The small but mighty quail
By Alyssa Nyberg
The prairie can seem a cold, desolate place in the middle of winter. A walk on the snow-covered ground at Kankakee Sands can be deafeningly quiet. That can all change in an instant with an the flapping of 30 wings right in front of you! A covey of quail has just erupted out from under the snow. Yes, out from under the snow. That certainly will get your blood pumping on a cold and snowy day!
With small compact bodies, short legs and short tails, northern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) are strong, but not long distance fliers. They are stuck here in winter; not fit for migration but cursed with having to tough out the harshest of conditions. They are considered a terrestrial bird, with legs well developed for walking and running. Their short, rounded wings give them the ability to make explosive takeoffs and short bursts of flight…and to scare the begeebers out of us when we happen upon a covey of them unexpectedly.
Although they are strong birds, northern bobwhite quail are quite small. From the tip of their beak to the tip of their tail they measure just 10 inches. Their bodies are covered with an intricate pattern of feathers in brown, red and black hues which excellently camouflage them during the non-snowy seasons. Males have a distinctive face with a white head and black eye-patch. Females have buffy brown feathers on the neck and eye-patch. The most recognizable trait of the quail is its call—a strong clear whistled “bob WHITE”. But just because you hear the call, don’t assume that there is a quail nearby. The call can be perfectly imitated by starlings, mockingbirds and even people.
Like domesticated chickens, quails forage mostly on the ground. They scratch for seeds and insects with sideways kicking motions. Eighty percent of their diet comes from seeds. They also eat berries, flowers, fruits, nuts and insects. Unlike chickens, the tip of their beak is serrated, allowing them to easily rip and tear vegetation.
In Indiana, nesting season for quail begins in May. The northern bobwhite quail is a ground nesting, grassland bird. Nests are made by either the male or the female. They consist of a two-inch depression in the ground, lined with the dead vegetation from the previous growing season. A canopy of overhanging grass often conceals the nest. Twelve to sixteen eggs are laid, incubated and hatch in 23 days…if they hatch. Heavy rains, fire, mowing, disking of the soil and predation all destroy nests. If the chicks do hatch, they still have a tough road ahead. Young chicks are susceptible to cold and moisture. Combined with predation and disease, 80% of the chicks will not survive to the following spring. In fact, rarely does a quail live more than fourteen months.
Over the winter, quail live in small groups called coveys. Coveys typically consist of five to fifteen birds. The advantage to living in a covey is warmth and protection. On cold and snowy nights, quail roost on the ground in a tight circle and face outward, watching for predatory animals. Lone bobwhite quail do not generate enough heat to survive a cold night and group warmth is critical to survival. Quail can survive even if their covey is snowed over. The following morning they will erupt out from under the snow, like a snow volcano filled with quail. If however, freezing rain covers the covey, they can be trapped beneath the hardened ice. Harsh winters can take a heavy toll on quail populations causing the death of 80-100% of the quail in local areas. In order to survive the winter, quail need protective cover from the ice and food sources not covered by snow.
Unlike the prairie chicken, which must have large blocks of continuous habitat for its survival, the northern bobwhite quail prefers to live at the interface of grassland, cropland and woodlands. Newton County, with the prairies of Kankakee Sands, savannas of Conrad, woodlands of Willow Slough and adjacent agricultural fields is the perfect combination for northern bobwhite quail.
Northern bobwhite quail are found all throughout the Eastern U.S. as well as in Mexico and the Caribbean. There are six species of quail in North America: California quail, Gamble’s quail, Montezuma quail, mountain quail, northern bobwhite quail and the scaled quail. Only the northern bobwhite quail is found in our Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois area.
Want a little excitement this winter? Come on out to Kankakee Sands to experience a covey of quail exploding out from under the snow. The visit will prove to you that prairie is as exciting in winter as it is the summer when it is filled with blooming flowers, calling birds and buzzing insects. No matter what time of year, Kankakee Sands is always filled with small but mighty creatures. _____________________________________________________________________
The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. For more information click here or call the office at 219-285-2184.