When walking in the brush and fields during the winter months, it is easy to become lulled into a peaceful trance. The leafless trees, the nearly-leafless brush plants, the grayness and the hush of winter soften my attention. I walk rhythmically, day-dreaming sometimes until…
“Brrr-rrhhh!” and a covey of quail burst out of the grass or brush. They take to the air in a loud flush, but almost immediately the quail arc their wings and sail over the shrubs. They may only fly 20 feet or so before they set down again. I almost never have time to pull my binoculars to my eyes before the birds have disappeared in the camouflaging vegetation. I didn’t see them before they flushed, although they may have been foraging along in plain sight, and I can’t find them again once they land.
I love quail. Perhaps this is because my maiden name is Partridge, which is just another name for quail. Northern Bobwhites were originally known as Virginia Partridge. Of course, they also existed farther west than Virginia, but early ornithologists did not know that.
John James Audubon liked quail, too. He also noticed the birds flushing up and sailing to a new location, not too far from the first. He writes “When these birds rise on wing of their own accord, the whole flock takes the same course; but when put up (in the sportsman’s phrase) they disperse, after alighting call to each other, and soon after unite, each running or flying towards the well-known cry of the patriarch of the covey.”
The Northern Bobwhite is, of course, named for its breeding call: a two-note whistled “bob WHITE!” or occasionally a three-note call rendered as “poor bob WHITE!” That emphatic, loud, final syllable really carries a long way. Female bobwhites snap to attention when they hear it! And so do any of us humans who happen to be out-of-doors working, hunting, hiking or playing. Anyone who can whistle can make a credible reproduction of the bobwhite’s call. And even if you can’t whistle, you can say the word with the proper cadence and emphasis. It is one of the most easily reproduced bird vocalizations and also one of the most readily recognized.
Everyone loves the Northern Bobwhite. We love the surprise of flushing a covey of the birds, the sounds they make and their handsome, patterned plumage. These little round-bodied birds, about the size of a softball, are ground-dwellers and social creatures. They live in coveys, groups of up to 35 individuals, year-round, except during breeding season when they pair off to nest and raise young. The covey members keep in contact with soft “assembly calls” during the day as they forage and they sleep together at night. To maintain vigilance, and to allow for a quick flight, the birds sleep in a circle, tails inward. If something threatens them, the circle of quail bursts upwards, rather like an explosion! The noise alone puts off any predator.
The Northern Bobwhite is the only quail found in the eastern half of North America. Its range extends into Mexico and the Caribbean. Farther west, five other quail species replace the bobwhite: the Scaled Quail, the Montezuma Quail, the California Quail, the Gambel’s Quail and the Mountain Quail. Most of these species prefer arid, open lands with pockets of dense brush and chaparral. The Northern Bobwhite, on the other hand, prefers “agricultural fields, grasslands, open woodland areas, roadsides and wood edges.” Since disturbed areas due to fire, logging, agricultural activities (and those areas subsequently making a comeback) appeal to these birds, land managers have learned to reproduce good bobwhite habitat by prescribed burning, mowing and seeding. In fact, in the southeastern United States, hunting plantations have developed excellent bobwhite management plans to keep the populations of these game birds up.
The website AllAboutBirds.org states that “Because of its history as a game bird, the Northern Bobwhite is one of the most intensively studied bird species in the world.” All the research, unfortunately, did not slow the decline in bobwhite numbers, at least in the eastern part of the U.S. The North American Breeding Bird Survey reported an 85% drop in bobwhite populations from 1966 to 2014. This alarming decrease was attributed to habitat loss, fragmentation of land parcels, pesticide use, changes in agricultural practices and even the invasive fire-ant species. Fortunately, the quail seem to be making a comeback since 2014. It is still possible to see and hear Northern Bobwhites fairly regularly throughout their range and especially in Texas.
A number of conservation entities have been working to reverse the decline in bobwhite populations. They have encouraged landowners to provide habitat and food sources for these quail. One discovery is that just leaving disturbed land alone for a season will produce the kind of temporary successional habitat the bobwhite love. Some native plants, even weeds, may be more valuable than we thought. Surprisingly, ragweed, which is not popular with allergy-sufferers, is an excellent producer of high-quality seeds. Moreover, Western Ragweed and Giant Ragweed, produce their seeds in late fall, just when the bobwhites need them the most.
We can help the bobwhite we love by remembering that weeds are food for these birds (and many other wild animals). A little fallow land, a few over-grown patches, a bit of messiness might go a long way towards keeping “bob WHITE!” ringing in our ears!