Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 21, 2009

Bob Right?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:49 pm

When I spotted a covey of Bobwhite Quail the other day, I instantly slammed on the car brakes as I performed a double-take. The fowl gang, consisting of about 17 immatures and a few adults, were lined up at the edge of the road where the mowed strip met a tall grass field. One by one they popped out of the cover, walked down the line in military fashion, and gathered as if contemplating a road crossing. My arrival elicited an immediate  change of plans but they allowed me to take a few hurried pictures before melting back into the long grass. Naturally, I was amazed that they didn’t flush.

I can’t really remember when I last saw or heard a real live local Bobwhite Quail. Let’s just say that it’s been a while – at least twenty years ago when I heard the familiar two note call issuing from the farm field across from my house. Quail are not regular Michigan birds. Although officially scattered  throughout the Lower Peninsula, they are not common here except in a few isolated rural pockets in the S.E. portion of the state. Even then, the population will vacillate depending upon the weather and farming conditions.

Even though they are called Northern Bobwhite Quail, these birds don’t do very well here on the extreme northern edge of their range. Severe winters will knock them out of the picture for years at a time. The species never had much of a grip on this soil but back in the “old days” when farming practices left brushy fence rows, waste grain, and woodlot cover they were much more common than they are now.  They are really much more comfortable in the piney barrens of Georgia.

My covey consisted of a mixed lot of equally aged birds escorted by a few adult looking birds.  The females, young and old,  were identifiable by their buffy colored throats and eye stripes and the males (see below) by their sharply contrasting white facial markings. Even against a green background they were well served by their cryptic body coloration (see here). From all appearances this was a natural family group. It was a large family, but within the realms of possibility. After the fact, I confirmed that a single clutch could contain up to 28 viable eggs, although 14 is the average. The family coveys stick together for balance of the season until joining with other families to form large winter flocks in October. In the lingo of wildlife management this move is called “The Autumn Shuffle.” August was too early for a “shuffle” time flock, so this had to be one family.

Just about the time I was convincing myself that I had encountered a nice natural group, the phone rang the next day and a friend asked me about some quail he had seen running  about the previous day.  He had seen the same group about a quarter mile away from my original location. I thought it odd that these things would be so stupid as to constantly expose themselves, but chose to answer in the negative when asked if these birds could have been released captives. I have frequently encountered cage-reared pheasants and turkeys that, once released, spent the rest of their short wild lives walking boldly down the center-lines of roads or walking up to coyotes. These quail at least showed a little bit of fear and, besides, who would be releasing a family group of quail into the wild at this time of year?

A swift answer to the mystery came via a phone call today from another friend. “Hey Gerry, ” he asked, “have you seen a bunch of Bobwhites running around lately?”  I replied suspiciously that I had. “Well, they’re mine. They all got out the other day and ran straight for the field behind my house.” That field was about 1/2 mile away from the road where I had originally spotted the birds.

Oh well, such is life. I’m really glad he called before I reported my find to local birders. In today’s birding circles, such a report is typically blasted across the internet landscape and binocular toting folk come from miles around to get in on the action. Jailbreak quail do not qualify for life listers, however.

There is an outside chance that these vagabond birds will adapt to life in the wild since they are a native species. There is also a chance that their young will grow up wild and free and that I will hear their calls ringing out on some crisp summer morning. There is also an equal chance that they will all be dead within a week, so it would behoove my birder friends to see them while they can (they are at Lake Erie Metropark by the way). One of the escaped birds, oddly enough, returned to it’s cage shortly after the big break. My friend informed me that it rushed back into the safety of the pen as quickly as it had rushed out hours earlier. Apparently at least one of these hand reared quail understood how difficult it is for his kind to survive in these parts.

1 Comment »

  1. Awww…I was hoping they were wild…Poor birds. Life always looks better on the other side…Last spring we had a strange bird pass through our western NY yard. Granted there is a pond and woods, but I didn’t expect to see a chukar trotting by. I wonder where it escaped from…. Michelle

    Comment by ramblingwoods — August 21, 2009 @ 11:23 pm

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