In search of the elusive northern bobwhite
By Susan Campbell
For some of those fortunate enough to have lived near open piney woods or adjacent to large farm fields, the iconic call of a bobwhite quail was once a familiar sound. But, as with so many of our bird species, this once prolific songster has diminished across the Piedmont and Sandhills of North Carolina.
Bobwhites measure between 8 to 11 inches beak to tail and have very cryptic brown, black and white markings that make them almost impossible to see on the ground in the grassy habitats they call home. The male has a bright, white eye stripe and throat. It is he who constantly announces his territory through a repeated “bob-white” call. The female is smaller and a bit drab, with a buff eye throat and no crest. This stout bird is well equipped with a short sharp bill, strong legs and sharp claws that make it an ideal avian for foraging at ground level for insects, berries and soft vegetation.
Bobwhite males can be heard trying to attract a mate using their loud repetitive calls in the spring. The female will reply with a four-syllable whistle of her own. Following breeding, the pair creates a domed nest concealed in tall grasses, and the hen lays up to 20 pure white eggs. There is a period of approximately 25 days of incubation before the young hatch. Hens will renest if the eggs are eaten or destroyed. Upon hatching, the chicks will immediately follow their parents; learning how to hunt bugs and determine which shoots are the most nutritious. As a group they are referred to as a covey. The family will stay together through the winter and may join with other families to form coveys of 30 or more birds. When alarmed at an early age, the young will scatter and freeze to avoid predators. Once they can fly, they explode into flight in a blur of wings, startling anyone or anything who comes upon them.
Quail were a very popular game bird throughout North Carolina until not that long ago. Since the 1980s, when their numbers began to decline, they have become very challenging to find, especially in the Piedmont, except on game preserves where they are stocked. A combination of factors is believed to be responsible. Not only have open woodlands and agricultural fields with hedgerows become scarcer but ground predators such as foxes, coyotes, raccoons and free roaming domestic and feral cats have increased. Also, the timing of rainfall can significantly affect breeding productivity. Too much rain too early may inundate nests and dry conditions when chicks hatch may result in insufficient food.
These days, hunters still occasionally find coveys in the wild in the forests and fields of the Sandhills Game Land or the vast acreage of longleaf pine on Fort Bragg. It requires a well-trained bird dog and a good deal of patience. However active quail management is occurring locally. Opening up forested habitat using prescribed burning as well as removing undesirable vegetation and replacing it with quality cover plants are two of the best strategies to help boost the population. Recent efforts by biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and at Fort Bragg along with assistance from local Quail Unlimited chapters are resulting in gradual increases in northern bobwhite in limited areas. We certainly hope this trend continues so that before much longer the springtime calls of the bobwhite will once again be heard throughout the region. PS
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