In Her Own Words: Jennifer Newkirk

Jennifer Newkirk
Jennifer Newkirk

I got a job at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch in Rotan, Texas. I was hired to do necropsies on quail, mostly looking for parasitic eye worms and cecal worms that are affecting quail in the rolling plains region of Texas. I know that having this class on my resume was one of the main reasons I was hired. My boss is very interested in determining cause of death in quail, by looking at what remains are left and determining whether a bird was killed by a mammal, raptor, or something else. For example, if a pile of feathers is found matted down, the first thing you’d look at is if it is clumped together by blood or saliva. If it’s saliva, it could be a mammal. If there are crimps in the rachis of the feathers, or they look methodically plucked, it could be a raptor. Presence of bite marks would also indicate a mammal.  

One of the most interesting things I’ve done while I’ve been here is necropsy a “mystery bird”. One of my co-workers found an adult male quail lying dead in the middle of a road on the ranch, with no obvious signs of trauma. He brought it to me, and I necropsied it to see if we could find out why it died. As far as I could determine (without access to an x-ray machine), there were no obvious broken bones. There was were also no signs of trauma, such as bruising or hemorrhaging. The bird didn’t look emaciated and its internal organs looked healthy. The intestines and crop were full, which showed that the bird was eating well. When I looked for eye worms, I found 24 in the right eye and 20 in the left. When I looked for cecal worms, this particular bird had 476, which is the most that I’ve found in any bird I’ve necropsied so far. A study at the ranch during 2009-2010 found a mean of 134 cecal worms and 5.6 eye worms. While this doesn’t definitively prove that the eye and cecal worms are directly related to quail mortality, it does bring up questions of how they are affecting the birds’ fitness.  

Another thing that my boss is interested in having me do is run some sort of “Quail CSI” project. For this, I would be putting out quail capes throughout the ranch and setting up trail cameras on them. This would allow us to learn how long bird remains last, and how they are dispersed. Is the wind blowing them away, are scavengers coming to eat what’s left? Although I haven’t started this project yet, I am very excited to see what I can discover and learn. I have already learned a lot here at the ranch and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to apply what I’ve learned in class to what I’m doing at work. 

-Jennifer Newkirk