Mountain quail wings to unlock population secrets

    Biologists are asking upland game-bird hunters to supply wings and tail feathers from grouse and quail. The feathers in this photo are from a ruffed grouse. Mark Freeman / Mail Tribune

    A wing and a tail is all Mark Vargas asks from successful grouse and mountain quail hunters this season as the state wildlife biologist embarks on a new study to shed light on the health and habits of these upland game birds popular among Southern Oregon hunters.

    It's new to Southern Oregon this fall, but Vargas' Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife brethren have been conducting these wing-and-tail collections for decades in parts of Eastern Oregon to gauge mating success and age structure in grouse and quail there.

    Now Vargas, ODFW's Rogue District biologist, has extended that collection program to Jackson and Josephine counties, placing collection barrels at key locations throughout the two counties in hopes of collecting as many wings, tails and information as possible about when and where the birds were shot.

    The collections involve both ruffed and sooty (formerly called blue) grouse, as well as mountain quail and California quail, but it's the mountain birds that have piqued the most interest.

    "We really want to learn more about what's happening with mountain quail here, so we really want those wings," Vargas says.

    The wings and tails can provide a plethora of information biologists otherwise would need expensive studies to collect, particularly with grouse, says Dave Budeau, who manages ODFW's statewide game bird program.

    The wings show when the birds molt, which will tell biologists their age so they can get an idea of how many adults to young-of-the-year are getting shot, Budeau says. The wings will also determine a sooty grouse's gender, while the tail fills the gender bill for roughed grouse, he says.

    With juvenile birds, examining the molting of feathers can show when the birds hatched within a few days, and that could help track peak hatch and the hatch period, Budeau says. Also, hens that are successful at generating hatchlings tend to molt later than unsuccessful hens, so production rates can be estimated.

    "You can get a lot of information just from those wings," Budeau says.

    Over time, the data can be compared to track trends in these key ingredients for game-bird management, Budeau says.

    "It's an index of production that year, and it's extremely cost-effective," Budeau says.

    The grouse, California quail and mountain quail seasons in Western Oregon all opened Sept. 1 and run conjointly here through Jan. 31.

    While the wings and tails are collected throughout the season, they will be frozen and stored until next year, when ODFW biologists hold a so-called "Wing Bee," when they congregate in Roseburg for a day of reading the wings and accumulating the data.

    In the past, Vargas has relied solely on data generated from the Harvest Information Program, but it doesn't tease out where in Jackson County the birds were shot.

    In this region, ruffed grouse are found just off the Rogue Valley floor, while sooty grouse are generally found above the 3,500-foot elevation line, Vargas says. With their tell-tale long and straight head plume, mountain quail are found locally in thick brush on hillsides above 2,500 feet.

    Sooty grouse used to be called blue grouse, but that species recently has been split into sooty grouse in Western Oregon and dusky grouse in Eastern Oregon.

    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or Follow him at

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