Northern Bobwhite

When I was growing up in a rural county here in Ohio, some mornings I would hear the loud whistling call from miles away- ‘bob-white!’  Walking in an abandoned farm field, I once flushed a covey of several birds who burst out of the tall grass at my feet.

This was a gamebird common in Ohio farmland back in the 70s.  But then a couple of very bad winters hit, virtually wiping out this bird.  Incidentally, it did the same thing to Carolina Wrens, who wintered over in moderate winters.

Four years ago, I was driving through the farming backroads of the county I grew up in, and heard one of these birds calling.  I don’t know if it was a wild bird or a pet gamebird.

I’m talking about the Northern Bobwhite, the most common quail in eastern North America.  Fortunately, there’s been efforts to reintroduce this species back into the state, similar to how Wild Turkeys- once nearly hunted to extinction in this area- are making a big comeback.

So when I heard that a couple of Bobwhites had been seen in Sharon Woods Metro Park in Columbus last month, I went looking for them.

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Sharon Woods has plenty of woods and fields with walking paths all over the park.  The birds had been seen and heard in a particular area along the connector trail.

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Several other birders were there to see them.  I spotted one of the birds on a grass path and called everyone over.

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Here is the bird, walking on the grass not very far away from us.

Northern Bobwhites are year-round residents in open habitats of southeastern North America. They live in agricultural fields, grasslands, open pine or pine-hardwood forests, and grass-brush rangelands as far north as Massachusetts and southern Ontario, and as far west as southeastern Wyoming and eastern New Mexico. They seem to avoid mature woodlands, inhabiting instead the early stages of regrowth after a fire, farming, logging, or other disturbance. They are most numerous in patchwork areas of fields, forests, and croplands; in coastal Texas rangelands; and in southern pine forests that are intensively managed for bobwhite hunting. During snowfalls in the northern part of their range, bobwhites depend on woody cover to prevent snow from reaching the ground and blocking their foraging habitat.

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Bobwhites eat mostly seeds and leaves, supplemented with varying amounts of insects during the breeding season. Chicks are fed mostly insects until they are 6–8 weeks old. Arthropods can make up 5 percent of the male’s diet and 20 percent of the female’s diet during the breeding season. Bobwhites forage as a group, scratching and pecking through leaf litter or foraging on low plants. When snow falls they seek out patches of bare ground under brushy areas. Their staple food of seeds comes from agricultural crops, weeds, forest plants, and rangeland vegetation. During fall and winter they eat many legume seeds, ragweed seeds, pine seeds, and acorns. In the spring they eat more leafy green parts of plants, and in the summer their diet includes grass seeds, some fruits, and arthropods—such as bugs, flies, bees, wasps, beetles, and spiders.

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Notice this bird’s crest half-raised.  It was fairly tame, which has led some birders to speculate if it was an escapee or a reintroduced bird.  No bird bands or other marks were noted, however.

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Suddenly, another Bobwhite called in the area.  Our bird looked quite agitated and flew up into a nearby tree to call back.

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Northern Bobwhites are highly social, usually found in groups, or coveys, of 3–20 individuals. They feed in early morning and late afternoon. At night, coveys usually roost on the ground (or occasionally in vegetation) in a close-packed, outward-facing circle with their tails pointing toward the center, probably to conserve heat and stay on the alert. They coexist peacefully for most of the year, but in the breeding season male bobwhites fight to attract mates. Both males and females perform courtship displays. Originally thought to be monogamous, they actually have several breeding strategies: males can raise broods with multiple females; and females can raise broods with multiple males (although males often abandon such broods). Bobwhites sometimes intermingle their eggs with those of Ring-necked Pheasants and free-range domestic chickens. Hawks, owls, raccoons, opossums, skunks, foxes, and snakes prey on adult bobwhites and their young. Adults flutter and drag their wings to distract predators from their chicks.

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…In economic terms, the Northern Bobwhite was one of the most important game birds in North America. Population declines from habitat loss now mean that in many places there are no longer enough to hunt. Bobwhite hunting can be sustainable if controlled properly, but currently management varies widely across the continent. The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative is a consortium of state agencies, conservation organizations, and hunters working to improve the prospects of this species.

What a great thing to see this bird once again!  May their numbers increase once more!