Deer in Spring Landscape

Northern bobwhite quail
(Colinus virginianus)


Description & Range:

The northern bobwhite quail is a small rotund, ground dwelling bird. Adults grow to about 10 inches long with 15-inch wingspan. This quail has a mottled brown, buff, white, black and gray body with a short, dark tail. Males have a white throat with a white brow stripe. Females (aka hens) and immature quail have buff-colored throats and eye bands.

The northern bobwhite quail range is concentrated in the central and eastern portion of the United States. Northern bobwhite quail can also be found in Washington, Oregon and parts of eastern Mexico. In Maryland, bobwhite quail can be found throughout the state, but the largest populations can be found in southern Maryland as well as on the Eastern Shore.

Male bobwhite quail by Matt Tillett

Habitat:

The bobwhite quail can usually be found year round in brushy pastures, hedgerows, and grasslands and woodlands with sufficient cover and food. Quail are usually not far from thick vegetation such as low shrubs and brambles that they use to escape from predators. They utilize grasses and weeds for nesting and raising young. Often, the right combination of these habitat types are found in weedy fencerows, woodland edges, roadsides and at the edge of agricultural fields.

Diet:

While the northern bobwhite quail's diet contains a variety of vegetation, seeds, and insects, the majority of their diet consists of seeds from annual plants. Common grain crops such as corn, sorghum, wheat and soybeans are often highly sought after in addition to various legumes like lespedezas and partridge peas. The quail’s diet also varies by season and age.

Reproduction:

In the spring, males and females will leave their groups (also known as coveys) to pair off, court and mate. The male and the female choose a nest site on the ground in dense brush, and both help build a shallow depression lined with grass and leaves. They often weave other materials into an arch over the nest, resulting in a well-hidden entrance.

After the nest is constructed, the female generally will lay one egg a day. The average clutch size is 12-15 eggs. The female is mostly responsible for egg incubation, though occasionally the male will also assist. The eggs incubate for 23–24 days, and the young leave the nest shortly after hatching. Both parents will lead the young birds to food and will care for them for 14–16 days until their first flight. These birds can raise 1-2 broods annually. Predation and inclement weather (such as drought or heavy rains) can result in nest desertion. It is estimated that only 25% of all quail nesting attempts are successful. Generally, the female will renest through September.

Male with chicks, by N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission

Behavior:

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.

In the fall, when seeds become abundant, bobwhite quail will gather in to groups called coveys. These groups generally consist of 10 to 16 birds. Often, during snow and cold weather, the birds will roost in thick cover such as dense shrubs and brambles. The covey will remain together until early spring. By this time of the year, as many as 80% of the fall population will have died over the winter.

Sounds:

The male’s call consists of a clear, whistled “bob-white” or “poor, bob-white.” In addition, bobwhites also make a variety of clucks.

Management:

Since the mid-1940s, the number of quail has significantly declined across most of their range mainly due to habitat loss. Various types of habitat are required to support quail. They need nesting and brood-rearing cover, escape cover, winter cover, and food sources. If you are a landowner or a land manager and would like to increase quail habitat on your property, then check out the Upland Game Habitat Recommendations page as well as the Mowing and Upland Wildlife page. In addition, the University of Maryland Extension Service has a great Quail Management Guide.

Assistance is available to help landowners restore habitat for this declining species. For more information contact Bob Long, Upland Game Bird Project Manager (blong@dnr.state.md.us, 410-221-8838, ext. 106).

Northern bobwhite quail are managed as small game in Maryland. To learn more about small game management as well as seasons and bag limits, then visit the Small Game page in the Maryland Hunting and Trapping Guide.

Did You Know?

The northern bobwhite quail is often broken into 4 distinct groups - 2 of which can be found in the United States. The northern group found in eastern North America is made up of 5 similar subspecies that have variable color patterns and width of barring on their undersides. The second group is known as the “masked bobwhite” and can be found in southern Arizona and Sonora.