Northern Bobwhite | Life Histories of North American Birds | A.C. Bent
Feather Pic Arthur Cleveland Bent

Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds
A chapter from the electronic book: Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

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Northern Bobwhite
Colinus virginianus [Eastern Bobwhite]

[Published in 1932: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 162: 9 - 32]

In the springtime and early in the summer bobwhite deserves his name, which he loudly proclaims in no uncertain terms and in a decidedly cheering tone from some favorite perch on a fence post or the low branch of some small tree. But at other seasons I prefer to call him a quail, the name most familiar to northern sportsmen, or a partridge, as he is even more appropriately called in the South. But European sportsmen would say that neither of these names is strictly accurate, so we may as well call him bobwhite, which is at least distinctive. By whatever name we call him, he is one of our most popular and best beloved birds. From a wide distribution in the East, he has followed the plow westward with the clearing of the forests and the cultivation of the fertile lands of the Middle West; and more recently he has been successfully introduced into many far-western states.

Bobwhite is one of the farmer's best friends; his economic status is wholly beneficial; he is not known to be injurious to any of our crops, as what grain he eats is mostly waste grain, picked up in the stubble fields after the crops are harvested. It seems to me, however, that too much stress has been laid on his services as a destroyer of weed seeds. Nature has provided so lavishly in the distribution of weed seeds that only a very small fraction of them can find room to germinate, and the seeds picked up by birds, which never glean thoroughly, only leave room for others to grow. I doubt if even a square foot of ground has ever been kept clear of weeds by birds. The hoe and the cultivator will will always have to be used. But bobwhite has a fine score to his credit as a destroyer of grasshoppers, locusts, potato beetles, plant lice, and other injurious insects. ***

One does not have to go far afield to find the haunts of bobwhites, for they shun the deep forest areas, seldom resort to the woods except to escape from danger, and are rarely found on the wide open prairies. They seem to love the society of human beings and their cultivated fields. During spring and summer they are particularly domestic and sociable, when it is no uncommon occurrence to hear their loud, ringing calls almost under our windows, to see one perched on a fence post near the house or on the low branch of an apple tree in the orchard, or to find them running along the driveway or a garden path. They are very tame and confiding at that season and seem to know that they are safe. At other seasons they resort to more open country and seek more seclusion. In New England they prefer the vicinity of farms, where they find suitable feeding grounds in old weed patches and stubble fields where crops of buckwheat, millet, rye, wheat, oats, and other grains have been harvested. But near at hand they must have suitable cover, thick swampy tangles or brier patches in which to roost at night, or dense thickets or wood lots in which to seek refuge when pursued. In the South, according to M. P. Skinner, they "like weedy corners of cornfields next to a tangle of blackberry briars, cane, cat briars, and brush, into which they can retreat at a moment's notice. They also like cotton fields, especially if a corner be grown up to broom sedge and low brush." The cultivated fields of the South are usually well overgrown with weeds in the fall, where the partridges find both food and shelter in the old fields of cowpeas, ground nuts, and other crops, overgrown with crabgrass, foxtail grass, Japan clover, plume, and wild grasses.

Courtship.--It is not until spring is well advanced that the coveys, which have kept together all winter, begin to break up and scatter. Then it is that the young cock, which has now acquired full maturity and vigor, begins to feel the urge of love and, separating from his companions, sets about the important business of securing a mate. Dressed in his springtime attire, his bosom swelling with pride, he selects his perch, a fence post, the low branch of a tree, or some convenient stump, from which to send out his love call to his expected bride. Bob-white! Ah, bob-white bob-bob-white! It rings out, loud and clear, repeated at frequent intervals, while he listens for a response, perhaps for half an hour or more in vain. At length he may hear the coveted sound, the sweet, soft call of the demure little hen. With crest erected and eyes aglow, he flies to meet her and display his charms, fluttering and strutting about her and coaxing her with all the pomp and pride of a turkey gobbler. But she is shy and coy, and does not yield at first. Perhaps she runs away, and then ensues a lively game of chase. Aretas A. Saunders tells in his notes of such a chase that he saw under favorable circumstances. The hen kept about 5 feet ahead of the cock, running rapidly, faster than he had seen this species move at any other time, back and forth, in and out, around some clumps of grass. Though he watched for 15 minutes, the cock did not seem to gain an inch. Doubtless he did eventually.

But bobwhite's road to happiness is not always so smooth. As his clarion call of defiance rings out across the fields an answering call, bob-bob-white, reaches his jealous ears, the voice of an unknown rival. Back and forth the challenges are exchanged, as the brave little warrior advances to meet his foe. Louder, sharper, and angrier are their cries, as they dodge about, bursting with rage and eager for the fray, seeking a vantage point for the attack. At last they clinch in furious combat, like small game cocks, savagely biting and tearing with sharp little beaks, scratching with claws, and buffeting with strong little wings. The fighting is fast and furious for a time until one gives up exhausted and slinks away. Finally the brave little conqueror enjoys the spoils of victory, the acceptance of his suit by the modest little hen, who now knows that she has picked a winner.

Herbert L. Stoddard (1931), in his excellent and exhaustive monograph on the bobwhite, published by the committee on the Cooperative Quail Investigation, has added to our knowledge a vast fund of information on the habits of this valuable species, its enemies, diseases, and means for preserving and increasing it, based on a five years' study in cooperation with the Biological Survey. Anyone interested in this subject should study this voluminous report, as our space will permit only brief extracts from it.

As to the breaking up of the coveys in the spring, which "are usually composed of the remnants of several hatchings," he says that "many of the birds are not closely, if at all, related." At this season, "cocks, which had been peaceable companions previously, became pugnacious," and frequent fights occurred. In the enclosures the fights were harmless, as a rule, but in the wild "an occasional combat no doubt proves fatal, for two dead cock quail that had been picked up afield were brought to us with the flesh bitten to the bone at the junction of head and neck."

Referring to the courtship display, he writes:

This display is a frontal one. The head is lowered and frequently turned sideways to show the snowy white head markings to the best advantage, the wings are extended until the primary tips touch the ground, while the elbows are elevated over the back and thrown forward, forming a vertical feathered wall. The bird, otherwise puffed out to the utmost in addition to the spread, forward-thrust wings and lowered, side-turned head, now walks or advances in short rushes toward the hen, and follows her at good speed in full display in case she turns and runs.

