Northern Bobwhite

The northern bobwhite, Virginia quail or (in its home range) bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) is a ground-dwelling bird native to the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean. It is a member of the group of species known as New World quails (Odontophoridae). They were initially placed with the Old World quails in the pheasant family (Phasianidae), but are not particularly closely related. The name "bobwhite" derives from its characteristic whistling call. Despite its secretive nature, the northern bobwhite is one of the most familiar quails in eastern North America because it is frequently the only quail in its range. There are 21 subspecies of northern bobwhite, and many of the birds are hunted extensively as game birds. One subspecies, the masked bobwhite (Colinus virginianus ridgwayi), is listed as endangered with wild populations located in Sonora, Mexico, and a reintroduced population in Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona.

This is a moderately-sized quail and is the only small galliform native to eastern North America. The bobwhite can range from 24 to 28 cm (9.4 to 11.0 in) in length with a 33 to 38 cm (13 to 15 in) wingspan. As indicated by body mass, weights increase in birds found further north, as corresponds to Bergmann's rule. In Mexico, northern bobwhites weigh from 129 to 159 g (4.6 to 5.6 oz) whereas in the north they average 170 to 173 g (6.0 to 6.1 oz) and large males can attain as much as 255 g (9.0 oz). Among standard measurements, the wing chord is 9.7 to 11.7 cm (3.8 to 4.6 in), the tail is 5 to 6.8 cm (2.0 to 2.7 in) the culmen is 1.3 to 1.6 cm (0.51 to 0.63 in) and the tarsus is 2.7 to 3.3 cm (1.1 to 1.3 in). It has the typical chunky, rounded shape of a quail. The bill is short, curved and brown-black in color. This species is sexually dimorphic. Males have a white throat and brow stripe bordered by black. The overall rufous plumage has gray mottling on the wings, white scalloped stripes on the flanks, and black scallops on the whitish underparts. The tail is gray. Females are similar but are duller overall and have a buff throat and brow without the black border. Both sexes have pale legs and feet.

The northern bobwhite's diet consists of plants and small invertebrates, e.g snails, grasshoppers, and potato beetles. Plant sources include grass seeds, wild berries, partridge peas, and cultivated grains. It forages on the ground in open areas with some spots of taller vegetation.

The northern bobwhite can be found year-round in agricultural fields, grassland, open woodland areas, roadsides and wood edges. Its range covers the southeastern quadrant of the United States from the Great Lakes and southern Minnesota east to Pennsylvania and southern Massachusetts, and extending west to southern Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and all but westernmost Texas. It is absent from the southern tip of Florida and the highest elevations of the Appalachian Mountains, but occurs in eastern Mexico and in Cuba. Isolated populations have been introduced in Oregon and Washington. The northern bobwhite has also been introduced to New Zealand.

The clear whistle "bob-WHITE" or "bob-bob-WHITE" call is very recognizable. The syllables are slow and widely spaced, rising in pitch a full octave from beginning to end. Other calls include lisps, peeps, and more rapidly whistled warning calls.

Like most game birds, the northern bobwhite is shy and elusive. When threatened, it will crouch and freeze, relying on camouflage to stay undetected, but will flush into low flight if closely disturbed. It is generally solitary or paired early in the year, but family groups are common in the late summer and winter roosts may have two dozen or more birds in a single covey.

The species is generally monogamous, but there is some evidence of polygamy. Both parents incubate a brood for 23 to 24 days, and the precocial young leave the nest shortly after hatching. Both parents lead the young birds to food and care for them for 14 to 16 days until their first flight. A pair may raise one or two broods annually, with 12 to 16 eggs per clutch.

Northern bobwhite were introduced into Italy in 1927, and are reported in the plains and hills in the northwest of the country. Other reports from the EU are in France, Spain, and Yugoslavia. As bobwhites are highly productive and popular aviary subjects, it is reasonable to expect other introductions have been made in other parts of the EU, especially in the UK and Ireland, where game-bird breeding, liberation, and naturalisation are almost national-pastimes.

From 1898 to 1902, some 1300 birds were imported from America and released in many parts of the North and South Islands, from Northland to Southland. The bird was briefly on the Nelson game shooting licence, but: "It would seem that the committee was a little too eager in placing these Quail on the licence, or the shooters of the day were over-zealous and greedy in their bag limits, for the Virginian Quail, like the Mountain Quail were soon thing of the past." The Taranaki (Acclimatisation) Society released a few in 1900 and was confidant that in a year or two they might offer good sport; two years later, broods were reported and the species was said to be steadily increasing; but after another two years they seemed to have disappeared and that was the end of them. The Otago (Acclimatisation) Society imported more in 1948, but these releases did no good. After 1923, no more genuinely wild birds were sighted until 1952, when a small population was found North-West of Wairoa in the Ruapapa Road area. Since then bobwhite have been found at several localities around Waikaremoana, in farmland, open bush and along roadsides.

More birds have been imported into New Zealand by private individuals since the 1990s and a healthy captive population is now held by backyard aviculturalists and have been found to be easily cared for, bred, and are popular for their song and good-looks. A larger proportion of the national captive population belong to a few game preserves and game bird breeders. Though the birds would be self-sustaining in the wild if they were protected; it is tricky to guess what the effect of an annual population subsidy and hunting has on any of the original populations from the Acclimatisation Society releases. It would be fair to suggest most birds in the wild are no more than one generation from captive stock.

An albino hen was present in a covey in Bayview, Hawkes Bay for a couple of seasons sometime around 2000.