Wilderness Underfoot: The bobwhite quail

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113217276415541.jpg’, ”, ‘The Northern bobwhite quail – Colinus virginianus is one of the most common and widespread quails in North America. The male has a white face, giving it a more prominent “mask," while the female’s face and breast are buff colored.’);
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This attractive little quail is named for its distinctive call

During the spring and summer, male bobwhites perch on fences and fallen trees, whistling: “bob-WHITE, bob-bob-WHITE.” These birds spend their lives on the ground on farmlands and open prairies, often on the edges of woodlands.

In the spring, a mated pair scratches out a shallow dish-shaped nest on the ground and lines it with dried grass. The hen lays one egg each day until she has up to 28 eggs in her nest. Then, she incubates them, occasionally leaving for food and exercise. The male brings food to the hen, and if anything should happen to her, he may take over raising the brood.

Bobwhites are inclined to abandon their nests if they are disturbed, attacked by predators, or if there is drought or excessive rain. They have a powerful drive to reproduce, however, and they’ll continue nesting and trying to raise a brood in late September if necessary.

The eggs hatch in about 23 days, all within a few hours of each other. Bobwhite chicks look like tiny puffballs, each about the size and weight of a marshmallow. Unlike many other birds, quail aren’t helpless and blind at birth. The young are precocial—that is, more advanced in maturity and able to move about on their own. Chicks are attracted to pecking noises and any motion on the ground, and they learn from the parents how to peck for food just hours after hatching. The family leaves the nest after all the young have hatched and dried.

When under attack, bobwhites have a warning call that alerts all of the birds to flatten out and lie still so they blend in with their surroundings. If a predator strikes a nest or the brood, the adults will fly to a nearby spot and hop about as if they have been injured to distract it away from the eggs or young birds.

The young eat a diet heavy in protein, mostly insects with a few seeds and berries. As they grow older, their diet includes more plant matter, particularly in the winter when insects aren’t available. Within two weeks, the young quail can fly. Even after they are able to fend for themselves, they tend to stay in family groups. From summer through winter, and into the next spring, they’ll form a covey as large as two dozen birds.

From the Nov. 16-22, 2005, issue

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