Quail

Coturnix coturnix

16-18cm

Appearance

This is a tiny game bird who is quite reticent. Smaller than the Grey Partridge, it is mainly brown with dark yellowish streaked upperparts; a yellow stripe goes through the dark crown. The male's breast is a fairly uniform reddish-brown and he has variable head marks - dark bands around his throat and over his eye. He is palest on his plain belly, and his light-coloured throat has a black centre. The female is similar, but her breast is spotted and her head marks are less defined. The juvenile bird is like the adult female.

Habitat

In Britain, Quails are heard from the south coast to Shetland; largest numbers are usually in Dorset and Wiltshire, but they can also be heard in East Anglia, the Welsh Marches and south-east Scotland. They have a preference for arable farmland, open country, particularly grassland or large fields that are dense and dry.

Character

Notoriously difficult to see, the male's call is distinctive and the best indicator of the bird's presence. It is hesitant to leave cover but if disturbed, it will often take a short flight to safety.

Food

Maintains a varied diet of seeds from plants such as poppy, fat hen, hemp-nettle and dock, and also insects and their larvae including beetles, ants and grasshoppers.

Breeding

In Britain breeding begins in May; males arrive before females and then call to attract mates. Nests are created on the ground in thick cover and the female incubates 8-13 eggs for 17-21 days. Hatchlings can soon feed themselves but the females continue to care for them. Males don't usually stay with their family and may mate with more than one female. Young can lift of the ground at about 11 days though full flight is not possible until 19 days. They become independent after 30-50 days and can breed at 3 months.

Population

The Quail is the sole member of this bird family that's a migrant visitor to Britain and Ireland. Its numbers vary from year to year and its migrations are complex and not completely comprehended. It arrives in late April and May and returns in late summer to south of the Sahara Desert. There are years when a second movement of birds arrives in late summer to breed. An estimated average of 540 calling males have been heard in the UK (with fewer than 20 in Ireland), but when there's an influx, this can be more than 1000.

Observation Tips

With some time investment, there's a chance of hearing a quail in the south of the region in May and June, especially near low farmland. Many observers wait years before seeing one in the region; lucky ones might catch a flash of a bird as it scurries from one place of cover to another.

Voice

A 'whip, whip-whip' is the call heard most regularly, often translated to 'wet-my-lips'. The call is repeated several times in one chorus and is most likely to be heard at dawn and dusk. Males also utter a cat-like growling noise.
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