Some evidence was obtained to indicate that some mated pairs remain mated during winter and for at least two breeding seasons. As to the devotion of mated pairs, he says:

Two weeks to a month may elapse, depending on the weather, between the time of pairing and the beginning of nesting. During this period the pairs appear inseparable, the hen usually taking the lead in foraging expeditions, with the cock a devoted follower. He is very attentive at this time, as indeed he is all during the breeding season, unless he takes up incubation duties, when he appears to lose interest in the opposite sex. It is amusing to see him catch a grasshopper or other large insect after a lively chase. He puffs himself up and, holding the insect out in a stiff, wooden manner, starts a soft, rapidly repeated cu-cu-cu-cu to attract his mate, who rushes to him and eats the dismembered insect. This common habit may be frequently observed all during the breeding season, the hen usually being the one to get the insects caught by the cock, even when the pair are rearing a brood.

Nesting.--The bobwhite's nest is a very simple affair, but artfully concealed and seldom found, except by accident, as the bird is a very close sitter and usually does not leave the nest until almost trodden upon. The favorite nesting sites seem to be along old fence rows, where the grass grows long and thick or is mixed with tangles of vines or briers, in neglected brushy corners of old fields, under discarded piles of brush, or in the tangled underbrush that, mixed with grass, grows on the edges of woods, thickets, or swamps. The nest is often placed in open fields of tall grass, where the hay cutter sometimes destroys it, in cultivated fields of grain or alfalfa, or at the base of a tree in the farmer's orchard, if the grass is long enough to conceal it. A nest is often found in an unexpected place. Once, at my cottage on Cape Cod, I worked for two days weeding my garden within 3 feet of a boundary fence and was surprised the next day, on cutting the grass along the fence, to uncover a quail's nest, with 15 eggs, from which the bird had never stirred. I was told one day that there was a quail's nest under a brush pile at our golf club and went up to photograph it. I found a pile of pine boughs that had been cast aside just off the edge of an elevated putting green. I walked around it carefully several times trying to see the bird, but I never found it until I lifted the right bough and flushed her. I saw her several times afterwards and believe she raised her brood successfully.

George Finlay Simmons (1915) tells of a nest found by him in Texas "under the edge of a bale of hay in an old shed on the prairie," which he discovered by flushing the bird.

Charles R. Stockard (1905) writes from Mississippi:

In fields of sedge grass or oats many pairs will often nest very close together. June, 1895, I found in a thirty acre field of sedge grass sixteen nests of the Bobwhite, all containing large sets, ranging from twelve to twenty-two eggs, and the total number of eggs in this field must have been about three hundred.

Out of 602 nests studied by Stoddard (1931) and his associates, 97 were in woodland, 336 in broom-sedge fields, 88 in fallow fields, and "about 4 percent in cultivated fields, but occasionally under trash cast aside by plows or cultivators." In the few cases where nest construction was under observation the work was done entirely by the male under the supervision of his mate.

The construction of a typical nest is very simple. Having selected a suitable spot, where the vegetation is thick enough to afford effective concealment, a hollow is scooped out and lined with dead grass or other convenient material; after that the dead and growing grass or other vegetation is woven into an arch over the nest, often completely concealing it, and leaving only a small opening on the side, just large enough for the bird to enter or leave the nest; while incubating, the bird looks out through this opening; if there are any vines or briers growing about the nest, these are also woven into the arch to make it firmer and more impenetrable. F. W. Rapp describes in his notes a more elaborate nest, resembling a marsh wren's nest in construction and shape and very firmly built; it was located in a fence row and was made of oak leaves and June grass, neatly woven together into a ball, flattened on the bottom, with a hole on one side. Often the simplest nest is made by entering a thick clump of grass and flattening down a hollow in the center, without disturbing the grass tops at all.

Major Bendire (1892) quotes Judge John N. Clark as having seen a male bobwhite building a nest, as follows:

In May, 1887, while on a hill back of my house one morning, I heard a Quail whistle, but the note, which was continually repeated, had a smothered sound. Tracking the notes to their source, I found a male Bob White building a nest in a little patch of dewberry vines. He was busy carrying in the grasses and weaving a roof, as well as whistling at his work. The dome was very expertly fashioned, and fitted into its place without changing the surroundings, so that I believe I would never have observed it, had he kept quiet.

He also speaks of a nest, found in Louisiana, which "was entirely constructed of pine needles, arched over, and the entrance probably a foot or more from the nest proper."

Eggs.--The bobwhite ordinarily lays from 12 to 20 eggs, 14 to 16 being perhaps the commonest numbers; as few as 7 or 8 and as many as 30, 32, and even 37 eggs have been found in a nest; but these large numbers are probably the product of more than one female and are deposited in layers. The eggs are mainly subpyriform in shape, sometimes quite pointed or again more rounded. The shell is smooth, with very little gloss, and decidedly hard and tough. The color is dull white or creamy white, rarely "light buff" or "pale ochraceous-buff." They are never spotted, but are usually more or less nest stained. The measurements of 55 eggs in the United States National Museum average 30 by 24 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 32.5 by 24, 31 by 26, and 26 by 22.5 millimeters.

Bobwhites occasionally lay their eggs in other birds' nests. H. J. Giddings (1897) reports the finding of a quail's egg in a towhee's nest; and the editor in a footnote refers to one laying in a domestic turkey's nest. E. B. Payne (1897) adds that he "found in a meadowlark's nest five of the meadowlark's eggs and four of the quail's." Mr. Rapp mentions in his notes a quail's nest shown to him that contained 12 eggs of the quail and 2 of the domestic hen. Herbert L. Stoddard has a photograph of a bantam's egg in a quail's nest.

Young.--It is generally supposed that at least two broods of young are raised in a season, perhaps three in the southern part of the quail's range, as very early and very late broods are of common occurrence. But, as the quail has many enemies and many nests are broken up or deserted, it may be that the late broods are merely belated attempts to raise a family; in which case, perhaps one brood in the North and two in the South is more nearly the average.

Most authorities agree that the period of incubation is about 23 or 24 days. Both sexes share this duty. In the study of 276 nests by Mr. Stoddard (1931), in southern Georgia and northern Florida, so far as could be ascertained 73 were entirely in charge of the cock and 175 in charge of the hen. If any fatal accident befalls the hen, as too often happens, then the cock assumes full charge of the eggs and afterwards takes care of the young. It is said, too, that after the young are two or three weeks old the mother hands the brood over to the care of their father and starts to lay a second set of eggs; but I doubt if this has been definitely proved.

