You’ve got quail

Depending on where you call home, your mail carrier might be doing much more than leaving you bills or multiple boxes from your latest Amazon splurge.

Audubon recently told the story of Kathy Short, a veteran mail carrier. For 15 years, she drove 68 miles across Kentucky, from Cave City to along the edge of Mammoth Cave National Park, delivering mail. It was a pretty standard job … except for several days each year.

Short, Audubon reports, volunteered for Kentucky’s annual Rural Mail Carrier Survey. So each year, she reported how many northern bobwhite quail and cottontail rabbits were spotted on her mail route.

The website says the survey started in Kentucky in 1960 and plays “a crucial tool for the wildlife agency to track populations of these two game species.” More than 700 mail carriers volunteer each year.

“It gives you a chance to pay attention to the beauty around you,” Short told Audubon.

Are others doing these surveys?

Absolutely. Audubon reports at least five states, including Wisconsin and Nebraska, have its own surveys.

mail carrier wildlife survey

Ring-necked Pheasants flush from cover. Photo: iStock Photo

Wisconsin keeps things pretty simple: its  mail carriers count Ring-necked Pheasants for three consecutive mornings each year in late April. Nebraska, on the other hand, was the first of any state to initiate a citizen-scientist survey of this kind. The state also has the most complex survey of any state.

Nebraska started surveys of Ring-necked Pheasants back in 1945. Jeff Lusk, the state’s upland game-bird manager, told Audobon that he believes the study was created due to “the impact of a couple of harsh winters after the Dust Bowl obliterated vegetation the birds need.”

How does the survey work?

Though Audubon reports the process of enlisting rural mail carriers is unknown, the strategy behind it is fairly simple. Pheasants, and all other species used for surveys, are easy to spot from the road. And, in rural areas, mail carriers frequent seldom-traveled roads more often than other motorists.

“There are far more postal carriers than there are wildlife biologists,” Lusk told Audubon.

Each survey, regardless of species or state, works the same. Wildlife departments send local postmasters survey cards. After tallying how many of each targeted species the postmaster sees, he or she mails it back. Using the tally combined with a map of the postal route, scientists estimate a species’ prevalence — for

And does the survey work?

Yes, and no. It’s not as reliable as a formal wildlife census, Audubon reports, but it’s also not meant to serve that purpose. The surveys are called a “population index,” meaning it’s just an estimate. Still, these indexes have great value to scientists, who often combine them with other data.

“We can still gather a lot of information about what the population is doing,” Kentucky state small-game biologist Cody Rhoden told Audubon.

Like any survey, there are strengths and weaknesses. With each survey lasting only a few days, something as unpredictable like the weather could change the results, Audubon says. With that in mind, counts can vary from year to year. However, even skewed data can still suite well for long-term population trends.

“This data really helps us build that long-term perspective on how our populations are doing,” Karie Deck, who coordinates research for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, told Audubon. “It becomes one piece of a much bigger population assessment.”

Featured Image: iStock Photo