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Northern bobwhite quail management in Florida

Northern bobwhite quail management in Florida

There is a popular ‘small galliform’ (gamebird) native to eastern North America. It is shy and elusive; it freezes when it meets danger, relying on its cryptic plumage to escape its many predators. Nesting and mainly living on the ground makes it highly vulnerable. Meet the northern bobwhite quail. Unfortunately, its population is diminishing due to habitat loss and an explosion of mid-level predators; in some regions, it has reduced by 90% and is classified as ‘endangered’ or ‘near threatened’ in many areas.

Thankfully, there is a team of conservationists on the case for the bobwhite! At Tall Timbers, a research station situated in northern Florida close to the Georgia border, managers are throwing everything at getting this diminutive bird to thrive. And they are succeeding.

Tall Timbers Research Station Sign

     Tall Timbers Research & Land Conservancy in northern Florida conducts research into the biology & management requirementso of northern bobwhite and other wildlife.  


The use of fire in habitat management holds one of the keys to the bobwhite’s survival. Fire creates early successional habitat that is vital during the life-cycle of bobwhite and other species in this region but also reduces habitat attractive to its many predators. “Hardwood scrub creeps out of wetlands and drainage areas into the dry upland areas. If it’s left for three to five years, trees take hold and create ‘fire shadows’, being less burnable than scrub,” explains Eric Staller, Land Manager at Tall Timbers. Predators such as racoons, opossums and egg-eating snakes are arboreal and raid nests on the higher ground. Burning keeps the hardwood shrubs from becoming trees, so reduces the arboreal predation. Tall Timbers is an internationally recognised hub for prescribed fire science. If anyone knows how to use fire for conservation gain, those at Tall Timbers are surely they.


The predators of the bobwhite quail are numerous – it seems everyone loves a bobwhite snack. Unfortunately, the populations of mid-level mammalian predators such as racoon, skunk, opossum, armadillo, coyote, fox and bobcat have grown out of balance in the absence of apex predators like the red wolf and Florida panther. Trapping for the fur trade helped control these populations when the apex predators were first removed. However, as the fur trade declined, the unchecked populations of these ‘mesopredators’ - which feed at middle trophic levels in the food web - jumped. That’s a problem for wildlife in the middle of the food web, including ground-nesting birds like the bobwhite quail.

Of the mammalian predators at Tall Timbers, about 80% are racoons and opossums, and about 10% are armadillos. The remaining 10% are coyotes, foxes and bobcats.


To assess mesopredator populations and determine if trapping is needed to balance their numbers and help species of conservation concern, properties such as Tall Timbers use scent stations to calculate a mesopredator index. “The index gives an objective measure of the abundance of mesopredators on the landscape we are managing,” Eric explains. “With this information, we can then take action to manage these species.”

The way to control these mammals at Tall Timbers is by using a variety of traps. With around 4,000 acres under the Tall Timbers management, checking traps can mean as much as 60 miles of driving a day, taking five hours or so.

For this reason, anything that can cut down on time checking the traps (without risking the welfare issues of missing a capture) is highly valuable to the team. In the past, some traps were fitted with radio-telemetry, causing the trap to beep when the door closed, alerting the operator to a capture. This reduced time spent trapping to a much shorter 1 ½ hours a day. Unfortunately, this older type system wasn’t overly versatile and couldn’t be attached to many trap styles. So, bit by bit, Tall Timbers is converting the system over to the PerdixPro Remote Monitoring System.

PerdixPro ‘tags’ can be fitted to any of the traps used by Tall Timbers, including live-capture box traps, cage traps and leg-holds. The trap tag's sensors detect vibration when a trap captures an animal, which, when activated, then sends alerts (via SMS and / or email) to the operator/s via the PerdixPro cloud-based system. All operators can also log into their account via the PerdixPro app to see trap locations, alerts and record trapping data.

Box trap for meso-mammals equipped with PerdixPro remote trap sensor

    Box trap used on Tall Timbers for catching mid-sized northern bobwhite predators including Raccoons, Opossums, Armadillos.

The conservation team baits the traps to encourage the predators in. During the summer, the baits are eaten by rats, so the team needs to replenish them more frequently. If they’re doing the baiting rounds anyway, then the tags don’t cut out quite so much time. But during seasons when less bait is required, the tags offer huge efficiency savings.

There are three types of traps that they commonly use at Tall Timbers, and these are deployed in order of ease of use, with the live box traps taking first place and accounting for most of the predators caught. Once the live box traps are no longer catching, the team uses ‘dog-proof traps’ and finally ‘foot-hold’ traps to catch the more trap-shy mesopredators. The foot-hold traps may sound like archaic devices, but they are quite safe for animals to be caught in and are commonly used in the United States. “The foot-hold traps are designed to hold the foot of the target animal gently until the operator arrives to release or dispatch the animal. My dogs have all been caught in them, and they don’t hurt them at all,” notes Eric. The versatility of the PerdixPro tags means they can be attached to all of these trap types to alert the user immediately when an animal has been caught.

 Wider conservation

Every ground-nesting bird benefits from the trapping work done in the name of northern bobwhite conservation. Another animal which has declined spectacularly for years in the southeastern USA is the gopher tortoise, now classified as ‘endangered/threatened’. In the Red Hills area of Florida (where Tall Timbers is situated), they are proud to support a high population due to their habitat work with fire and the management of mesopredators. Gopher tortoises take 16 years to reach maturity. When they do, they lay eggs in their burrow. “Racoons and opossums visit the burrows every day, waiting until eggs are deposited and then dig out the eggs to eat,” says Eric. “Balancing the mesopredator populations helps give the tortoise eggs a chance.”

 The driver

How is all this work funded? Like in many areas of conservation across the world, as Eric explains: “At Tall Timbers, the driver is gamebird hunting.” The northern bobwhite is highly valued as a sporting quarry. By researching and developing active land management techniques that support huntable bobwhite quail populations, the team can tap into hunting interests to improve the overall ecosystem health on many thousands of acres of private land within the bobwhite’s historic range.

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