Young quail leave the nest almost as soon as they are hatched, and the eggshells are generally left in the nest, although occasionally a chick is seen running away with part of the shell on its back. They are carefully tended by their devoted parents, who use every known artifice to distract an enemy. Dr. T. M. Brewer (Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway, 1905) relates the following to illustrate an extreme case of parental boldness:

Once as I was rapidly descending a path on the side of a hill, among a low growth of scrub-oak I came suddenly upon a covey of young Quail, feeding on blueberries, and directly in the path. They did not see me until I was close upon them, when the old bird, a fine old male, flew directly towards me and tumbled at my feet as if in a dying condition, giving at the same time a shrill whistle, expressive of intense alarm. I stopped and put my hand upon his extended wings, and could easily have caught him. The young birds, at the cry of the parent, flew in all directions; and their devoted father soon followed them, and began calling to them in a low cluck, like the cry of the Brown Thrasher. The young at this time were hardly more than a week old, and seemed to fly perfectly well to a short distance.

Their ability to fly at such an early age is due to the fact that their wings begin to sprout almost as soon as they are hatched; I have seen young chicks not more than 2 inches long with wings reaching to their tails; they are very active and vigorous and grow very rapidly. They are experts at hiding; a warning note from the watchful parent, who previously has kept the brood together by frequent gentle twitterings, sends them to cover instantly; instinctively they dart under some fallen leaf, beneath a tuft of grass, into some thick vegetation or little hollow, where they remain motionless until told by their parent that danger has passed. Edwyn Sandys (1904) has described this so well that I quote the following:

If those who may stumble upon a brood of quail will take a sportsman-naturalist's advice, they will promptly back away for a few yards, sit down, and remain silently watchful. No search should be attempted, for the searcher is more likely to trample the life out of the youngsters than to catch one. But if he hide in patience, he may see the old hen return, mark her cautiously stealing to the spot, and hear her low musical twitter which tells that the peril has passed. Then from the scant tuft here, from the drooping leaf yonder, apparently from the bare ground over which his eyes have roved a dozen times, will arise active balls of pretty down until the spot appears to swarm with them. And the devoted mother will whisper soft greetings to each, and in some mysterious manner will make the correct count, and then with nervous care shepherd them forward to where there is safer cover. And they will troop after her in perfect confidence, to resume their bug-hunting and botanical researches as though nothing important had transpired.

Young quail are busy foragers, and they grow rapidly. Within a few days after leaving the nest they are capable of flight of several yards. A brood flushed by a dog will buzz up like so many overgrown grasshoppers, fly a short distance, then dive into cover in a comical imitation of the tactics of their seniors. As insect catchers they are unrivalled, their keen eyes and tireless little legs being a most efficient equipment even for a sustained chase. The parents scratch for them and call them to some dainty after the manner of bantam fowls, and the shrewd chicks speedily grasp the idea and set to work for themselves. A tiny quail scratching in a dusty spot is a most amusing sight. The wee legs twinkle through the various movements at a rate which the eye can scarcely follow, and the sturdy feet kick the dust for inches around. When a prey is uncovered it is pounced upon with amazing speed and accuracy, while a flying insect may call forth an electric leap and a clean catch a foot or more above the ground. As the season advances, grain, seeds of various weeds, berries, wild grapes, and mast are added to the menu, in which insects still remain prominent. After the wheat has been cut the broad stubbles become favorite resorts, especially when they are crowded with ragweed. Patches of standing corn now furnish attractive shelter and the suitable dusting places so necessary to gallinaceous birds.

Plumages.--Only in the smallest chicks can the pure natal down be seen. In a typical chick the forehead and sides of the head are from "ochraceous-tawny" to "ochraceous-buff," with a stripe of brownish black from the eye to the nape; a broad band from the hind neck to the crown, terminating in a point above the forehead, is "chestnut," deepening to "bay" on the edges; there is a similar broad band of the same colors from the upper back to the rump; the rest of the upper parts is mottled with "chestnut," dusky, and buff; the chin and lower parts are pale buff or buffy white. In some specimens from the South the back and rump are almost wholly "chestnut," mixed with some black.

The juvenal plumage begins to appear on the wings and scapulars at a very early age, even before the chick has increased perceptibly in size; I have seen chicks 2 or 3 inches long that had wings extending beyond the tail and that would soon be able to fly. In plumage the sexes are alike, except that, according to Dr. Jonathan Dwight (1900), "the males are apt to be richer colored than are females, with grayer tails, whiter chins, blacker throat bands, and often a slight dusky barring on the breast." The first feathers to appear on the back and scapulars are black on the inner web, broadly tipped with white, and mottled with brown ("russet" to "tawny") and dusky on the outer web, with white shaft stripes broadening at the tip; as these feathers grow out longer the black appears only as a large subterminal spot. In full juvenal plumage the crown is centrally dusky, laterally gray ("hair brown" to "drab"), mottled or variegated with black; the throat is white in the male and buffy white in the female; the breast and flanks are "drab" to "light drab," with whitish shaft streaks; the belly is paler or white; the tail is gray, mottled with white; and the primaries are mottled with pale buff on the edges.

Even before the juvenal plumage is fully acquired the postjuvenal molt into the first winter plumage begins. This molt is complete except for the outer pair of primaries on each wing, which are retained all through the first year; and it takes place at any time from late in summer until November, depending on the time at which the young were hatched. The first winter plumage is scarcely distinguishable from that of the adult, and the sexes are widely differentiated; but the colors above are duller with paler edgings, and the underparts are more buffy and somewhat less barred. Young birds can be distinguished from adults all through the first winter and spring by the outer pair of primaries, the first and second, on each wing, which are still juvenal (pointed).

The first prenuptial molt, as well as all subsequent prenuptial molts, amounts to the renewal of only a few feathers about the head and throat. The first postnuptial molt, the following summer and fall, chiefly in September, is complete and produces the adult winter plumage. Adults then continue to have similar molts each year, a very limited head molt in spring and a complete postnuptial molt from August to October. The slight seasonal difference between spring and fall plumages is mainly due to wear and fading.

