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The Center for Native Grasslands Management

Title: Optimal group size and northern bobwhite coveys
Year: 2003
Author(s): Williams, C. K., Lutz, R. S., Applegate, R. D.
Source Title: Animal Behaviour
Source Type: Journal
pages: 377-387
Original Publication: http://  
Abstract: Northern bobwhite, Colinus virginianus, form social units, called coveys, during the nonbreeding season (approximately September–April). Because the evolutionary advantage of this behaviour is generally unknown, we used controlled group size manipulations within an aviary to investigate whether group size influences (1) the time that the covey spends feeding, (2) the percentage of the covey that is vigilant, (3) the overall vigilance of the group and (4) the time to predator detection. We found that increasing group size increased the time that coveys spent in an exposed feeding area, reduced individual vigilance, improved group vigilance and decreased the time to detection of a potential predator. Additionally, we used experimental reductions of wild northern bobwhite coveys to test whether groups size influences (1) individual and covey survival, (2) daily movement in maintaining covey size and (3) mass change. We conducted field research on 12 independent 259-ha study areas (6 control plots and 6 treatments, where 60% of the population was removed) in east-central Kansas, U.S.A. between 9 November and 31 January, 1997–2000. We radio-marked 386 radiocollared individuals that comprised 137 groups on the study areas. Covey size did not differ between or within years or treatments (X±SE: 10.98±0.22 individuals). Our results indicate that a stable group size existed between 1 and 22 individuals, with 11 being an optimal group size. Small coveys (1–7 individuals) had lower group persistence and individual survival, and used increased movement to create or join larger groups where survival was higher. Large groups (15–22) had lower individual survival, increased group movement and individual mass loss. Density-dependent feedbacks (e.g. lower survival and increased competition) may have lowered larger coveys to a stable size. Our results suggest the regulation of an optimal covey size of 11 was promoted by high group persistence, low group movement, improved feeding efficiency, improved individual predator detection and improved individual survival.