A sound once common in our area is the unmistakable call of a Bobwhite quail (Calinus virginianus), a game bird whose population has suffered locally because of habitat loss. It is a small bird, averaging around 11 inches long with a wingspan of around 6 inches. They are short-tailed, reddish brown in color, and have a narrow black line on their neck. The head of the male is white on the side with a dark band along the eye, while the female is similar but the side of the face is tan.
The Bobwhite is primarily a terrestrial bird, and while good fliers, they only do so for short distances. Common places to find quail are fields and wooded edges that are not well kept and have plenty of weeds, brush, and vines to provide cover, insects, and weed seeds.
Let’s begin the lifestyle of the quail with mating, which occurs in May. There’s not a lot of ritual involved, but the cocks (male birds) do occasionally fight for females. After mating the male begins a nest by scratching out a softball sized depression in the ground, then both sexes place various leaves and grasses in the nest, and, finally, they usually pull vegetation over the nest to hide it. The hen will lay 6 to 12 small white eggs about 1 ½ inches long. Incubation of the eggs is performed by both the male and female, which usually takes 23-24 days. The young leave the nest as soon after they hatch, and are cared for by both parents. The adults will nest a second time if the first nest is destroyed.
Food for the young and adults consists of plenty of insects in summer (especially grasshoppers), followed by weed seeds during the winter and fall. Some grain crops are utilized if available.
A well-known bobwhite behavior is called communal roosting. After the young are raised, the parents and offspring form a covey, often with other unrelated males or unsuccessful mating pairs. About 16 birds is the maximum covey size, with a six to eight minimum. At night, the covey forms a tight circle, facing outward. This arrangement is thought to help the covey preserve body heat and provides vigilance for predators. The covey instinct also produces the most famous quail behavior of all—the covey rise—which is a sudden explosion of wing beats and blurred motion when the birds are disturbed. This behavior is probably aimed at startling and confusing potential predators.
Natural resource agencies are encouraging landowners to re-establish habitat for quail to get their numbers back up. The most needed habitat are bunch grasses such as broom sedge and other native warm season grasses, which provide needed cover while the birds feed on invertebrates (bugs) living in the grass.