New World Quails: Odontophoridae

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NEW WORLD QUAILS: Odontophoridae



These small birds have plump bodies and short wings. They weigh 4 to 16 ounces (125 to 465 grams) and measure 7 to 15 inches (17 to 37 centimeters). Males are slightly larger and, in some species, have slightly more dramatic plumage (feather) coloring. Many species have red rings around the eyes, and some have crests on their heads ranging from tiny tufts of hair to long feathers. Quail bills have serrated (sharply notched) edges. Legs are strong to help in running, digging, and scratching.


New World quails are native to North, Central, and South America, though they have been introduced elsewhere.


New World quails occupy a vast array of habitats. Bobwhites live in ranges from grassland to woodland edge while other species prefer the desert. Others are found in mountain, tropical, and subtropical forests. Quail often make their homes on agricultural land.


New World quails scratch for seeds from grasses, trees, and shrubs. Those who live on agricultural land eat leftover grain seeds as well as corn, wheat, peanuts, and black bean crops. Those birds in tropical forests dig for plant roots, and some species feed on bulbs. Chicks eat mostly invertebrates (animals without backbones).


Nearly every species of New World quail forms coveys (KUH-veez; small flocks). Though experts once thought coveys were family units, it is now believed that covey members are adult pairs as well as helpers from previous clutches (number of birds hatched at one time).

These birds are most active during the day and spend the majority of their time on the ground. Some forest species roost (rest) in trees. Although none of these quail are migratory (travel seasonally from region to region), those that live in mountain regions may move to different altitudes with the seasons.

New World quails call and whistle to each other, with the bobwhite having the most varied calling habits. Predators include birds of prey, weasels, and foxes. Skunks, raccoons, snakes, coyotes, and possums prey on quail eggs.

Reproduction of the quail has not been studied in depth. Though they were once believed to be monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus; have only one mate), evidence is proving that theory wrong. At least with the bobwhite, it seems the mating system is flexible, and the birds alternate between monogamy, polygyny (puh-LIH-juh-nee; one male to several females), polyandry (PAH-lee-an-dree; one female to several males), and promiscuity (prah-MISS-kyoo-ih-tee; indiscrimate mating where individuals mate with as many other individuals as they want).

Clutch size varies with the species, with tropical and forest birds having smaller clutches of three to six eggs. Nests are bowl-like and built on the ground. Sometimes vegetation is used to cover the nest for safety purposes. Though not well described for many species, incubation (warmth sufficient for hatching) takes sixteen to thirty days. Chicks are able to leave the nest within hours of hatching and begin to fly in less than two weeks. Twenty to fifty percent of all chicks die from predation.


Most species are hunted for sport or food.


Conservation status varies. Those living in mild-weather regions and grasslands are common and not threatened. Forest species also seem to adapt well to human impact and are maintaining their populations. The status of the Latin American species is difficult to assess because research into their status has been minimal. The bearded woo-partridge, for example, was considered Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction, in 1995 but has been recategorized as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction, due to the discovery of several small and separate populations.


Physical characteristics: This is one of the smaller Galliformes, weighing just 4 to 8 ounces (129 to 233 grams) and measuring a mere 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 centimeters). Females are smaller than males. Adult males have white throats and stripes on their faces; females have cream-colored faces and throats. Wings of the males also have distinct black markings which females lack.

Geographic range: Found from southern New England west through Ontario, Canada to southeastern Minnesota. Found also in eastern Florida and Wyoming, western Kansas, and Oklahoma southward throughout parts of Mexico. Introduced species are found on Caribbean Islands, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, British Columbia, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, and Cuba.

Habitat: Rather than pure grassland, the northern bobwhite prefers pine savannas (tropical or subtropical plant communities characterized by trees and shrubs among herbs and grass cover). It also lives in clearings of forested areas and in farmland. In the southeastern United States, this bird lives in pine savannas that are actually maintained and grown just for them. What is important is that habitats contain low-growing brush and vegetation, which is important for food as well as protection from predation.

Diet: They eat mostly seeds, but also fruits, invertebrates, and grean leafy materials. About 85 percent of their diet is vegetation, while 15 percent is animal. They do, however, survive on whatever is abundant given the weather and climate conditions. Females eat more insects than do males because they need more protein to produce healthy eggs.

Behavior and reproduction: Behavior of this species is similar to that of the rest of the family. The bobwhite has more calls than other species: one for food location, two parental calls, eleven to warn of danger, four pertaining to group movement, and six sexual. After breeding season, coveys change members and either grow larger or smaller. During this time, some birds travel nearly 60 miles (100 kilometers). Coveys are comprised of ten to thirty individual birds whose home ranges vary in size depending on quality of habitat.

Bobwhites are believed to have a flexible mating system. Unmated males make the famous "bob-white!" call that can be heard for great distances. Males engage in courtship displays that include puffing out their chests and exhibiting their feathered wings. The head lowers and is moved from side to side to ensure that the female notices his fine markings and coloring. Pairs begin forming in January, and nests are built in shallow bowls on the ground. Vegetation and dead grasses are used to cover and camouflage the nests. Clutch sizes average twelve to fourteen eggs, and they are laid at a rate of one per day. Incubation lasts twenty-three to twenty-four days and is performed by both parents, and if one mate dies, the other will take over.

Chicks leave the nests with the adults within hours of hatching and will fly within fourteen days. Both parents care for the young. Hatching success varies, but is rarely higher than 40 percent. Bobwhite females have been known to lay new clutches and renest as many as four times if necessary. Annual survival of chicks is typically less than 30 percent. Predators include hawks and other birds of prey, snakes, weasels, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, and possums. When threatened, coveys will disperse suddenly in all directions, which often startles intruders so that none of the birds are caught.

Northern bobwhites and people: This species is widely hunted and raised for food. Conservation of the bobwhite is a primary concern because this particular hunting industry turns a huge profit.

Conservation status: Though this population is widespread and common, there has been a steady decline in numbers throughout recent years, primarily in the eastern United States. Conservationists believe this to be the result of reforestation, loss of habitat, and intensification of agricultural practices. Some populations have decreased by as much as 90 percent. The masked bobwhite, a subspecies, is considered Endangered in the United States and is the focus of management and conservation programs in many areas. ∎



Guthery, Fred S. On Bobwhites. College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press, 2001.

Perrins, Christopher. Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Richmond Hill, Canada: Firefly Books, 2003.

Sibley, David Allen, Chris Elphik, and John B. Dunning, eds. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 2001.

Web sites:

Chumchal, M. "Colinus virginianus." Animal Diversity Web. (accessed on June 10, 2004).

"Northern Bobwhite." ENature. (accessed on June 10, 2004).

"Wildlife in Connecticut: Bobwhite." Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. (accessed on June 10, 2004).

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New World Quails: Odontophoridae

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New World Quails: Odontophoridae