As a biologist’s career progresses more and more of their time is taken up by non-biological tasks. Things like cyber-security, budgeting, purchasing, and other administrative duties soon occupy days not hours (all necessary to keep the wheels on an agencies’ wagon, though). For enthusiasm’s sake, it is important to reconnect with the animals that encouraged us to become conservationists to begin with. It’s equally important to realize there is always more to learn about a species, even those we think we know from beak to tail feathers. Two things happened to me in the last couple weeks that reminded me that all administration and no critter time makes Marc a very dull biologist.
I feed birds on my property. I know…biologists always say “don’t feed wildlife.” That is a good policy. It is my rule on feeding that I don’t start until the weather gets horrendous( usually mid-December to early January), and I quit as soon as it gets warm enough to stimulate bear activity (early March many years, but it varies – it is best to base it on weather). I usually feed about six weeks each winter. In addition to a bird feeder, I toss a few cups of seed under a tree or two in my yard and into my thickets which I have carefully developed. It seems to help…but I have no proof, and at times I wonder if I am helping the predators as much as the prey. Regardless, they all have to make a living.
Sunday afternoon, I walked over to my side window to see who was using the feeder. The normal patrons were there, doves, juncos, cardinals and over under my pin oak tree…the leaves were moving, like water starting to boil. As my brain struggled to reconcile these living leaves, my eyes focused on the first of seven or eight quail. And for the next thirty minutes my knowledge of quail was expanded. How rare it is to be able to observe wild quail for even a minute, much less thirty.
Many say bobwhite quail are not strong scratchers. This covey didn’t get the memo. At times it was hard to see anything but the tops of their heads as they burrowed under the leaves, kicking strongly first with the right leg and then the left, then dropping down for the seed they had uncovered, their beaks getting a powder of snow and ice each time. Upon returning from a foray to grab some binoculars, sadly it appeared the quail were gone. Something had alarmed the songbirds and the feeder was bare. On closer examination with the 8 x 50s…the quail had gone nowhere…they had simply melted down into the leaves like a flounder into ocean sand. I could barely see their eyes. As danger abated, they went back to tunneling and scratching under the inches deep oak leaves. To see them that close, untouched by a bird dog, not ruffled by human hands…slick and bright and well preened…I was reminded of how beautiful they are. Not as vibrant as spring flowers, but nuanced like the colors of fall. At some point, they collectively scuttled quickly across fifteen feet of yard and into my shrub thickets. I gave thanks for having had such an opportunity.
The second reminder came a week ago. A former DWR board chairman called me at work. A life-long quail hunter and champion for quail recovery, though in his 80s, he still gets after the quail on his properties in…well, I’ll leave that undisclosed along with his name. Ninety five percent of the time I have a good answer for him. Not this time. His most recent question stumped me. “Marc…we killed a few quail the other evening and their crops were just stuffed with seed…I mean stuffed man, you couldn’t fit another seed in there. It made us wonder how long from the time a quail fills its crop does it take to digest all that seed?”
“Well…um…I…I figure normally they feed again in the mornings, so they have to make some room for that…but I know they feed heavier in the late afternoons, particularly when a storm is coming in…but in terms of how long…I’m not sure. I suspect they have some control over how fast they process the seed depending on energy needs, weather, temperature, etc.”
“Marc, every quail hunter knows they feed heavy before a storm…but how long does it take to digest that full crop? That’s what we want to know.”
“Yes sir – I’ll do some research and get back to you.” No sense trying to bluff a corporate owner and company president. So what is a biologist to do? Google it of course! Easy peasy – done in fifteen minutes and back to doing whatever tedious thing I was doing before. Well…I tried numerous searches and, while I got close, there was no simple answer. So I started looking into it the old fashioned way. I spent a good part of the day reconnecting with the bobwhite quail as an organism. Imagine that, a biologist doing real biologist stuff. I read many scientific papers and eventually, after rediscovering quail feeding habits, the energy content of seeds and much more…I turned to the gold standard which dates back to the 1920s – Herbert Stoddard and colleagues, “The Bobwhite Quail, Its Habits, Preservation and Increase.”
Quoting Mr. C.O. Handley from his fifty-two page chapter on bobwhite feeding habits: “The bobwhite has at least partial control over how long the food shall remain in its crop. They rarely take in more than 22 – 25 grams of seed. However the exact time usually taken to empty a crop is not known, but birds going on the roost at dusk with full crops leave the roost the following morning with all the crop contents moved into the gizzard.” A quail takes in seed, which is stored in its crop. From there it passes to the quail’s true stomach, the proventriculus where some digestive fluids prepare it for the second stomach, the ventriculus – known to us as the muscular gizzard. After some grinding there, aided by grit (small pebble chips, sand grains, etc.) it’s on to the small, then the large intestines, and some of it may be held in the cecum for more processing. Cool…but still not a complete answer. So I sent emails to two of the most respected quail men on the planet. It helps to have friends in smart places. One said “Six to eight hours off the top of my head.” The other said “I’ve never seen it in print anywhere, Marc, but 8 to 12 hours is about right.” Both answers were within reasonable range. Going back to energy demands, on a real cold night they likely process food faster than on a balmy evening. I suspect it also varies with time of year and energy demands of laying eggs or roaming in search of a mate. The bottom-line is – when they fill a crop in the evening, it is likely still somewhere in their digestive system the next morning as they begin refilling an empty crop. It is a fascinating process that allows them to feed quickly, storing the seed for digestion when they are back in a safe location, either day loafing or roosting at night. And every quail hunter knows you can identify where they roosted from the dropping piles left at the center of their covey roosting disks.
Part of my internet search into quail digestion led me to Texas Agri-life Extension and Dr. Dale Rollins, leader of the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch. If you really want to get to know the quail as an organism try this link: https://nri.tamu.edu/learning/wildlife/the-anatomy-of-a-quail/
But note – it is not for the squeamish. Dale is one of the most talented communicators in our profession, so check out others of his sites if you want to reconnect with the bobwhite quail. And don’t ever think it is a waste of time to break free from the day to day grind…that some might call a rut.