Biologist applies quality control for quail

image: Elizabeth Hobson, an assistant professor at UC, uses a QR scanner to help supervise quail care in her biology lab.
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Credit: Andrew Higley/UC

A University of Cincinnati biologist uses technologies more commonly found in Amazon distribution warehouses to care for birds in her lab.

Elizabeth Hobson, an assistant professor at UC, and her students study bobwhite quail. Researchers call these fluffy, brown-colored quails “the bobs” – and they’re objectively adorable, clucking and calling to each other across the lab.

Hobson and his students must care for each of the 47 birds daily, supplementing food, replacing water and checking on their health and welfare.

“It can be stressful for students to be responsible for animals in a lab — keeping them happy and making sure you’re providing consistent care,” Hobson said.

Hobson needed a simple way to ensure that each animal received the proper care. Traditionally, lab workers can track their tasks using a checklist on a clipboard. But logging information into a spreadsheet every day can be cumbersome and time-consuming.

“With all the care we take every day, I didn’t want to overburden my team with a lot of extra bookkeeping or paperwork,” Hobson said.

She turned to a QR scanner, a plastic handheld device that reads the laminated QR code tags affixed to each bird’s cage, ticking off health, food, water and behavioral enrichment that wirelessly transmits the data to a spreadsheet.

Outstanding tasks are highlighted in a different color, making it easy for the lab team to verify that all birds have received daily attention.

“Once a week, we clean the cages. Twice a week we do enrichment,” Hobson said. “They all happen on different schedules. With different students taking care of the birds, the scanning system has been extremely helpful in keeping track of everything.

“Our system makes it quick and easy to collect detailed care data for each cage. And doing the scanning is actually quite fun.

Hobson said she was inspired by QR codes used by biology labs to track samples or complete surveys. But codes are used in many ways.

“Some unexpected inspirations were Etsy online sellers tracking their inventory with QR codes and elementary school teachers tracking student attendance, again with QR codes.” said Hobson.

Hobson shared his new animal care system in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition.

Hobson and his students study the social behavior and communication of quail.

Doctoral candidate Sanjay Prasher studies how quail groups construct their social systems. Prasher brought birds together in a flight pen for the first time and recorded the social interactions as the quails got to know each other.

Bobwhite Quail are found from Nebraska to Florida and from Texas to Ohio. Outside of the breeding season, they often gather in social herds called coveys. The social relationships they form in these broods could be important for finding food and avoiding predators. However, studying quail in the wild over time is difficult because they are preyed upon by everything from cats and foxes to hawks and owls.

“Everyone eats it. They’re like popcorn there, which makes it difficult to get enough data to understand the longer-term relationship formation of birds in the wild,” Hobson said.

“In the lab, we have controlled conditions where we can eliminate the predation that would be so disruptive to this kind of long-term social study in nature,” she said. “We would eventually like to relate what we learn in the lab to what they would do in the wild.”

Bobwhite quail numbers have declined sharply across most of their historic range. In Ohio 50 years ago, populations numbered in the millions, but several population declines since then have severely affected their numbers. Since 2011 alone, the bobwhite quail population has dropped by 71% and there are now fewer than 3,000 bobwhite quail living in the state.

“The initial crash seems to be related to a few really bad winters in the 1970s,” Hobson said. “But at the same time, they were impacted by habitat loss. This combination made it difficult for them to recover. We are in the very early stages of this new vocalization project, but hopefully we can use our results to better study wild quail populations.

Students in Hobson’s lab said the little birds had oversized personalities.

“Everybody loves bobs,” said UC student Sophia Clemen. “They are round and puffy with big black eyes and they make super cute little chirps and calls. They certainly have their own personality quirks – some of the quails are much bolder and more curious towards us than others. I really like working with them.

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About Sally E. Bartley

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