Meet the Bobwhite Quail
The Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) occurs 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 Quail Forever leading the way.
Bobwhites are relatively small ground dwelling gallinaceous (chicken-like) birds. Adults stand six to seven inches (24-27 cm) 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").
Native Americans utilized bobwhite quail for food, and as they changed from a hunter/gatherer to a more agrarian society, bobwhite numbers increased around cropped fields. In 1557, Hernando DeSoto's expedition reportedly received a gift of wild turkeys and partridges (probably bobwhite quail) at a Native American village in what is now Georgia, comprising the earliest record of white man eating bobwhites. As European settlers carved small farms from vast forests, bobwhites became more common.
Initially, bobwhites provided a subsistence food for settlers. Markets developed and hunting and trapping of quail were practiced from the early 1800s to the early 1900s.
Market hunting eventually impacted numbers, and some northern states implemented quail game laws as early as the 1830s. Market hunting began later in the southern states. During the winter of 1905-06, over 500,000 bobwhites were shipped from Alabama to northern and eastern markets.
Over time, quail sport hunting became known as a gentleman's pastime, but most all hunters willing to follow a pointing dog across fields and forties easily succumbed to its princely appearance, familiar call, challenging sport hunting opportunities and excellent table fare. Finding coveys was consistently possible, but not always easy. Birds held well for pointing dogs and their rapid, unpredictable flight provided a strong shooting challenge. Bird hunting provided rich social opportunities among hunters and a common bond of mutual accomplishment and affection between hunters and their dogs.
Bobwhite numbers peaked during the mid-1800s in northern states and from around 1890 to the mid1940s in the Southeast, and then began a consistent and drastic decline. Over the last several decades and across their ranges, bobwhite quail and other game species associated with early forest succession and grasslands have declined to historically low population levels. In fact, over the past 20 years, northern bobwhite population numbers have declined by over 65%. In some states, the rate of decline has escalated from 1-2% per year during the 1960s and 1970s to over 5% per year during the 1980s and 1990s. The population decline has been attributed to many factors, including predators, pathogens and pesticides, but the primary cause is the cumulative effect of deteriorating bobwhite habitat due to land use changes. Advanced natural succession, intensive monoculture farming, exotic and invasive grasses, intensive timber management and declining use of prescribed burning have negatively impacted quail habitat.
Distribution and Population
The northern bobwhite, or bobwhite quail, is the most widespread of the 6 quail species in this country. The range of its 5 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 (precocial) 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.
Harsh winters, habitat loss and increasingly intensive agricultural practices are major factors in the decline of the Northern Bobwhite. Excessive snow and ice crusts are also detrimental; both cover seeds necessary for the birds' survival. Pesticides can be damaging, since the species feeds on insects. Domestic cats and other predators, such as skunks, foxes, owls, raccoons, dogs and snakes, are also contributing factors. Late-season hunting has proven deadly as well as hunters will flush a covey and while they will eventually regroup, with their original covey or another, often times it is too late and the birds will freeze. Captive-bred, non-native bobwhites seriously harm genetically distinct wild populations through inter-breeding.
Wildlife biologists classify bobwhites as a grassland-forb-shrub habitat dependent species. In the Southeast, this type of habitat is often referred to as 'early succession'. To prosper, bobwhites need large expanses of clumped native warm season grasses mixed with annual weeds, legumes, briars and other woody thickets that are thick above but open underneath. The bobwhite prefers areas where half the ground is exposed and the remainder contains upright growth of herbaceous and woody vegetation. Specific requirements change with the seasons. In spring and summer, the bobwhite needs grassland, drainage ditches and roadside and pond edges for nesting, feeding and roosting cover. In summer and fall, it requires cropland for feeding, loafing, dusting and roosting. It depends on dense, brushy areas for food during fall and winter and for escape and roosting cover year round.
Changing land use practices have simplified the landscape by promoting the abundance of one habitat component (grassland, agricultural crops or woodlands) to the exclusion of others. Consequently, modern agricultural and forestry practices that emphasize optimal crop and fiber production have supplied world markets but eliminated the landscape complexity bobwhites require.
Prescribed fire dramatically enhances bobwhite habitat. Native Americans patch-burned forests and fields to manage game, increase hunting success, and improve access. Historically, controlled burning was employed annually or bi-annually to our agricultural and pinelands. Its use has all-but-disappeared due to alternative techniques, conflicts surrounding smaller landowner tract size, and health and liability risks associated with smoke and fire. In the absence of fire, a forest understory mosaic of bare ground, grasses, weeds and woody vegetation is replaced by dense woody brush that shades and eliminates herbaceous vegetation essential for foraging, nesting and brooding.
Grazing practices have also changed. Thirty years ago, sheep and cattle were rotationally grazed between native grasses and woodlots. Today, open range grazing practices that produced an irregular mosaic of grazed and ungrazed patches have been replaced with more uniform, intensive grazing practices. Most pastures are planted to large, clean, exotic grass fields of fescue, Bermuda or Bahia, providing quality grazing but poor quail habitat. Higher stocking levels better utilize forage resources but do not produce the beneficial, diverse plant communities that resulted from the earlier grazing practices.
Though other factors cloud the bobwhite quail picture, changing land use practices and patterns have reduced bobwhite habitat quantity and quality, and unless active management is pursued at both the micro- and macro-habitat levels, we may never see the abundant bobwhite populations of yesteryear.
While the decline in bobwhite populations is discouraging, the bright side of the picture is that bobwhites are a prolific species and can respond rapidly to appropriate habitat management practices. Bobwhite quail populations can be restored, and this has been demonstrated on numerous individual properties. However, it is important to recognize that the magnitude of response is related to the scale and intensity of management. A little management will produce a small response and an intensive, aggressive habitat management approach can elicit a very favorable population response.