A Quail of a Tale

By Matt Seek | November 1, 2018
From Xplor: November/December 2018

Every day is an adventure when you live at the bottom of the food chain.

Meet Bob. Bob is a northern bobwhite, aka a quail.

Like most bobwhites, Bob’s life is filled with danger. Predators — and there are many — rarely pass up a quail kabob.

In addition to being eaten, bobwhites can be killed by blizzards, hailstorms, floods, droughts, fires, food shortages, car bumpers, and mower blades. In short, quail can die in more ways than the characters in a Harry Potter book.

If Bob were human, he’d be the hero of an action movie. But he’s not. He’s a chubby, cheeseburger-sized bird who just happens to do all of his own stunts. Let’s tag along with Bob and see what life on the edge is like for this feathered thrill junkie.

In spring, Bob flies to an elevated perch and starts singing. His favorite song is his own name, a clear bob-bob-WHITE. Each wistful whistle announces to nearby females that Bob’s looking for love. If a hen shows interest, Bob drops from his perch, fans out his tail feathers, and struts around. If the two hit it off, they soon begin building a nest.

Meet Bobara

Bobara is a female bobwhite, and she has a superpower: She can lay lots and lots of eggs.

For every 10 bobwhites born in Missouri, only one will live to see its first birthday. With such high losses, there’s a big need for new quail to take the place of ones that die. That’s where Bobara comes in.

Bobara and Bob work together to build a nest. First, they find a clump of prairie grass. Then they use their feet to scrape out a shallow bowl in the dirt. They line the bowl with soft grasses and leaves. Finally, they weave together grass stalks to form a roof and walls over and around their nest. This hides it from predators and shelters it from sun, wind, and rain.

When the nest is done, Bobara begins laying eggs, about one each day. Like all bobwhite mamas, she can pack her nest with 10 to 28 eggs, though 14 is most common. If her first nest is destroyed, she’ll try again a second and even a third time. Sometimes female bobwhites lay one clutch of eggs, move out to find another mate, and then lay a second clutch. When this happens, her first mate stays behind to take care of the initial nest.

After her last egg is laid, Bobara begins sitting on her eggs to keep them warm. Three weeks later, she feels several tiny taps from beneath her tummy, and within a few hours, all of her eggs have hatched.

Bath Time!

Ah, nothing beats a good bath! While Bobara is busy incubating eggs, Bob sneaks away for a dust bath. Many birds, quail included, lie in the dirt and throw dust across their backs with their beaks and feet. Instead of making them dirtier, the dust cleans their feathers and helps remove bitey bugs.

When they hatch, Bobara’s babies are only a bit bigger than bumblebees. Nevertheless, the tiny chicks can scurry about and catch insects soon after leaving their eggs. Bob and Bobara are caring parents.

They shade their babies from the hot sun with their outstretched wings. They snuggle with their chicks to keep them warm at night or when it gets chilly. If Bobara finds a tasty bug, she points to it with her beak and gives a soft tu, tu, tu until a chick comes along to snap it up. And if a predator approaches, Bob flutters and drags his wing, pretending that it’s broken, to lure the hungry hunter away from his family.

In two weeks, the chicks can fly. In six weeks, they’re able to fend for themselves.

A quail egg is about as big as a grape — slightly over an inch long and about an inch wide.

The first egg that’s laid is about 18 days older than the last egg laid. But all of the eggs hatch within a few hours of each other. A newborn bob white weighs about as much as six small paperclips.

Although quail chicks can run right after hatching, they can’t control their body temperature until they’re 2 weeks old. Baby quail eat almost nothing but insects for the first six to eight weeks of life. After that, they begin eating more seeds and plants.

Bob spends most of his time on the ground. His streaky brown feathers help him blend in with grasses and leaves. This makes it hard for predators to spot him. But if one gets too close, Bob rockets skyward, his stubby wings buzzing like giant angry bees.

Look out!

Bob always has to watch for creeping coyotes, sneaky snakes, and swooping hawks. Other animals known to eat quail include foxes, dogs, bobcats, house cats, mink, weasels, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, owls, crows, and blue jays. In fact, just about any creature with teeth or talons will bag a bobwhite if given the chance.

But it isn’t just adult quail that fall victim to snack attacks. This striped skunk has sniffed out a quail nest. Guess what the funky skunky wants for breakfast? That’s right. Scrambled eggs.

Tastes Like Chicken

Bobwhites would rather walk than fly. When a bobwhite is forced to take to the air, its flight usually lasts only about five seconds.

A mama bobwhite may nest up to three times and produce up to 36 chicks in a single summer.

Huddle up!

In early fall, the members of Bob’s family mix together with other quail families. During this time, bobwhites gather into groups called coveys (kuhvees).

Each covey is made up of 10 to 20 quail. At night, the birds crowd together in a circle with their tails touching and their beaks pointing out. This helps them stay warm and watch out for sneaking predators. In the morning, Bob and his covey partners wake at sunrise and scurry to a nearby field for breakfast.

Winter is a lean time for Bob. Most of his diet is made up of seeds, such as corn, soybeans, sunflowers, grasses, and ragweed (ah-choo!). The colder it gets, the more seeds he must eat to fuel his feathered furnace. And the longer winter stretches, the scarcer seeds become.

But don’t worry. Bob is a survivor. He’ll make it through this winter. Next winter though, who knows? When you live life on the edge, you’re never quite sure how — or when — your tale may end.

When temperatures drop below freezing, a quail must eat at least 50 kernels of corn, 120 soybeans, or 32 ,000 grass seeds to survive for 24 hours.

Bring Back Bob!

As if things weren't dangerous enough for Bob and his fellow bobwhites, places for quail to live and raise their babies have disappeared throughout Missouri. To thrive, quail need habitats that contain a mixture of weeds, clumpy grasses, shrubby thickets, and crops fields. To learn how you and your parents can give bobwhites a boost, call your local Conservation Department office or visit short.mdc.mo.gov/Zpk.

Also In This Issue

This Issue's Staff

Bonnie Chasteen
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Angie Daly Morfeld
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White