Among the thousands of quail shot and the large series preserved in collections, some odd types of plumage are to be found, such as males with black or buff throats, very dark or melanistic types, others in which the browns are replaced with buff or the buffs with white, producing a pallid type; partial albinos are occasionally seen and very rarely one that is wholly pure white. Erythrism is reported and illustrated by Stoddard (1931).

Food.--Quail are very regular in their feeding habits. Every sportsman knows this and takes advantage of it, for he knows when and where to look for them. They do not leave their roosting place very early in the morning, as they prefer to wait until the rising sun has, at least partially, dried the dew off the grass; in winter or late fall, when every blade of grass, twig, or spray of vegetation is white with hoarfrost, and when the feeble rays of the sun are late in rising, they are slow to venture out. But usually by an hour after sunrise they are afoot toward some convenient weed patch, stubble field, berry patch, or cultivated field. Here they feed for an hour or two, filling their crops, and then retire to some sheltered spot for a midday siesta, digesting their food, dusting or preening their plumage, or merely basking in the sun or dozing. About two hours before sunset they return to their feeding grounds again for another feast before going to roost at dusk.

The food of the bobwhite has been exhaustively studied, and a mass of material has been published on it. Space will not permit any detailed account of it here; I can give only a general idea of it. The most complete account of it that I have seen is given by Sylvester D. Judd (1905) of the Biological Survey, to which the reader is referred. He says that the bobwhite is "one of our most nearly omnivorous species. In addition to seeds, fruit, leaves, buds, tubers, and insects, it has been known to eat spiders, myriapods, crustaceans, mollusks, and even batrachians." In analysis of 918 stomachs, collected during every month in the year, in 21 states and in Canada, the food for the year as a whole consisted of vegetable matter, 83.59 percent, and animal matter, 16.41 percent, mixed with some sand and gravel. Out of the vegetable food, grain constituted 17.38 percent, seed 52.83 percent and fruit 9.57 percent; the grain was probably mostly waste kernels, and the seeds were mainly weed seeds; not a single kernel of sprouting grain was found in any of the crops or stomachs; and there is no evidence that quail ever do any damage to standing crops. The fruits eaten were practically all wild fruits. The animal matter was distributed among beetles, 6.92 percent; grasshoppers, 3.71 percent; bugs, 2.77 percent; caterpillars, 0.95 percent; and other things, 2.06 percent. From October to March the food is almost entirely vegetable matter, but late in spring and in summer it is made up largely of insects, August showing 44.1 percent of insect food. The insects eaten are mostly injurious species, many of which are avoided by other insectivorous birds, such as "the potato beetle, twelve-spotted cucumber beetle, striped cucumber beetle, squash lady-bird beetle, various cutworms, the tobacco worm, army worm, cotton worm, cotton bollworm, the clover weevil, cotton boll weevil, imbricated snout beetle, May beetle, click beetle, the red-legged grasshopper, Rocky Mountain locust, and chinch bug."

Since the above was written, the author has seen Stoddard's (1931) much more elaborate account of the food and feeding habits of quail in the southeastern states, contributed by C. O. Handley. Doctor Judd's report covered a wider territory, and the stomachs were obtained for each month of the year, but most of them were taken late in the fall and in winter, and there were no stomachs of young birds examined. Mr. Handley's report is based on the examination of the food of 1,625 adult and 42 young bobwhites; it covers 53 pages and is far too voluminous and too elaborate for me even to attempt to quote from it. It should be carefully studied. A condensed table gives the monthly and yearly percentages of the various items in the food. The total yearly averages show 85.59 percent of vegetable and 14.41 percent of animal food. The principal items in the vegetable food are: fruits, 19.41; legumes, 15.17; mast, 13.42; grass seeds, 10.65; and miscellaneous seeds, 10.24 percent; and in the animal food: Orthoptera, 7.43; Coleoptera, 2.98; Hemiptera, 1.96; and other insects, 1.06 percent. ***

E. L. Moseley (1928) gives a striking illustration of the value of bobwhites as destroyers of potato beetles in Ohio, where these birds have increased enormously under 10 years of rigid protection. He says:

For several years past potatoes have been raised successfully on many farms in Ohio without spraying for beetles, or taking any measures to combat the insects. In fact many patches have been practically free from the "bugs." Bobwhites have been observed to spend much of the time among the potato vines. They have been seen to follow a row, picking off the potato beetles. When the potato patch was located near woodland there was no trouble with the beetles; but when the patch was near the highway or buildings, even on the same farm, the insects were troublesome. On farms where the Bobwhite found nesting sites and protection, the potato vines, if not too near the buildings, were kept free from the insects. A patch of potatoes surrounded by open fields, without bushes, tall weeds, or crops that might shelter the Bobwhite was likely to be infested with beetles. A farmer living eight miles south of Defiance raised about fifty Bobwhites on his place. During the two years that these birds were there he had no trouble with insects on either potatoes or cabbage. The following autumn a number of the birds were killed by hunters, while others were frightened away. The next summer the potato beetles were back in numbers. The farmer is again raising Bobwhites and protecting them from hunters.

Mrs. Margaret M. Nice (1910) found that a captive bobwhite ate 568 mosquitoes in two hours, another 5,000 plant lice in a day, and another 1,000 grasshoppers and 532 other insects in a day; also that it ate from 600 to 30,000 weed seeds each day, according to the size of the seeds and the bird's capacity. I cannot give here a complete list of the food of the bobwhite, as given by Doctor Judd (1905), but a few of the most important seeds are those of various grasses, rushes, sedges, sorrel, smartweed, bindweed, chickweed, lupine, clover, vetches, spurges, maples, ashes, oaks, pines, violets, morning-glory, ragweed, sunflower, beggar ticks, and foxtail and witch grass. Among the fruits are wax myrtle, barberry, bayberry, mulberry, thimble berries, blackberries, wild strawberries, rose hips, wild apples, cherries, poison ivy, sumacs, holly, black alder, bittersweet, frost grapes, blueberries, huckleberries, elderberries, viburnums, honeysuckle, partridge berry, and woodbine. Wherever the foregoing plants are cultivated or allowed to grow in profusion, bobwhites will find abundant food all through the year and will be encouraged to remain, with profit to the farmer and joy to the sportsman.

