Getting to Know the Northern Bobwhite Quail
The northern bobwhite quail is found throughout all, or parts, of 38 states and is a particularly prominent game bird in the South. However, due to large scale changes in land use, quail populations have been declining since the early 1900s. The quail decline has primarily resulted from the loss of adequate nesting cover, brood range and escape thickets. Across the U.S., major efforts are underway to restore and maintain bobwhite habitat and populations, with Minnesota’s own Quail Forever leading the way.
Bobwhites are relatively small, ground dwelling (chicken-like) birds. Adults stand six to seven inches in height and typically weigh about six to seven ounces. The male's upper parts are reddish-brown, while the belly is pale and streaked. There is a white stripe above the eye and white patch framed in black on the throat. These patches are caramel-colored on the females. The bobwhites usually travel in coveys (flocks of two or more families). Their name derives from their distinctive whistle ("bobwhite").
Distribution and Population
The bobwhite quail is the most widespread of the six quail species in this country. The range of its five subspecies covers the southeastern and mid-western U.S. The northern bobwhite is most commonly found in its range in the eastern and central U.S. High population numbers occurring during the bobwhite's heyday were an accidental byproduct of diverse land use practices. As forests were cleared, small patch row crop farms, fallow areas, grass fields and woodlots emerged. Annual burning of fields and forests, rotational cropping and open grazing of livestock improved ground level habitat conditions and set back succession within this habitat mosaic and bobwhites flourished.
During the early fall, bobwhite adults and broods form into social groupings (coveys), with an average covey size of 12 birds. Coveys roost or spend the night on the ground, in a circle with their heads pointed outward, which allows them to conserve heat and more easily escape nocturnal predators. As mortality occurs throughout the winter and covey size decreases, the remaining birds often join with other coveys for the remainder of the winter. Quail remain in coveys until the "spring breakup" at which time they disperse to begin the mating season. Males then begin to make the familiar "bob-bob-white" call to attract hens for breeding.
The male bobwhite begins singing in early spring to attract a mate, signaling the start of the mating season, the peak of the singing occurring during May through August. Nesting occurs from May to September. Both hens and cocks (males) choose the breeding sites and collect materials for nest construction and brooding. Two or three females will share a nest if bobwhites are abundant and cover is scarce. A typical nest is a shallow, saucer-shaped depression in the ground, lined with plants and covered with grass and the previous year's dead vegetation. Clutch sizes vary from 10 to 20 eggs, with an average of 12 eggs, laid one-a-day. Incubation lasts 23 to 24 days. The downy young are rapidly mobile and follow their parents upon hatching. They fledge in six to seven days.
Bobwhites are what ecologists refer to as an r-selected species, which means they are subject to high annual mortality rates but are able to offset this mortality with high reproductive rates. Nesting loss is fairly high at 60-70%. Females will re-nest until successful or until it becomes too late in the season. With persistent nesting, 75% of females will produce young. Chick mortality is about 30%. Most deaths occur within the first two weeks of life, when the young are most vulnerable to weather. The life expectancy of the bobwhite quail is less than one year.
The average annual home range size is around 40 acres but, depending on habitat quality, home range size can vary from 10 acres to more than 200 acres. Annual mortality rates may reach 70-80% depending on habitat quality, weather, predator densities, hunting pressure and other variables. Providing high quality habitat at all seasons of the year best controls predation on bobwhites.