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Two Quail May Mean Two Families

Dear Bird Folks,

For the past several summers we’ve had a family of bobwhites come and eat under our feeder. The chicks would scratch for leftover seeds while their parents, a mother and father, stood guard. This year a family of quail is once again eating under our feeder, but there is no father. This year the babies are lead by two females. Is that unusual? Did something happen to the male?

– Diane, Harwich, MA


Come on, Diane,

Do you really need me to spell it out for you? After all, you are in Massachusetts. Around here even the birds do things differently and I can see why. In some species (I’m not saying which ones), it’s the females that do most of the talking, but in birds, it’s the males that never shut up. And male quail are the worst. I mean really, how much of that constant “bob-white, bob-white, bob-white” do you think Mrs. Quail can stand? I can totally see her dumping him and hooking up with another female, just to get some peace and quiet. At least, that’s my theory.

The bird that we call “bobwhite” is listed more properly in the bird books as the Northern Bobwhite. Our bird is called “northern” because there are several other species of bobwhites. There’s the Yucatan Bobwhite, the Spot-bellied Bobwhite and the Crested Bobwhite. However, all of the birds have one thing in common: They all say, “bob-white,” except for Mexico’s Yucatan Bobwhite, which reportedly says, “roberto-blanco,” with a thick accent.

The Northern Bobwhite is one of the most studied birds in North America. After years and years of studying them you would think we would know everything there is to know about this bird’s life cycle, but such is not the case. Every study seems to conflict with the one before it. Just when we think we have figured out how this bird operates, we come up with new and different information. The old saying that you can’t pigeonhole a bobwhite is true. (Actually, I’m not sure if that’s really an old saying, but it should be.)

It was first thought that bobwhite couples were pretty tight. They remained together as faithful partners for the entire breeding season. The female would incubate the eggs while the male stood guard, ready to defend her and the nest. Mr. and Mrs. Bobwhite appeared to be the perfect couple, but after further review the shy little quail is much more of a swinger than we ever imagined. In some cases the male birds have more than one partner during the breeding season, while in other cases it’s the females that are getting busy on the side. And it’s not always the females that do the incubating. Many males take on the incubating chores, while the females go off and do…whatever. In addition, some parents with babies suddenly stop caring for their brood when the kids are only half-grown. They do this in order to start working on another family, leaving the first brood to figure things out for themselves, which they probably can. I mean really, how hard can it be? They just walk around, scratch the ground, and eat. Even I can do that.

It is thought that mating with multiple partners, having the males do some incubating, and starting new broods before the previous ones have fully grown, is the quails’ way of taking advantage of favorable breeding conditions and thus maximizing the nesting season. Maximizing the breeding season is critical to bobwhites because their eggs, their chicks and the adults themselves are high on the menus of many predators. Over 3/4 of all young quail don’t make it through their first year, which explains Hallmark’s constant surplus of bobwhite birthday cards.

Right now you are thinking: “All of this is tremendously interesting, but what does it have to do with two females leading one family into my yard?” Well, the point of all this is that, when it comes to reproducing, the Northern Bobwhite doesn’t appear to follow any rules. At least it doesn’t follow any of the rules that we think it should.

In light of some of the more recent studies, Diane, it appears that your annual sightings of a quail family, headed by the traditional adult male and female, may be the oddity. You could just as easily have seen a family led by a single male, a single female, or perhaps no adults at all.

Of course, we don’t know all the background details, but it’s possible the family that came to your yard, led by two females, were two different family groups, led by one female each. Both groups just happened to meet at a food source. It’s also possible the families that came to your yard in years past could be two different families, one led a by a male and one led by a female. For such little birds they sure are complicated.

Whatever the reason for the quail being under your feeder, Diane, I’m glad that you are seeing them. In the past forty years their population has declined by 80%. Even with all of their creative breeding practices, they still can’t manage to compensate for habitat loss. If something isn’t done soon the Northern Bobwhite will be heard no more. Then if we want to hear quail we’ll all have to drive to Mexico and listen to birds say, “roberto-blanco.” Somehow it won’t be the same.