The more important items of insect food have been mentioned above. From 35 to 46 percent of the summer food of adults consists of insects, but the young chicks eat a much larger proportion of this food. Small beetles of various kinds, weevils, small grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants, stink bugs, spiders, and thousand legs have been identified in the food of small chicks.

Behavior.--When a flock of quail suddenly bursts into the air from almost underfoot the effect is startling and gives the impression of great strength and speed. They have been referred to as feathered bombshells. Such sudden flights of a whole bevy in unison are due to the fact that they have crouched, trusting to their wonderful powers of concealment, until the very last moment, when they are forced to make a quick get-away. From their crouching attitude they are in position to make a strong spring into the air, giving them a good start, which their short but powerful wings continue in a burst of speed. Such bombshell flights are the rule when the birds are feeding in close formation, or when suddenly disturbed in their roosting circles. At other times their flight is much less startling but often quite as swift. I have often seen a single quail, or a pair or two, rise and fly away as softly and as silently as any other bird, when not alarmed. Their flight is not long protracted and generally ends by scaling down on set wings into the nearest cover. In settling, a flock usually scatters, to be joined together later by the gather call. Often single birds and sometimes a whole flock will alight in a tree, if alarmed. When leaving the tree their flight is silent and usually scaling downward. That they are not capable of long flights is shown by the fact that they become very much exhausted in flying across wide rivers and have even been known to drop into the water in attempting such flights.

Stoddard (1931) made a number of tests to determine the speed of bobwhites in flight. "These showed a speed for mature birds ranging from 28 to 38 miles and hour. It seems fair to estimate that the sportsman's hurtling mark sometimes exceeds 40 miles an hour, and birds just ahead of 'blue darters' are believed to go even faster for short distances."

Quail do much of their traveling on foot, and they are great travelers. They cover considerable ground in a day's routine, and a bevy may be found in any one of several feeding places. In some sections they are said to make seasonal migrations from one type of country to another, the journeys being made largely on foot. It is no uncommon occurrence to see a pair in spring, or a flock in fall, running along or across a country road. They make a very smart and trim appearance, with bodies held erect and heads held high, as they run swiftly along on their strong little legs. If too hard pressed they rise, flit gently over a fence or wall, and disappear. One cannot help admiring their graceful carriage and their efficiency as runners. I believe they prefer to escape from their enemies by running, until too hard pressed; a bird dog will often trail a running bevy for a long distance.

Their characteristic method of roosting in a close circle, with bodies closely packed and heads facing out, is well known. For this they select some sheltered spot under an evergreen tree or thick bush, or in some dense tangle of briers or underbrush. Sometimes they select a small island in a river or a pond for a roosting place. If not disturbed they will occupy the same spot for many nights in succession, as evidenced by an increasing circle of droppings. Miss Althea R. Sherman told me that she had seen young quail, on the day they were hatched, assume the circular arrangement of a roosting covey, heads outward and tails in the center of the circle. An interesting account of how this circle is formed is given by Dr. Lynds Jones (1903) based on an observation by Robert J. Sim under especially favorable circumstances:

First one stepped around over the spot selected, then another joined him, the two standing pressed close together, forming the first arc of the circle. Another and another joined themselves to this nucleus, always with heads pointing out, tails touching, until the circle was complete. But two were left out! One stepped up to the group, made an opening, then crowded himself in, with much ruffling of feathers. One remained outside, with no room anywhere to get in. He, too, ran up to the circle of heads, then round and round, trying here and there in vain; it was a sold mass. Nothing daunted, he nimbly jumped upon the line of backs pressed into a nearly smooth surface, felt here and there for a yielding spot, began wedging himself between two brothers, slipped lower and lower, and finally became one of the bristling heads. In this defensive body against frost and living enemy we may leave them.

But quail do not always roost on the ground. Mr. Sandys (1904) says that

it is no uncommon thing to find them regularly roosting in such places as a mass of wild grape vines attached to a fence or a tree, in some thick, bushy tree, in an apple tree near the poultry, sometimes in the fowl-house, barn, or stable, on the lower rails of a weedy fence, on top of logs, and occasionally on the bare rails of a fence.

The ability of quail to hide and escape detection under the most scanty protection is truly remarkable. One is often surprised to see a bird or a whole covey arise from a spot that seems to offer no chance for concealment. Their ability to withhold their scent under such circumstances will be referred to later. Mr. Forbush (1927) relates some interesting observations on a bobwhite that spent a winter in his yard and became quite tame. He escaped the notice of a wandering dog by squatting on bare ground. A slow, quiet settling of his whole body was followed by the widening of the shoulders and an indrawing of the head, and, shaking out his feathers, he squatted on the snowy ground "as flat as a pancake." The white markings of the throat and head were cunningly concealed, the top the head projecting enough beyond the general outline to allow him a comprehensive view of his surroundings. Once he effaced himself from sight in a little hollow at the foot of a tree, where he was invisible even through a glass at 40 feet away, until he "grew" out of the ground and walked away. Again he faded from view in a cleft in a stump less than 3 inches deep. Where there are dry leaves or grass concealment is easy.

Voice.--The most characteristic and best-known note of the bobwhite is the spring call, or challenge note, of the male from which its name is derived. It is heard all through the breeding season in summer. It is subject to considerable individual variation and has been variously interpreted as bob-white, more-wet, no-more-wet, peas-most-ripe, buck-wheat-ripe, wha-whoi, sow-more-wheat, and others. This call is subject to considerable variation; the number of the preliminary bobs varies from one or two or rarely three; sometimes these first syllables are entirely omitted and we hear only the loud white, which again may be shortened to whit. Aretas A. Saunders, who has made a study of the voice of the bobwhite, has sent me some elaborate notes on it. He says that the pitch in this call, counting all his records, varies from G" to F"', one tone less than an octave. One 3-note call covered this whole range, but the 2-note calls generally begin on A", most commonly have the white note begin a tone higher, and slur up a single tone or a minor third. Sometimes the second note gives more accent and time to the first part of the slur, and sometimes the lower note of the slur is on the same pitch as the first note. The least range of pitch is shown in a 2-note call beginning on C, starting the slur on C#, and ending on D. What he calls the slur comes, of course, in the last, or white, note.

The bobwhite note is almost invariably given while the bird is standing on some favorite perch, but R. Bruce Horsfall writes to me that while visiting in Virginia, on August 2, he saw a male bobwhite fly across an old orchard, with few remaining trees but much uncut grass, uttering this note in flight, fully a dozen calls in rapid succession, ceasing only with the termination of the flight.

