In the years immediately after World War II, I lived on Long Island's North Shore, where bobwhite quail were always plentiful and a joy to hear.
Their peculiar calls, closing with a sharp whistle, were unmistakable and soon became a constant musical backdrop for country living. Though these chubby little birds are widely distributed throughout the United States and Canada, we never had them around my earlier homes in Vermont and Dutchess County.
Upon moving to Texas, I became a member of the Fort Worth Audubon Society and had an opportunity to participate on my first Christmas Bird Count. I quickly learned to spot the many great horned owls that generally gathered on the utility poles along the roadside shortly before dawn. Upon reaching a patch of more open farmland, I could hear one of those owls calling from a dense thicket across a stubble field. Perhaps, by getting out of the car, I might be able to move nearer and get a good look at this one before daybreak.
Striking out across that stubble field, I kept my eyes on Venus to keep from getting lost in the dark. Suddenly, there was an explosion at my feet, and by the time I managed to gather my composure, I realized that I had stepped right in the middle of a large covey of bobwhite quail -- still bedded for the night. In the future, I would certainly bring a flashlight to avoid such bedlam.
As many as 20 bobwhite usually assemble to form a covey, which cluster in a roosting circle at nightfall, with bodies pressed together for warmth, all heads and bills facing outward, and tails at the center pointing upward to the open sky. Grouped in this manner, an alarm is quickly signaled through the entire flock in case of danger.
While males are distinguished in having a bold white line over each eye and a conspicuous white throat, the females have similar markings but buff in color. The male usually scoops a shallow depression and lines it with grasses as a nest site on the ground -- generally along the woods edge. There, as many as 28 eggs may be laid by two or more hens, though incubation is the job of either sex.
Precocial young immediately leave the nest after hatching in about 24 days. Joining both parents at feeding time, they soon develop a special fondness for acorns in their diet, along with various weed seeds and wild berries. Also showing a ravenous appetite for insect life, they consume large numbers of soft-bodied grasshoppers, flies and spiders. One captive bobwhite was actually observed to eat 568 mosquitoes in a two-hour period. Another destroyed over 5,000 aphids in a single day, and it was estimated that its daily consumption of weed seeds ran as high as 30,000. Arthur Cleveland Bent also lists the potato beetle as a prime target of such hungry quail where they are most numerous.
Considered a useful songbird in many states, the bobwhite quail remains the official state bird of Oklahoma and Rhode Island. We like them in New York, too, but excessive hunting is blamed for its disappearance in many parts of its former range. In fact, the late Harold D. Mitchell declared the species to have been entirely extinct in the Niagara Frontier. Formerly, both a Northern and a Southern subspecies had been represented.
A new recording secretary had just been assigned to the Buffalo Ornithological Society. When it was announced that a Boy Scout troop had successfully raised 96 bobwhite and planned to release them on Grand Island in the near future, our secretary diligently recorded every word of that joyous announcement. When she was called upon to read those minutes at the next society meeting, imagine everybody's astonishment when they learned that "96 bobcats would soon be released on Grand Island."
Because those quail eggs had been shipped in from Oklahoma, it seemed very doubtful whether many might be able to survive our Northern climate. Recently, one lone bobwhite did start coming to a feeder in Tonawanda -- not much of a jump from Grand Island.