4 minute read

Field Notes: Survival of Quail

~by Jim Eagleman

As I was driving through country with my window open on a recent spring day, I thought I heard a quail whistle its iconic “bob…bob white” call. It made me think how little I’d heard them lately, and brought back memories of a class project I worked on when I was a student.

We had an assignment to pick a bird or animal and define all the things a biologist needed to

know for proper management. The project included describing its importance to mankind, its economic value, and survival requirements.

I chose the chunky, bobwhite quail since I recalled them as a kid on the Pennsylvania farm. My grandpa would point to a brushy ravine and say it looked “birdy.” I didn’t really know what that meant. Over time, though, I could identify the places where quail lived. Whatever the quail needed was provided there. Still, it was a mystery to me. Was it food, protection from predators, water?

When I was old enough to possess a license, I hunted quail—on the lookout for similar places where the habitat was right. I remember bringing home several birds for my mom to cook for supper.

My professor used the term “resilient” when lecturing about quail. They were common in that part of western Illinois.

My daily library search revealed many questions. Some kind of historical perspective was in order. I needed to know if my specie was native to the area, or like the ring-necked pheasant and red fox, introduced years before. If native, how are they doing? If introduced, how long ago, and what was their status?

Had quail numbers remained consistent over time? What determined highs and lows? Was it severe storms, cold spells, drought, summer heat, flooding? I needed to look at weather trends.

Where are quail normally found? If a farmland specie, is its habitat intermixed with woodlands, wetlands, or mature forest? How far and wide on the land is it found? Had this changed over time as development spread, impacting habitats?

My project list of quail details grew with even more questions.

What did quail eat and how often? Do diets change between young and mature birds? Where do they live if different foods are used between fledgling age and mature bird? I learned these transition zones helped established healthy populations.

Had quail moved from historic ranges to fragmented tracts? If so, what caused them to move? I knew they were originally found on small family farms. As these were gradually lost to big agribusiness operations, how had they fared in recent times? I searched county records for land changes, new subdivisions, stream alterations.

How often do they breed, at what age, and where are nests built? Do both male and females incubate the eggs? For how long, and how many eggs are laid versus how many survive? Typically we learned there is a high mortality in young quail, up to 80%. In a covey of 12 young, what limiting factors are at work?

Quail are precocial, up and mobile as soon as they are born. Young and fluffy, they can walk and follow the mother within minutes of being born. How might this help in survival compared to baby birds

like robins that are unable to fly, walk, or leave the nest when they are born?

When young are born, do coveys stay together or do they disperse soon after birth? If the young feed first on a high protein diet of insects, then switch to weed seeds and grains, when does this happen, and how will this determine where they live?

A mature bird’s diet is grass seeds and grains, clover, and ragweed. To digest this roughage, the stomach is composed of a crop and gizzard, like the Thanksgiving turkey. Along with this diet, some grit or small pieces of gravel is needed to help break down the tough seed coverings. But with this plant diet comes a chance for stomach parasites that can take its toll. I needed to know what these were, how they were ingested, and on what plants they are found. Could this be a major cause of quail decline?

What caused the decline? Despite what we know now to ensure survival and provide proper habitat, there are still questions.

Will they come back? I will listen for more quail along Brown County roads.

I remember they were called resilient.