Although many writers refer to the "bobwhite" note as the call of the cock bird to his sitting mate, Stoddard (1931) says:

We respectfully express our belief, based upon all the data we have been able to obtain personally, that the "bobwhite" call note is largely the call of the unmated cocks; ardent fellows eager to mate, but doomed to a summer of loneliness, from lack of physical prowess or an insufficient number of hens to go around.

The sweetest and loveliest call, entirely different from the foregoing or the following, is the 4-syllable whistle of the female, used to answer the male in spring and to call the young later in the season. My father, who was an expert whistler as well as a keen sportsman, could imitate this note to perfection. He often amused himself, when bobwhites were whistling in spring, by concealing himself in some thick bush and answering the bobwhite call of the male with this enticing note. It was amusing to see the effect on the cock bird, as he came nearer at each repetition of the answer to his call, looking in vain for his expected mate, and sometimes coming within 20 feet before detecting the deception. Once two cocks came to look for the anticipated hen; then a lively fight ensued, all on account of an imaginary bride. This call consists of four notes, the first and third short, soft, and on a low key, and the second and fourth longer, louder, richer, and on a much higher key. I have seen it written je-hoi-a-chin, or whoooeee-che, but to me it sounds more like a-loie-a-hee. It is a beautiful, soft, rich note, with a decided emphasis on the second syllable, of a liquid quality with no harsh sounds.

The third whistling note is the well-known gather call, so often heard during the fall when the flock has become scattered and the birds are trying to get together again, particularly toward night when they are gathering to go to roost. It has also been called the scatter call. It is a loud, emphatic whistle of two parts, slurred together, with an emphasis on the first. It has a human quality and to my mind is much like the whistle that I use to call my dog. It sounds to me like quoi-hee. To Mr. Sandys (1904)

it sounds very like 'ka-loi-hee, ka-loi-hee,' especially when the old hen is doing the calling. There are many variations of it, too, 'whoil-kee' representing a common one. It is an open question if the cock utters this call, although some accomplished sportsmen have claimed that he does. The writer has been a close observer of quail and would think nothing of calling young birds almost to his feet, yet he has never been able to trace this call to the old male; that is, as a rallying call to the brood. He is well aware that young males use it in replying to the mother, but he has yet to see a male of more than one season utter it.

Mr. Saunders has three records of this call, which he describes in his notes as a "repeated, slurred whistle, with usually an l-like sound between the notes, so it sounds like coolee." His records show ranges in pitch from A# to C"', or from Bb to D#.

In addition to these three very distinct and striking calls, there is often heard a subdued, conversational chatter while the birds are running and feeding. Doctor Judd (1904) heard, as a part of the courtship performance, "a series of queer responsive 'caterwaulings,' more unbirdlike than those of the yellow-breasted chat, suggesting now the call of a cat to its kittens, now the scolding of a caged gray squirrel, now the alarm notes of a mother grouse, blended with the strident cry of the guinea hen. As a finale sometimes came a loud rasping noise, not unlike the effort of a broken-voiced whip-poor-will."

Sandys (1904) says:

A winged bird running, or an uninjured one running from under brush, preparatory to taking wing, frequently voices a musical 'tick-tick-tick-a-voy.' A bird closely chased by a hawk emits a sharp cackling, expressive of extreme terror. Quite frequently a bevy just before taking wing passes round a low, purring note--presumably a warning to spring all together. When the hen is calling to scattered young, she sometimes varies the cry to an abrupt 'Ko-lang,' after which she remains silent for some time. This the writer believes to be a hint to the young to cease calling--that the danger still threatens, and is prompted by her catching a glimpse of dog or man. A bevy travelling afoot keeps up what may be termed a twittering conversation, and there is a low alarm note, like a whispered imitation of the cry of a hen when a hawk appears.

Stoddard (1931) describes the above-mentioned notes more elaborately, with slightly different interpretations. He also describes several others. The crowing or caterwauling note, a rasping call that varies considerably, is uttered habitually by the cocks at all seasons. He mentions several variations of the scatter call, used to bring together scattered birds or as a morning awakening call, and says:

One of the most interesting features of the "scatter" call and its variations is that it evolves by imperceptible degrees from the shrill, piping "lost call" of the baby chicks. This starts out with the newly hatched chicks as an anxious piping 'hu-hu-hu-hu-whe-whe-whe-whee-whee' with raising inflection like 'do-re-mi' of the musical scale.

Of the decoy ruse call, he writes:

One of the strangest calls of bobwhites, and a very important one from the standpoint of their preservation, is the fine cheeping 'p-s-i-e-u, p-s-i-e-u, p-s-i-e-u' call, uttered by adults and their baby chicks in unison as the brood is stumbled upon by man or beast. This note, proceeding alike from both the frantic parents as they beat about in the dust trying to lure the enemy away, and by the fleeing chicks as they scatter and hide, proves most confusing to the senses, and is a real quail "sleight of hand" that is apt to leave the confused disturber in such a frame of mind that he questions whether he saw fleeing chicks, or whether it was all just a trick of the eye. Deciding it was the latter, most enemies pursue the seemingly wounded parents, which sail away on perfect wing after the enemy has been decoyed from the vicinity of the brood. Thousands of chicks must be saved yearly by this cleverly executed ruse, in which parents and chicks display perfect teamwork, even before the latter are a day old.

The alarm note is started "as soon as the chicks have scattered and hidden or the parents have failed to decoy an intruder away. It consists of a monotonous t-o-i-l--ick, ick, ick, ick; t-o-i-l--ick, ick, ick, t-o-i-l-i-c, t-o-i-l-i-c, t-u-e-l-i-c-k; or t-o-i-l-i-c, ip, ip, ip, tic, tic, tic, t-u-e-l-i-c, t-u-e-l-i-c, ick, ip, etc., uttered with machinelike regularity for a time, or as long as danger appears to be imminent."

He also mentions a distress call, a "piteous whistled c-i-e-u, c-i-e-u, uttered loudly and as rapidly as the mouth can open and close," given as old or young birds are captured; also a "cheeping" or cackling call of the developing chick, referred to as the "flicker call." Then there is the "battle cry," of the unmated cocks, a harsh, screaming note, uttered in flight; the food call, "a soft, clucking cu, cu, cu, cu, and a variety of soft conversational notes."

