- Climate Change Impact (Audubon) | +1.5°C - 5% Range Lost | +3.0°C - 11% Range Lost
The complicated story of the once plentiful Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) and its decline on the American landscape
As one of several species of North American quail, the bobwhite quail has been studied extensively throughout the decades. This highly sought-after game bird of your grandparent’s generation, however, isn’t nearly as common or dependable as it once was. Also known as the Northern bobwhite, the bobwhite quail is struggling to hold on. The rich Southern tradition of bobwhite quail hunting is struggling to hold on, too. Here’s what we know about this amazing little game bird and what we still need to learn.
Description and life history of the bobwhite quail
The bobwhite quail is a small bird with a relatively round body, short tail, rounded wings, and small head. Their wings and chest feathers are mostly cream and brown-colored. However, males have striking patches of black, white, and brown on their heads. Females on the other hand have brown and yellow-cinnamon colored patches. Even if you lack firsthand experience, you’re probably familiar with their whistling call. It’s that unmistakable “bob-WHITE” cadence you’ve heard in movies.
Quail form groups called coveys throughout much of the year. These coveys split up in late spring as the breeding season starts (Quail Forever 2018a). Bobwhite quail are very prolific breeders. Females can have up to three broods per season with the earliest starting in April or May. If they’re farther south, the breeding starts earlier—if they’re more northern, it could happen later.
On average, females lay 12 to 14 eggs (though this figure can range up to 28 eggs) in a ground nest tucked under a woven grass cover (NatureServe 2018; Quail Forever 2018a). Incubation lasts about 23 days. In many cases, males may incubate the eggs and raise the brood while the female finds a different male to start another (National Audubon Society 2018; NatureServe 2018). Chicks can feed themselves very soon after hatching and are capable of short flights at about two weeks of age. But it takes about a year after hatching for both sexes to become capable of breeding.
Coveys of quail tend to feed most heavily in the early morning hours and the late afternoon period. They scratch through the leaf litter on the ground and forage on seeds, green plant matter (legumes, forbs, grasses, etc), fruits, buds, waste grain, and insects. Like the greater prairie chicken and many other upland game birds, chicks consume mostly insects due to their high protein content (NatureServe 2018). Insects could make up more than 80% of their diet.
Bobwhite quail are low on the food chain and rarely live to be older than one year, though some wild birds make it to 5 or 6 years of age (NatureServe 2018; Quail Forever 2018a). Natural predators of eggs and adult birds alike include the raccoon, opossum, striped skunk, red fox, and coyote. The list doesn’t end there. Raptors, snakes, domestic cats, and dogs will also readily prey on them (NatureServe 2018). Human hunting pressure can add to this natural predation, but it’s unknown how much of an effect it has on the population level.
Range and habitat of the bobwhite quail
The bobwhite quail used to occupy a much larger range. These days, it primarily occurs in the southeastern United States—from Texas up to Nebraska, over to Ohio and the East Coast. The species can also be found in eastern and southern Mexico. Many consider Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, and Iowa to be modern bobwhite strongholds. Though that may be the case historically, the quail population in these states can fluctuate wildly. It all depends on habitat conditions. Droughts, for example, can reduce the habitat and food available in a given area, complicating survival for adults. Extensive storms or late cold snaps during the period after the chicks have hatched can wipe out broods across a large region.
The bobwhite quail is somewhat dependent on grassland ecosystems, but not just any grasslands will do. Native warm season grasses (big and little bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, etc) from prairie ecosystems are clumps that form with space in between them for the quail to move around. Invasive cool season grasses (reed canary grass, fescue, etc) grow much too thickly for quail to walk through. Yet bobwhites will utilize crop fields, hay fields, pastures, shrub lands, early successional forests, and open canopy forests with diverse under stories as long as the structure allows them to move through it (NatureServe 2018).
Conservation issues for the bobwhite quail
The current bobwhite population has been in a steady decline for decades, but there is still a large population across the United States. The primary threat to the species—and the likely reason for their decline—is habitat loss (NatureServe 2018). We’ve lost the vast majority of our historic prairies. They’ve either been converted to agricultural crop fields or business and housing developments. As native grasslands disappeared, three things happened. First, habitat for quail and many other wildlife species decreased. Second, we suppressed most wild fires and prescribed fires. These fires once played a crucial role in letting woody species and invasive cool season grasses invade. Finally, we isolated populations of quail which made reproduction harder and compromised genetic diversity.
This was not just a grassland habitat problem. Many southeastern forests were logged and converted to plantation forests, forests that lack diversity. In fact as far as wildlife is concerned, they’re often biological deserts. Some have proposed that pen-reared quail should be released into the wild for hunting purposes. Unfortunately, these quail often have inferior genetics that threaten native birds (NatureServe 2018). In northern regions, bobwhite populations are kept in check by cold weather and deep snow. These frigid conditions can freeze the birds or block their foraging opportunities (NatureServe 2018). The bobwhite quail in its current state requires good native habitat, well-timed rains that stimulate said habitat to grow well, and connected corridors to roam and find one another.
Hunting opportunities for the bobwhite quail
Despite population declines, the estimated United States population of bobwhite quail hovers around 4.8 million birds (All About Birds 2018). As such, they are still considered a game bird across much of their historic range including public lands. Some of the best modern states for hunting quail include Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, and Iowa. Here are some tips if you get out for a quail hunt of your own.
Like the ruffed grouse, start by hunting habitat edges which attract bobwhite quail as well. Focus on areas with dense young regrowth or native warm season grasses (CRP fields) adjacent to crop fields. If you only have a few hours to hunt, focus your efforts in these areas in the early morning or the last hour of the day when birds transition from feeding to roosting in the grass, or vice versa. If you do flush a bird, stay sharp. Coveys of up to twenty birds is fairly common in the fall—you’ll probably flush a couple more. As with pheasant hunting, focus your late season hunting efforts along shelter belts and conifer plantings, which offer thermal cover for upland birds (Quail Forever 2018b).
Like any game bird there is a preferred combination of shot size and chokes to hunt bobwhite. #7.5 shot along with gauges ranging from the 12 gauge to the .410. And although over and under and side by sides tend to be popular in some parts of the country and shotgun will do just fine.
Though bobwhites are not quite as plentiful as they once were, there are still opportunities to get out and experience them. Many agencies, organizations, and private landowners are working together to improve quail habitat across its range and make sure that the next generation gets an opportunity to flush a covey or two.
All About Birds. 2018. Northern Bobwhite. Accessed at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Bobwhite/lifehistory
NatureServe. 2018. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life. Accessed at http://explorer.natureserve.org
National Audubon Society. 2018. Guide to North American Birds. Accessed at: http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/northern-bobwhite
Quail Forever. 2018a. Quail Facts. Accessed at: https://quailforever.org/Habitat/Why-Habitat/Quail-Facts.aspx
Quail Forever. 2018b. Getting Started. Accessed at: https://quailforever.org/Hunt/Quail-Hunting/Getting-Started.aspx
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.