A University of Cincinnati (UC) biologist is using technology most commonly found in Amazon distribution warehouses to care for birds in her lab.

UC assistant professor Elizabeth Hobson and her students are studying the northern bobwhite. The researchers call these fluffy, chestnut-colored quail “the bobs,” and they’re objectively adorable, giggling and calling to one another throughout the lab.

Hobson and his students must care for each of the 47 birds each day, topping up their food, replacing their water, and monitoring their health and well-being.

“It can be stressful for students to be in charge of the animals in a lab, keeping them happy and making sure they’re providing constant care,” Hobson said.

Hobson he needed an easy way to ensure that every pet receives proper care. Traditionally, lab operators could keep track of their activities using a clipboard checklist. But logging information into a spreadsheet every day can be tedious and time consuming.

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

She turned to a QR scanner, a handheld plastic device that reads 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.

Pending activity is highlighted in a different colour, making it easy for the lab team to verify that all birds have received daily attention.

“Once a week we clean the cages. We do enrichment twice a week,” Hobson said. “They all happen at different times. With different students caring for the birds, the scanning system has been extremely helpful in keeping track of everything.

“Our system makes it quick and easy to collect detailed data on the care of each cage. And crawling is really fun.

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

“Some unexpected sources of inspiration have been Etsy’s online sellers tracking their inventory with QR codes and elementary school teachers tracking student attendance, again with QR codes.” Hobson said.

Hobson shared his new pet care system in the diary Animal behavior and cognition.

Hobson and his students are studying quail social behavior and communication.

PhD student Sanjay Prasher is examining how groups of quail construct their social systems. Prasher first put birds together in a flight enclosure and recorded social interactions as the quail got to know each other.

Bobwhites are found from Nebraska to Florida and from Texas to Ohio. In the non-breeding season, they often congregate in social flocks called coveys. The social relationships they form in these packs may be important for finding food and avoiding predators. However, studying quail in the wild over time is challenging because they prey on everything from cats and foxes to hawks and owls.

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

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

Bobwhite numbers have declined dramatically throughout much of their historic range. In Ohio, the population 50 years ago numbered in the millions, but several demographic collapses since then have severely impacted their numbers. Since 2011 alone, the bobwhite population has plummeted 71 percent and there are now fewer than 3,000 wild bobwhites living in the state.?

“The initial crash appears to be related to a couple of really bad winters in the ’70s,” Hobson said. “But at the same time, they were being affected 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 we hope to be able to use our findings to better study wild bobwhite populations.”

Students in Hobson’s lab said birdies have outsized personalities.

“Everyone loves bobsleds,” said UC student Sophia Clemen. “They’re round and puffy with big black eyes and make super cute little chirps and calls. They definitely have their own personality quirks – some of the quail are much bolder and more curious about us than others. I really enjoy working with them.”

– This press release was originally posted on the University of Cincinnati website

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