Fall.--When fall comes the bobwhite becomes a quail. Its habits change entirely, as it forsakes the haunts of man and becomes a wild bird. It is no longer a sociable and trusting friend of human beings, so it resorts to the fields and woods, where it can find shelter in the brushy tangles. It travels now in coveys made up of family parties or in larger flocks of more than one family.

Quail are not supposed to be migratory, in the usual sense of the word, and in many sections, New England, for instance, I believe that they are practically sedentary throughout the year. In some sections, however, they seem to perform short migrations to better feeding grounds, or perhaps to escape adverse winter conditions. Audubon (1840) writes:

This species performs occasional migrations from the north-west to the south-east, usually in the beginning of October, and somewhat in the manner of the Wild Turkey. For a few weeks in this season, the north-western shores of the Ohio are covered with flocks of Partridges. They ramble through the woods along the margin of the stream, and generally fly across towards evening. Like the Turkeys, many of the weaker Partridges often fall into the water, while thus attempting to cross, and generally perish; for although they swim surprisingly, they have not muscular power sufficient to keep up a protracted struggle, although, when they have fallen within a few yards of the shore, they easily escape being drowned. As soon as the Partridges have crossed the principal streams in their way, they disperse in flocks over the country, and return to their ordinary mode of life.

This habit is also mentioned by Amos W. Butler (1898), who says that in Indiana they desert the uplands in fall and congregate in large numbers in the Ohio River bottoms; many attempt to cross the river into Kentucky; some perish in the attempt and others reach the farther shore in an exhausted condition. H. D. Minot (1877) says:

In Delaware and Maryland, however, coveys of Quail often appear, who are distinctively called by the sportsmen there "runners." On the western side of the Chesapeake, an old sportsman assured me that covey after covey passed through the country, where food and shelter were abundant, crossing the peninsula on foot, but often perishing by the wholesale in attempting to pass the wider inlets, and he added in proof of this that he had taken as many as forty at a time from the middle of the river near his house.

But everywhere quail become very restless in fall and are much given to erratic wandering from no apparent cause. They are less crazy in this respect than ruffed grouse; I have never known them to fly against buildings and be killed; but I have frequently seen them in my yard and garden in the center of the city. Mr. Butler (1898) says that "they are found in trees and among the shrubbery in gardens, in outbuildings, and among lumber piles. I have seen them in the cellar window-boxes and over the transoms of the front doors of the houses." These wanderings may be due to a latent migratory instinct.

Game.--Everything taken into consideration, the quail, partridge, or bobwhite is undoubtedly the most universally popular of all North American game birds, in spite of the fact that many sportsmen consider the ruffed grouse the prince of game birds. The sophisticated grouse may be the more difficult bird to bag, but the quail, with its southern subspecies, has a much wider distribution, nearer to the haunts of man, is generally more numerous and more prolific, lies better to the dog, flies swiftly enough to make good marksmanship necessary, and is an equally delicious morsel for the table.

One who has never tried it can hardly appreciate the joy and the thrills of a day in the field, with a congenial companion and a brace of well-trained bird dogs, in pursuit of this wonderful game bird. The keen, sparkling October air and the vigorous exercise stimulate both body and mind. The tired business man breathes more freely as he starts out from the old farmhouse across the fields for his holiday with the birds. On a frosty morning, when the grass and herbage are sparkling white with hoarfrost, it is well not to start too early, as quail are not early risers and do not like to get their feet and plumage wet. But when the sun is well up it is time to look for them, for they may be traveling along some brushy old fence toward their favorite buckwheat stubble, one of the best places to find them. When you reach the field where the birds are expected to be found, the most interesting part of the sport begins; the intelligent dogs have learned to quarter the ground thoroughly and hunt in every likely spot where bird sense leads them; excitement becomes intense, as they show by their careful movements that they have scented game; and, finally, the sudden stop and the rigid pose, with nose pointed toward the birds, brings the climax, as the sportsmen step up and the covey bursts into the air with a whir of wings. A good shot may bag two or even three birds on the first rise; I have seen men that boasted of stopping as many as five with an automatic repeater, but I have never seen one do it; and I have seen many clean misses. The rest of the covey have flown straight to the nearest cover, perhaps scattered in several directions, some into a patch of scrub oaks on a hillside, some into the tangled underbrush in a swampy hollow, and others into the nearest woodlot. The men should mark them down, but had better leave them for a while until they begin to run about and leave a little scent; otherwise they will be very hard to find. Picking up these scattered singles is hard enough at best; it requires good work on the part of the dogs and gives the hunter many difficult shots in unexpected places. The man that can put two quail in his pocket for every four shells fired is a good shot.

Perhaps the birds have not been found in the buckwheat stubble. Each covey has several feeding places and it is necessary to cover considerable ground, hunting the wheat, rye, oat, and corn stubbles, especially if overgrown with ragweed or other weeds, as well as any other old neglected fields and weed patches where the birds can find food and shelter. Sometimes the dogs will show signs of game in a likely spot but fail to find the birds; quail often make short flights from one field to another, thus breaking the scent. Sometimes a flushed covey will be marked down very carefully in a fairly open field and be immediately followed up; but a careful search by experienced men and good dogs will fail to reveal the presence of a single bird. This has caused much controversy as to the power of quail to withhold their scent. The explanation probably is that the rapid passage through the air dissipates most of the scent from the plumage; the birds, being frightened, crouch low on the ground with feathers closely pressed against the body, shutting in body odors; and as they have not run any there is no foot scent. It has often happened that, in a later search over the same ground, after the birds have begun to run about, they have been readily found. There has been no willful or even conscious withholding of scent.

For about four hours during the middle of the day, quail retire from their feeding grounds to their noonday rest. The hunters may as well do likewise, until the birds come out to feed again about two hours before sunset. The hours of waning daylight often furnish some of the best and most interesting shooting; the scattered covey is anxious to get together before roosting time; and the hunters get the final thrills of the day as they hear the sweet, gentle gather call, quoi-hee, quoi-hee, from a distant patch of scrub oaks, an answering call from the brier patch in the swale, and another from the edge of the nearby woods. They are content to call it a day and leave the gentle birds to settle down for the night.

Enemies.--Quail have numerous enemies, furred, feathered, and scaled, but fortunately they are such persistent and prolific breeders that they can stand the strain from natural enemies if man will give them half a chance.

