Have you ever wondered how old that quail was your dog retrieved for you?
I’m going to bet it was probably a juvenile bird because most quail don’t live more than 14 months. In fact, a bobwhite quail that makes it to its first birthday could be considered a senior citizen.
Did you know you can determine the age of a quail by studying its primary converts and primary feathers? A juvenile quail’s wing coverts will be buff-tipped and will often be molting one or more of the primary feathers. Adult birds will not have buff-tipped primary coverts and the primary feathers will often be worn on the outside edge . Here's a picture of an adult quail. Notice the worn edges of the two outside primary feathers (hard to see) and no buff tips.
Biologists often age quail to determine when the peak of the quail hatch occurs. Biologists need to know when the peak quail hatch occurs so they can plan management practices and advise private landowners on when to hay fields or to conduct other field activities.
In Missouri, the peak of the first quail hatch occurs in late June with a second peak occurring in late July and early August. The peaks can be skewed later in the summer because of nesting failures related to weather, predators or nest abandonment.
Here are two pictures of juvenile birds from the same covey. No, I didn't get a double, but wishful thinking. Notice the buff-tips on the converts and molting primary feathers. You can determine when a juvenile quail hatched based on the length of the molting primary feathers. The top bird is about 100 days old or hatched in early September! The second bird is about 130 days old based on the three-fourths grown primary feather.
For the past two years most of Missouri has been subject to heavy rains and extensive flooding during the peak of the nesting season. There’s a good chance most of the June 2008 hatch was wiped out by the monsoon we experience last summer. Fortunately, quail will often renest a second and sometimes a third time. A good late season hatch can often save the hunting season.
During the 2008 quail season many of the quail I have harvested were young birds that hatched in mid August to early September. I’ve been hearing similar reports from other biologists and quail hunters. I'm not surprised given the wet summer we had.
The other extreme--heat and drought--is also tough on young quail. The tiny eggs and young chicks can dry out or overheat when temperatures soar into the triple digits. Quail will often seek out shrubby cover during the hottest part of the day where temperatures can be 10 to 15 degrees cooler. I guess this is one reason quail nests are often found close to some sort of woody cover.
Check out "On the Edge" or the University of Missouri Extension Service guide "Ecology of Northern Bobwhite in Missouri" to learn more about the life history of northern bobwhite.