The Northern Bobwhite Quail does exactly that. Its most distinguishing call is a clear, bold “bob white” with the “white” rising in pitch toward the call’s end. Sometimes, they stutter a bit, starting off with a more quiet note and then getting louder: “bob-Bob-WHITE!”
This call is one of the most easily identifiable bird sounds in our area. While “bob white” is mostly whistled by unmated males during the summer breeding season, both males and females will make the call to locate each other at any time of year.
Male Bobwhite Quail are called “bobs” or “cocks” and females are call “hens.” Both genders often will fly up to a tree branch or some other elevated position when making their trademark calls. Skilled human whistlers mimicking the call will sometimes see a Bobwhite flying toward them as they search for a companion.
While “Bob-WHITE!” is the most famous call, it is a small part of the Bobwhite Quail’s vocabulary. Scientists have documented a grand total of 20 different sounds that these birds use to communicate with each other.
We know a whole lot about Northern Bobwhite Quail. Because they also are a favorite native American game bird, these quail are among the most studied of any North American bird.
Their scientific name is Colinus virginianus. These birds are pocket-sized members of the Galliformes order, which includes most of the world’s upland game birds and dinner table poultry favorites, from turkey, pheasant, grouse and partridge to chickens – both wild, like North America’s Greater Prairie-Chicken, and domestic chickens, which are the same species as the wild Red Junglefowl from Asia.
Bobwhite are the only native quail in the Eastern United States, and they range west to Colorado. Northern Bobwhites also are endemic residents in southern Canada, most of Mexico, Cuba and some other Caribbean islands. There are five other species of quail native to North America: California Quail, Mountain Quail, Gambel’s Quail, Scaled Quail and Mearn’s Quail.
All quail are prey species for most predators, and individuals rarely live longer than one year, though Bobwhites have been known to reach the age of 6.
Northern Bobwhite Quail have a number of different looks, depending on where they live – there are 21 subspecies of this bird – and there is lots of coloring and feather pattern variety among local birds, as well. In the Lake Martin area, both bobs and hens have similar body coloring, an attractive pattern of small black and white markings on a background of brown (on their backs) or white (on their bellies) that makes an amazingly effective camouflage. Bobs have black heads with white throat patches and white mask stripes around their heads that touch both eyes and their bills. Hens have similar patterns with less contrast, usually brown feathers on their heads with buff or off-white throat patches and masks.
These birds are about 10 inches long, with a wingspan of roughly 14 inches. They are round birds, not elongated, and they have pale legs and feet and a short, downward-curved dark brown or black bill.
Northern Bobwhite Quail are very social birds. They live in groups (called coveys) of three to 20 or more birds. During the day, coveys walk the ground together, feeding, and when they rest, they “covey up” in a circle, facing out with their tails together. If you ever walk too close to a covey, you will have one of the most thrilling – or startling – experiences that occurs in our southern forests and fields. The birds will freeze when they hear you coming, and if you get too close, they will explode into flight right under your feet and escape in multiple directions. It’s a truly breathtaking experience – maybe even heart-stopping: the sudden sound of wing beats and the sight of a dozen or more buzz bombs zipping low to the ground at close proximity.
The exciting rise of a covey is one of the reasons that quail are often called America’s favorite game bird. Upland hunters use pointing birddogs to locate coveys; then, “walk them up” until a covey flushes.
Like most prey animals, Northern Bobwhite Quail are shy and like to stay out of sight.
These birds spend most of their time on the ground, foraging for seeds and leaves, with some insects – like flies, bees, beetles and spiders – rounding out the diet. They are most active in the early morning and late afternoon. Bobwhite prefer fields or open pine forests and are often found in new growth areas where the ground has been disturbed – such as agricultural fields – or recently burned or logged pine forests. Over most of their range, they do not need to have ponds or creeks nearby because they can get the water they need from dew.
Northern Bobwhite usually have only one brood a year, but they can have as many as three.
Their mating ritual begins when the bobs puff up their feathers, spreading their wings and tails and approaching hens they would like to court.
Both bobs and hens work together to scratch out a saucer-sized nest on the ground, usually in vegetation but near a field. The nest is a couple of inches deep and about half a foot wide, lined with grasses and soft vegetation, and sometimes an arching roof of grasses provides cover above the nest. Scientists have reported that bobs will sit on eggs in about a quarter of all Bobwhite quail nests, giving his partner a break. They have also reported that once a nest is built, multiple hens could lay eggs in the same nest. There have even been reports of a bob sitting on eggs in a nest while his mate lays another clutch of eggs in a nearby nest.
A Bobwhite hen will lay a lot of off-white eggs – 7 to 28 – but she only lays one per day. The eggs hatch after 23 days. When they first emerge, the chicks are very tiny, roughly the size of a thimble and weigh 1/6 of an ounce each. They can feed themselves and move around as soon as they break through the eggshell, and they stay very close to their parents for the first few days. Baby quail can fly at the ripe old age of one week. Fifteen weeks after hatching, the chicks reach adult size.
Over the past 50 years or so, Northern Bobwhite Quail have experienced a major decline in population, estimated at almost 85 percent. The reasons are multitude: The decline of small farms and hedgerows-bordered fields and the increased use of pesticides and herbicides that reduce food sources are two primary reasons. Other factors in declining quail numbers include the national protection of raptors that prey on them; the explosion of fire ants in much of their range; urbanization of forestlands; and wildfire suppression.
Look for these quail around Lake Martin in pine plantations that have fields nearby, especially in stands of pines that have been burned two to three years ago and are now covered in heavy brambles.
Or just listen for them to introduce themselves: “bob-Bob-WHITE!”
Some information for this article came from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, The National Audubon Society, Quail Forever and The Animal Diversity Web from the University of Michigan.