is usually the time when activity starts to pick back up, with coveys usually moving back into feeding areas late in the day.

We suspect that in most circumstances, the effects of weather on activity levels of quail would be even more pronounced than what we saw. If you have the luxury of picking your hunting days, then keeping an eye on the weather and hunting on high activity days could be helpful. Remember that the best days for quail activity are not necessarily the most comfortable days for hunters. Overlapping your time in the field with the highest activity levels for quail will improve your odds no matter what the weather conditions. In the final analysis, any hunter knows that the best time to go quail hunting is any time you can, and that even a bad day of hunting is better than a good day of most other things.

A synopsis of this article can be found here, and if you would like more information about the research conducted by the Albany Area Quail Management Project, click here.

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