Buttonquails: Turnicidae

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Buttonquails are small birds that are short and thick in build. They have small heads, short necks, short legs, and almost no tail. Unlike most birds, buttonquails have only three toes; the hind toe is absent. Buttonquails have short bills that vary between slender (in species that eat mostly insects) and stout (in species that eat mostly seeds). Buttonquails vary in size from 4 to 9 inches (10 to 23 centimeters) in length and 0.7 to 5.3 ounces (20 to 150 grams) in weight.

Buttonquails tend to be brownish, grayish, or dullish red in color. Their backs are often mottled, that is, covered with spots or splotches, or irregularly striped, helping them to blend in against their habitat. The breast, however, is often red or black and white. Buttonquail females are larger and more brightly colored than the males.


Buttonquails are found in southern Europe, Africa, south and Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Solomon Islands.


Buttonquails live in grassland, brush, and some forest habitats. Although they can fly, they live almost exclusively on the ground, often in grasses or amid crops or weeds.


Buttonquails are primarily seed-eaters. However, they may also eat plant material, insects, and snails. In order to help grind up their food, buttonquails also swallow a small amount of sand. They find their food on the ground, in litter (the layer of leaves and other material covering the ground), and in low vegetation. In many species, individuals have a distinctive foraging (food hunting) behavior of standing on one foot while scratching the ground with the other, turning in a circle.


The buttonquail breeding period is generally spring and summer, although tropical species breed all year round. In dry areas, buttonquails tend to breed only during the rainy season.

Buttonquails have an elaborate courtship routine. Females puff up, call with booming notes, stamp their feet, and scratch at the ground. In some species the wings are also spread. Then the male and female rock together, huddle together, dust bathe together, and preen each other's feathers. The female also offers the male a bit of food. In the "scrape ceremony," the female and male act out the motions of building a nest. The actual nest site tends to be in grass, frequently next to a tree. Either the male or female will throw bits of vegetation to the site, while the other partner builds it into a bowl shape, sometimes with a roof. The female does most of the work of nest-building.

Some species of buttonquails are monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus), meaning a female mates with a single male. In other species, however, there is a mating system known as sequential polyandry (PAH-lee-an-dree), in which a female courts a male, lays a set of eggs, and then leaves the male to incubate the eggs and raise the chicks while she courts another male. This mating system is fairly unusual among birds.


Sequential polyandry, found in some buttonquails, is a mating system in which females mate with multiple males over the course of one breeding season. It is rare among birds. Both monogamy, in which a single female mates with a single male, and polygamy, in which a single male mates with multiple females, are more common. Sequential polyandry accounts for buttonquail females being more brightly colored than males, since it is the females who have to convince the males to mate with them.

The number of eggs per clutch varies by species, but is generally between two and seven. Eggs hatch after twelve or thirteen days. Chicks are precocial, meaning they hatch at a developmentally advanced stage, covered with feathers and able to move. They follow the father, who feeds them termites and seeds.


Many buttonquail species were once hunted for food, although this is no longer legal in most western countries. Some species, including the common buttonquail and some Australian species, are bred for food. Buttonquails have also been important in some of the rituals of the Australian Aborigines.


Of the seventeen species of buttonquails, two are listed as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction, or dying out, in the wild, by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the black-breasted buttonquail and buff-breasted buttonquail. There are approximately 500 black-breasted buttonquails in existence, and 5,000 buff-breasted buttonquails. Four additional species are listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild: the Worcester's buttonquail, Sumba buttonquail, Australian chestnut-backed buttonquail, and plains-wanderer. The spotted buttonquail is listed as Near Threatened, not in immediate danger of extinction. Most species of buttonquails are declining due to habitat destruction for agriculture.


Physical characteristics: The small buttonquail is 5.9 to 6.3 inches (15 to 16 centimeters) in length and 1.4 to 1.9 ounces (39 to 54 grams) in weight. It is chestnut in color with a reddish breast and shoulders and a slender blue-gray bill. The female is somewhat larger and more brightly colored than the male.

Geographic range: The small buttonquail is found in southwestern Spain and northern Africa, in sub-Saharan Africa, in southern and Southeast Asia, in the Philippines, and in Indonesia.

Habitat: The small buttonquail inhabits grassland, farmland, and scrub areas.

Diet: The small buttonquail tends to be primarily insectivorous, that is, eating insects and other invertebrates. It also eats seeds.

Behavior and reproduction: The small buttonquail is primarily diurnal, or active during the day, although it is also partly nocturnal, or active at night. The small buttonquail breeds year-round during the rainy season in all parts of its range except Europe, where breeding occurs only in spring and summer. Females are sequentially polyandrous (the female mates with one male, leaves him a clutch of eggs to tend, and then mates with another male, repeating the process throughout the breeding season). Usually four eggs are laid at a time by the female and hatch after twelve to fifteen days. Chicks can fly by seven to eleven days old and become independent at eighteen to twenty days.

Small buttonquails and people: The small buttonquail is hunted for food throughout its range except in Europe, where it used to be hunted. The small buttonquail is also raised for food.

Conservation status: The small buttonquail is not threatened, although its European populations have been declining, and it is now only rarely found there. ∎


Physical characteristics: The painted buttonquail is a large species 6.7 to 9.1 inches (17 to 23 centimeters) in length and 1.9 to 4.7 ounces (53 to 134 grams) in weight, with the female significantly larger than the male. The painted buttonquail is generally red in color with a gray breast and red eyes.

Geographic range: The painted buttonquail is found in eastern, southeastern, and southwestern Australia, on islands off the coast of southwestern Australia, and in New Caledonia.

Habitat: The painted buttonquail is found in diverse habitats from grassland to grassy or open forest, and in grassy clearings within dense forests.

Diet: The painted buttonquail eats seeds, insects and other invertebrates, and green plant shoots. Food is found by scratching on the ground.

Behavior and reproduction: Reproduction occurs in late winter to autumn in southern and eastern habitats, and all year round in tropical regions. Female painted buttonquails are sequentially polyandrous. Generally three or four eggs are laid at a time; these hatch after thirteen to fourteen days. The male feeds the chick for seven to ten days. At ten days chicks can fly, and by twenty-three days they are the same size as adults.

Painted buttonquails and people: Painted buttonquails are bred for food.

Conservation status: Painted buttonquails are not threatened. ∎



del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott, and J. Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3, Hoatzin to Auks. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 1996.

Johnsgard, P. A. Bustards, Hemipodes, and Sandgrouse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Perrins, Christopher, ed. Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2003.

Web sites:

"Button-quails, quail-plover." Bird Families of the World, Cornell University. http://www.es.cornell.edu/winkler/botw/turnicidae.html (accessed on April 1, 2004).

"Turnicidae (Buttonquails)." The Internet Bird Collection. http://www.hbw.com/ibc/phtml/familia.phtml?idFamilia=42 (accessed on April 1, 2004).

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Buttonquails: Turnicidae

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