Stray cats, or domestic cats run wild, are doubtless the most destructive enemies of quail. They catch and devour enormous numbers of both young and old birds, as they hunt them day and night. Mr. Forbush (1927) gives some striking illustrations of this and speaks of one big cat that is said to have killed more than 200 bobwhites. Dogs that are allowed to run loose and hunt independently kill a great many old and young birds. *** Domestic cats and dogs should be restrained during the nesting season.

In Jamaica the mongoose is said to have virtually exterminated the introduced quail. Foxes, minks, and weasels kill some birds, but they probably find rabbits easier to catch and more to their liking. Raccoons, opossums, skunks, and rats destroy a great many eggs.

Among bird enemies the crow is one of the worst. Crows are very clever in hunting up nests and destroy a great many eggs; they have even been known to kill the adult birds in winter. *** Cooper's hawk is probably the worst of the hawks. The goshawk and the sharp-shinned hawk are almost as bad. Red-tailed hawks have been known to kill quail, but they are too slow to catch very many, and they are useful as rodent destroyers. Great horned and other owls must be reckoned with, but the former is very fond of skunks, and all the owls keep the destructive rodents in check. Quail have learned that brier patches and thick tangles offer good protection against their enemies in the air.

Any of the larger snakes will eat the eggs and probably destroy a great many, but here again we must give them credit for living largely on the rodent enemies of the bobwhite. Major Bendire (1892) speaks of a large rattlesnake, killed in Texas, that had swallowed five adult quail at one meal, and another that had taken four bobwhites and a scaled quail.

In his chapter on mortality, Stoddard (1931) states that of 602 nests studied about "36 percent were more or less successful and about 64 percent unsuccessful." The failures were due to nest desertion, destruction by natural enemies, destruction by the elements, rains, floods, or droughts, and disturbance by human beings, by farm work, or by poultry and cattle. Among the destroyers of eggs he mentions, in addition to the enemies named above, blue jays, turkeys, and red ants; the ants enter the egg as soon as the membrane is punctured by the emerging chick, which is literally eaten alive; out of 278 nests studied by Louis Campbell in 1928, 34 were taken over by ants.

After hatching, young quail are preyed upon by most of the more active enemies named above, to which must be added turkeys, guinea fowl, pheasants, and shrikes. The chief winged enemies of the older young and adults are Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks, and in the North the goshawk. The Buteos are mainly, or wholly, beneficial. Mr. Stoddard (1931) exempts the sparrow hawk from blame and says: "In several instances individuals took up quarters temporarily on the fence posts of propagating enclosures and made forays against the large grasshoppers on the ground beneath, without harming the quail chicks in the least." In favor of the marsh hawk, he writes:

In view of the fact that not more than 4 quail were discovered in approximately 1,100 pellets, marsh hawks can hardly be accused of making any serious inroads on the number of quail in the region. On the other hand, one or more cotton rats were found in 925 of these pellets. Since cotton rats destroy the eggs of quail, the marsh hawk is probably the best benefactor the quail has in the area, for it is actively engaged in reducing the numbers of these rodents. Remains of at least 14 snakes, most of which were colubrines, were discovered. These also are probably eaters of quail eggs.

Diseases.--The chapters on parasites and diseases, in Stoddard's (1931) report, were contributed by Dr. Eloise B. Cram, Myrna F. Jones, and Ena A. Allen, of the Bureau of Animal Industry. They are well worth careful study, but are too long (110 pages) and too technical for any adequate presentation here. Suffice it to say that bobwhites are attacked by many of the same parasites and suffer from many of the same diseases as ruffed grouse. Among the Protozoa the most important are those which cause malaria, coccidosis, and blackhead. Nematodes, or roundworms, were found "in a high percentage of the birds examined"; 16 species were identified, and their life histories explained. In the intestines five species of tapeworms were found and similarly described. As external parasites, lice, ticks, mites, and fleas are mentioned. Among the nonparasitic diseases the following are fully described: foot disease, bird pox, dry gangrene, chicken pox, "nutritional roup," aspergillosis, "quail disease," and tularemia. This brief summary and other references to Stoddard's (1931) work give a very inadequate idea of the wealth of material that this exhaustive report contains; it must be read to be appreciated; some of the interesting chapters cannot even be summarized here.

Winter.--In the southern portions of their range, where quail enjoy open winters, their habits and haunts are about the same as during fall; but in the northern regions of ice and snow they have a hard struggle for existence and many perish from hunger and cold in severe winters. Quail have been known to dive into soft snowdrifts for protection from severe cold; Sandys (1904) says he has caught them in such situations. More often, at the approach of a snowstorm, they huddle together in some sheltered spot and let the snow cover them. This gives them good protection from wind and cold; but if the snow turns to rain, followed by a severe freeze the birds are imprisoned and often perish from hunger before they can escape. Birds seldom freeze to death, if they can get plenty of food, but cold combined with hunger they cannot stand. Mr. Forbush (1927) tells an interesting story of a man who had been feeding a covey of quail; for 10 days after a heavy snowstorm, followed by a thaw and freeze, they failed to come to their usual feeding place; believing them to be imprisoned under the snow he went to the place where they were accustomed to sleep and broke the crust; the next day they came to feed and a search showed that they had found the place where he had broken the crust for them.

Quail often find more or less open situations where they get some shelter, under logs or fallen trees, under thick evergreens, in tangles of briers, in brush piles, or under banks with southern exposure; in such places they find bare ground and can pick up some food, as well as the gravel or grit that they need. They avoid open places and do not like to travel on snow, where they are so conspicuous; but they have to go out to forage for food, such as the seeds of weeds, projecting above the snow, rose hips, dried berries, seeds of sumac, bayberries, and other plants. When hard pressed they often visit the barnyard to feed with the poultry. Farmers, sportsmen, boy scouts, and many other persons make a practice of feeding quail regularly in winter. They should have a shelter, made of brush, evergreen boughs, or corn stalks, open at both ends so that the birds can escape at either end. The ground under this should be kept bare and well supplied with almost any kind of grain and plenty of grit. Quail will come regularly to such places and the lives of many will be saved.

Northern Bobwhite* Colinus virginianus [Eastern Bobwhite]

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1932. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 162: 9 - 32. United States Government Printing Office