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Quail Dads Will Raise Chicks

Dear Bird Folks,

For the past fourteen years we’ve had several generations of bobwhites feeding in our yard. Year after year mom has led her babies through a hole in our fence to eat. This year it has been a little different. We still have a family of babies coming, but instead of being led by mom, the kids are led by two dads. Is it unusual for two males to be raising a family of baby birds?

– CJ, JC, Chatham, MA


You know, CJ, JC,

It’s all right to use real names. What’s with this “CJ, JC” stuff? Is it some kind of code? It looks a text message from my kids. I never know what they are trying to tell me. I get these notes that say, “Dad: BTW, LOL, $, OMG, LBJ, STP, NBC.” Even after staring at the note for five minutes, IDK what they are trying to say. The only two things I understand are “Dad” and “$,” which are all they really want me to understand.

I love that you get an annual family of bobwhites. You are one of the chosen few. There once was a time when the calls of bobwhites, along with crashing waves, crying gulls and angry car horns, made up the soundtrack of a Cape Cod summer. But in recent years the car horns have increased while, sadly, the bobwhites have decreased. It’s nice to know that your yard is still getting bobwhites, or as you probably call them, BWs.

As is the case with many relationships, the mating process of the Northern Bobwhites is complicated. At first they seem like the perfect couple. The two birds are inseparable. They sleep, eat and travel together, and are always finishing each other’s sentences. They also participate in something called “tidbitting” (yes, you read that right). Tidbitting is a behavior in which the male picks up a bit of food and offers it to his mate. Some humans interpret this simple action as kissing or as a sign of love. Gag.

The quail couple builds their nest on the ground out of soft grasses and often places dried grass over the top, like a little brown igloo. The whole process only takes a few days, but then the birds have to sit and wait for the building inspector, and we all know how long that can take. After the inspection the female lays about a dozen eggs. She purposely won’t start incubating the eggs until the last one is laid. Her goal is to have all the eggs hatch at the same time. Synchronized hatching is critical because young bobwhites are nidifugous (and you thought tidbitting was a stupid word). Nidifugous means the babies are up and walking around shortly after they hatch. Birds that hatch late may find that the rest of the family has moved on without them and that’s not good.

Unlike ugly, newly hatched songbirds, baby bobwhites are ridiculously cute right from the start. They are about the size of bumblebees, stingerless bumblebees. From day one, they can move about on their own and are able to feed themselves. However, there is one thing they aren’t able to do; they can’t regulate their own body temperature. The little quail need to be brooded regularly by their parents, especially at night or during bad weather. Both parents take turns brooding the chicks. (Now, here’s where things get tricky.) Occasionally, one of the adults may decide that this particular family is not for him/her and will abandon one family to start another. As I said, bobwhite relationships are complicated.

It’s not uncommon to see a bobwhite family led by both a male and a female. But it’s also possible to see a family led by a single male, or a single female. Single parenting may be the result of divorce, but it could also be due to predation. Just about everything eats quail. Because of the very real possibility of losing a parent, baby bobwhites have evolved to survive with just one. But, wait. You said you saw a family led by “two males.” Oh, brother. Only in Massachusetts.

I don’t know the exact reason why your quail family has two dads, but I have a couple of guesses. The first one is simple. Two different families, led by two different males, have combined to become one big super family, just like the Brady Bunch. This other suggestion may be the more probable. Through out the summer we hear quail saying, “bob-white.” These calling birds are usually unattached males hoping against hope to find an available female. Sometimes they get lucky, but often they spend the summer as bachelors. When they finally give up looking for love, these loser birds turn their attention to finding a flock to hook up with for the winter. Often the flock they attach themselves to is a family group, consisting of several young birds and a parent, or two. This may be the case with your birds. The second male is merely a hanger-on and has nothing to do with parenting the babies.

I hope this answers your question, CJ, JC. B4N, TTYL and TCATT. (If you’re cool like me, you’ll know that final part is hip text talk that means, “bye for now,” “talk to you later” and “Tippyecanoe and Tyler too.” Kids still say that last one, right?)