Bob White Lives Odd
Ground-Bound Lifestyle

By Ann Hingas

The song was unmistakable: "Bob White! Bob White!"

I was inside the house at the time, windows closed and air conditioner running, but the song was so loud, so insistent, that it broke through all the noise and sent me to the window. They spotted me as soon as I saw them and both birds went running to the edge of the swamp where they live.

This is the second year a pair of Northern Bobwhites, maybe the same pair, have put my bird feeders on their morning and evening feeding schedule. They are becoming bolder, more confident that they will not become dinner now, and I both see and hear them daily. Still, they are more cautious, more shy than the regular feeder visitors like titmice and cardinals, and well they should be.

The Northern Bobwhite is primarily a terrestrial bird, and although they are good fliers, they do not fly long distances, and spend most of their lives on the ground. There they are subject to the predation by many mammals, including humans, although raccoons, armadillos and opossums are the primary predators of nesting quail, according to the Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee, Fla.

Coming from a rural background, I had always thought of this bird less as a feeder bird and more as a bird that my relatives hunted in the late fall and early winter. It is, according to the Univ. of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology, the most-harvested non-migratory bird. The museum says hunters killed up to 37 million of them in the U.S. and Canada in 1970, but hunting is not the reason for a general decline in numbers.

"Habitat loss, particularly due to the increase in large-scale farming and the reduction of fence rows and suitable habitat plots are thought to be the major factor in the decline," says the museum’s profile of the species.

Suitable habitat for the Northern Bobwhite must include both food and cover. More specifically, the bobwhite needs food sources for all times of the year. During nesting season, which usually begins in May in Indiana, they eat primarily insects. Young birds are fed insects by their parents. They begin switching to a seed and fruit diet as the season progresses.

Northern Bobwhites are monogamous once they have paired for a breeding season and seldom leave each other. In our area, you can tell the male from the female by the male’s white chin and supercilium or line above the eye. The female’s chin and supercilium is tan.

Bobwhites are ground nesting birds. They begin by scratching out a softball size depression in the ground, then both sexes place various leaves and grasses in the nest, and, finally, they usually pull vegetation over the nest to hide it. Researchers find that 85 percent of Bobwhite nests are "domed" or covered in some manner.

A single female typically lays six to 12 eggs, although some nests have been found with 28 eggs. These may be "communal" nests where several hens lay in one nest. Other ground nesting birds like pheasants are known to lay eggs in quail nests. Bobwhites readily incubate the strangers’ eggs. Bobwhite eggs require 23 days of incubation, and both sexes may participate.

According to Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior, the eggs hatch within an hour of each other, and the young birds are able to walk away from the nest within another hour or two. If the clutch hatches in the afternoon, the parents remove egg shells and spend the night at the nest. If they hatch in the morning, the parents lead their young away from the nest as soon as their feathers are dry. Young are able to fly short distances within two weeks.

The most well-known bobwhite behavior involves communal roosting. After the young are raised, the parents and offspring form a covey, often with other unrelated males or unsuccessful pairs included. About 16 birds is the maximum covey size, and six to eight is the minimum. At night, the covey forms a tight circle, facing outward. This circular arrangement is thought to help the covey preserve body heat, and this is critical at the edge of the species’ northern range. Northern Indiana is close to their northernmost limit.

Besides the famous "Bob White" song, the species has at least 25 other known calls which are considered complex and filled with meaning. There is the so-called covey call which adds a note to the beginning of the usual "Bob White" song. Other calls are less obvious and are delivered with much reduced volume.

The Northern Bob White’s world is not large. They seldom stray more than a few hundred yards in any direction in their territory. Habitat loss, say the loss of a fencerow for example, often means death for a covey, especially in areas of fragmented habitat. They simple have no place to go when their habitat is bulldozed.

As you might expect after observing them feed by scratching the ground for seeds and insects, this species is related to the domestic chicken. The birds on the ground below my bird feeder look exactly like chickens scratching for food.

You may be lucky enough to attract them to your feeder sites if you live in the right place. Expect them to by shy and cautious. If they produce young, you may scare yourself come fall by accidentally stumbling upon the covey. This produces the most famous quail behavior of all—the covey rise—which is a sudden explosion of wing beats and blurred motion. This behavior is probably aimed at startling and confusing potential predators.

You can see pictures and hear this species’ song online at

© Copyright. 2002. Jordan Communications