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The life history of the elegant quail in Sonora Mexico

CREOIMaleQuailwebThis study was a necessary component of a larger study examining the varying response of species in the quail genus Callipepla to environmental change. In particular, researchers were testing the hypothesis that elegant quail (C. douglasiiare) of Sonora, Mexico are less behaviorally flexible and therefore more susceptible to environmental change than California quail (C. californica), a species that has successfully been introduced to regions across the world. This comparison will help illuminate the relative threat level environmental change poses for each of these species and the more general evolutionary mechanisms driving differences in the species’ response to habitat. It will also shed much needed light on the ecological relationships and conservation priorities of the Sinaloan tropical deciduous forest, an understudied and threatened habitat in western Mexico.

Researchers collected data on social, reproductive and foraging behavior of wild elegant quail, sound recordings and GIS waypoints for regions of high levels of quail activity, and species lists of vertebrates and plants that occurred in areas of both high and low quail activity. Quail also were trapped, measured and banded, and samples collected for molecular analysis. Analyses suggest that there is a relationship between the timing of the onset of the monsoon season and the initiation of breeding behavior in elegant quail. While the there is a link between activity during the breeding season and the extent of spring and fall rains in other species of Callipepla, the monsoon rains, either directly or indirectly, through changes in vegetation, appear to result in an immediate shift to breeding behavior in elegant quail. The data also indicate that the onset of breeding, at least in Southern Sonora, occurs later than previously reported for this species (June/July as opposed to April/May).

The study showed clear differences between elegant quail and other Callipepla species in social structure. Elegant quail appeared to socialize in small coveys with overlapping foraging ranges. Coveys roosted in consistent locations that occurred within call distance of other small coveys. The other three Callipepla species associate in large coveys that inhabit discrete ranges and, particularly in California quail, appear to undergo opportunistic daily fission-fusion dynamics. This difference may be key in elucidating how the California quail, with large dynamic coveys is able to exploit novel habitats while the elegant quail, with smaller, more fixed social groups, appears less able to adjust to environmental change.

Elegant quail showed similarities with other Callipepla in other aspects of behavior, including spacing and aggression early in the breeding season, daily time budget, clutch size and nesting habitat use. While the structure and function of some elegant quail calls appear similar to those of other species of Callipepla, other calls appear to be different. Ongoing call analysis will determine how call structure varies among these species and to extrapolate these patterns to variation in primary habitat.

The project supported one graduate student and three undergraduate students and aspects of the project were integrated into undergraduate courses. Researchers blogged for the New York Times Scientist at Work and continue to blog for The Quail Diaries. Presentations were also given to students at The Evergreen State College and Bryant Elementary School in Seattle. GIS data will be shared on eBird, iNaturalist and ProjectNoah and our genetic data on Genbank. Finally, a bilingual pamphlet and an online database of local species will be developed for the use of Alamos residents and visitors. ($7,790)