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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Bobwhite quail prefer farmland mixed with brushy cover, grasslands and wooded pastures. © Herbert Lange

June 2006

Silent whistle

Never plentiful in Wisconsin, bobwhite quail prevail despite harsh conditions.

David L. Sperling

Bobwhite quail prefer farmland mixed with brushy cover, grasslands and wooded pastures.

© Herbert Lange

The two-stroke whistle of the bobwhite quail was a sound I expected to bump into in my salad days traipsing Richland, Iowa, Grant and Sauk counties while chasing trout. I'd been introduced to quail in the college lecture hall. I thought their whistle sounded a bit like my tubular bicycle pump getting a workout. In the field, I never heard it, perhaps because we fished the winter season until the March closure, then took a two-month break until late May.

Bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) set up their whistling territories starting in late April into May along brushy fencelines and the shrubby borders where woods meet grasslands and pastures. The males utter a distinctive whistle with a clipped upbeat on the second note to get the female quail's attention, then males posture and puff up to look as beefy and hunky as an eight- to nine-inch, seven-ounce bird can get. They also fan their tails a bit, bow their heads and offer to share a few bits of grain in a pre-mating ceremony called "tidbitting."

The quail pair stays together through the breeding season, scraping out a shallow softball-sized nest, lining it with grasses and leaves and concealing it with a dome of longer grasses. The birds are splendidly camouflaged for life in a hedgerow mixed with grasses, pasture and vines. The males have reddish brown feathers stippled with white and black ending in a gray tail. Their dapper white chin and eye stripe are offset by a black stripe under their eye that sweeps towards the back of their head and curves into black chin feathers. The females are similarly mottled, but lack the black collar. Their eye stripes are more buff than white. If these birds feel threatened and freeze all motion, they blend right into the background.

Females lay an egg a day until a clutch of 10-15 small white eggs fills the nest. Both male and female incubate the brood for about 23 days and the chicks grow rapidly into strong fliers within a few weeks. The young stay with their parents through early fall forming a covey of 12-15 birds before winter with family members, stray males and unpaired birds living nearby. Most quail spend their whole lives in a quarter-mile to half-mile territory venturing the minimum distance needed to find food.

The covey provides both warmth and protection. In winter, birds huddle in a tight circle facing outward to watch for predators. Covey life provides early warning of predators who can come from underground, land and air. Skunks, raccoon, possums, mink and weasels eat quail eggs and prey on chicks. Fox, cats, hawks and owls hunt down adult birds. Some quail are mown down by haying and an estimated 60 percent of the population in Wisconsin perishes in severe winter weather.

They find safety in numbers hiding out in brushy fencelines, wooded edges, thickets of berries and hazel tangles adjoining pastures and cropland. Quail feed in the early morning and late afternoon on a mixture of weed seeds, grain and insects. This time of year they will add legumes, wild grape, hoppers, crickets and beetles to their diet. In winter, they eat a lot of weed seeds from the "sneezemakers" – ragweed, smartweed and foxtail as well as gleaning waste grain and picking through animal manure for undigested seeds.

Studies show that these small birds have never been plentiful here and are at the very northern edge of their range in southern Wisconsin. A total population of fewer than 40,000 birds range mainly in southwestern Wisconsin counties that border the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. Quail populations here have steadily declined since the late 1940s. They are so dependent on hedgerow and thicket habitat that the combined losses of brushy areas, fewer grasslands, decreasing numbers of small farms, grazed woodlots, browsing deer and invasive plant species all squeeze birds from shrinking habitat. Mild winters and efforts to restore grassland habitats and buffers might help a bit.

Natural resource managers have surveyed quail populations since the summer of 1949, driving roadside transects through the 15 counties across the bobwhite's primary range. Annual surveys gave way to biennial counts in 1991. The surveys take place between June 15th and July 5th each year starting at sunrise on days with less than 40 percent clouds and light winds of less than 5 mph. On each route, surveyors make 20 stops approximately a mile apart recording the number of whistling male quail heard in a two-minute period. Last year 25 routes were surveyed and the number of whistling males decreased 30 percent from 0.1 in 2003 to 0.07 in 2005, well below the long-term average of 0.57. Given that the winter of 2004-5 was mild and precipitation was normal, one would have predicted stronger numbers.

Surely some bobwhite quail will remain in Wisconsin, but their future remains in flux as the combined effects of weather, predation and changing land use squeeze the habitat of these whistling bevies.

David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.