A lone quail pecks around a cage set up in an Augusta State University classroom while three people watch its every move.
The observers give the quail a minute to acclimate, and when cued, psychology senior Callie Jowers sets off the stimuli. From a computer a few feet away, Jowers turns on a monitor above the quail’s cage showing an image of a flying hawk with a realistic squawking sound.
Jowers, graduate student Samantha Spitler and assistant professor Tadd Patton watch how the quail responds to fear. Does the bird hide in a cardboard box at the end of the cage? Does it crouch down? Does it make sounds?
By conducting behavior research on quails, Augusta State University assistant professor Tadd Patton is trying to determine how the brain processes fear from visual stimuli and whether the circuitry is a common trait across animals — even humans.
“We have a lot of research on fear in mammals, but it’s not as well-known in birds,” Patton said.
When ASU consolidates with Georgia Health Sciences University, Patton said he hopes to deepen the research into neuroscience by dissecting the quail’s brain after it is exposed to the fear stimuli to look for what proteins are secreted.
Patton has conducted the quail behavior study for two years and was the first to bring the birds to ASU.
He bought 14 eggs in 2010, hatched them under an incubator and now keeps them in cages on the first floor of Science Hall. Students walking by the quail room often wonder what the chirping sound is coming from inside, Patton said.
“They are really very interesting, and I really care about these birds,” he said.
As a psychology and biology student, Jowers said it’s beneficial to be able to work with the animals and learn by doing instead of just reading a textbook.
“It’s a lot better than having to sit in a classroom and take tests,” she said. “It helps us look at things from a whole different perspective.”
ASU psychology student Danielle Crethers is preparing to conduct an enrichment study on the quail by testing how living conditions impact mating.
The six-month study will also be comparable for humans, Patton said.
“It can show what kinds of enrichment help us the best,” he said. “Is it about who we’re with or living conditions, how group housing affects us? It’s all of that.”
Patton studied higher visual structures and behavioral patterns of pigeons and conducted behavioral research on Java sparrows while working at a lab in Tokyo in 2008.
While quails are less common in research, he said they are a perfect subject. They are easy to keep, don’t fly often and reproduce quickly.
Although Patton said some people misunderstand animal research and confuse his studies with those that are less humane, he said his passion for the birds makes their happiness a priority.
When he reaches into a cage to grab a quail for a behavior test, he speaks gently, knowing the birds are there to teach him.
“Come here, baby,” he says. “I know life is hard when you’re a quail.”