The Importance of Scientific Wildlife Research

I have heard some folks say, “What do you all need to waste money on studying this or that species for? You know everything you need to know to manage for quail (or grouse, or bears, or whatever it may be). All that money could be going into habitat management.” Well…I am glad the people who discovered penicillin did not declare, “We’re done here. We’ve got this whipped.”

Ecosystems are not static. They evolve, conditions change and the need to continue to do sound wildlife research will always be with us. I have also heard a few folks criticize researchers for always ending their presentations by saying “More research is needed.” Exactly! It most certainly is. Questions are answered, but many times new questions arise and this is how our society has advanced through time…upon millions of building blocks, all beginning with hunches, and ending in discoveries. And… one rule (of several key ones) I have in life, I never trust anyone who claims to know everything about anything.

Scientific research is an ongoing need, even for bobwhites.

It’s been said that the bobwhite quail is one of the most studied birds in the history of wildlife science. I am not sure who counted the studies and compared them to other species, but it is probably high on the list. Regardless, we are still learning and new questions come up routinely. For instance … on our National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative Coordinated Implementation Program Model Quail Focal Area we hear lots of quail during the summer, but we hear very few during our fall counts and the hunters using the area find very few in winter.

Have they died? Are they using the cover very differently than hunters imagine? Do they move off the focal area in search of something they are not finding within it? Are surviving quail simply much better at avoiding hunters than generations past? Have their habits changed over the last decades (meaning 30 or 40 generations for quail) in order to survive in an evolving ecosystem? And, more importantly, can we learn something by studying the situation that might lead us to management decisions that would be good for quail and quail hunters?

Scientists sometimes use the terms “anecdotal” or “ancillary observation” to describe things they or others have observed in nature that are not part of scientific testing. A simple example might be one in which a person observed quail feeding in a partridge pea patch many times. They assume the quail are feeding on partridge pea seeds. But without further examination, it cannot be said with any certainty that is why they are there. They can say “based on anecdotal evidence, I feel quail like partridge pea.” But, many other things grow in conjunction with partridge pea, and it is also a great attractant for insects, upon which quail would rather feed than anything. But this “hunch” can be tested by scientific study, such as trapping quail in the area, and examining crop content and drawing a conclusion that quail do like partridge pea, but as much because it has good structure and attracts insects as for other reasons.

This also leads us to a term called “replication.” In a nutshell, just because you test an idea in one area, or one situation, does not mean what you find there can be applied everywhere. To be truly good, a study requires replication in a wider variety of circumstances.

Scientific ability also evolves and old findings sometimes need re-testing. I can’t recall the class, but one of my professors “back in the day” made a comment that “Mother Nature was very good at fooling people into believing things that were not true.” A classic example of this is the case of the cotton rat being labeled as a bad predator of quail eggs.

Back in the 1920s, using the best techniques available at that time, the famous quail biologist Herbert Stoddard (of Tall Timbers Research Station and prescribed fire fame) stated that cotton rats were bad predators of quail eggs. Managers since that time have worked under that assumption. But recently, researchers at Tall Timbers Research Station, using modern techniques which included remote video cameras set up on hundreds of quail nests discovered beyond doubt that cotton rats do not prey on quail eggs very often at all, they merely clean up egg shell fragments left by other predators that destroyed the nest and eggs before them.

Further, they discovered that cotton rats serve as “buffer” prey for quail and that the higher the cotton rat density, the lower the quail predation – all other factors being equal (this information can be found in the new Tall Timbers Quail Management Handbook available for purchase on their website ). Quail managers on modern quail plantations now try to manage to increase cotton rat abundance. A note – Herbert Stoddard was ahead of his time and right about the vast majority of what he studied….but like most of us he was not right 100% of the time.

On our focal area, endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCWs) are the primary species of concern (and rightly so because they are endangered and quail are not). Other questions we have are: How do we tweak habitat management to benefit quail without being detrimental to RCWs? Can we adjust the size of prescribed fire units, making things better for quail without harming RCWS, or reducing the total amount we need to burn each year to sustain the RCW ecosystem? If the quail are staying on the area and not dying or moving away, where are they during winter? And what can be done to increase the critical winter escape cover we find them using?

We have a study proposed to help us answer these questions. We’ll use two other areas for comparison to give our study more “strength.” Time will tell if the funding comes through. No matter what happens we hope that our constituents, and even some in our own profession, continue to see the value in wildlife research. And further – that it will also be recognized that state wildlife agencies are the best liaison between our research universities and our state wildlife user groups. No one understands or works harder for our constituents than we do.

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