This understated member of the quail family is a southern favorite
By George Harrison, Contributing Editor
Northern bobwhite, Evelyn Lyssy
It's 5:30 in the morning, and Roland Lancaster is quietly walking through the woods on his property near Ada, Oklahoma. Suddenly, he hears a clear, sweet whistle penetrate the chilly morning air: "bob-bob-white."
He smiles, instantly recognizing the northern bobwhite's call of its own name. Roland wets his lips and returns the whistle: "bob-bob-white."
He climbs the steps to his tree stand and settles in to wait. It's deer hunting season, and while many people think of bobwhites as game birds, this barely crosses Roland's mind. Today, the bobwhite is his morning companion as the sun rises.
Roland's admiration for the bobwhite is not unusual. I've never known a game bird more popular. It might not be much to look at, compared to the stately ring-necked pheasant or drake wood duck, but it doesn't matter. People love this round, stocky flier.
Hunters and nonhunters alike refer to the bird as simply "quail"_most of the time. It is, in fact, one of six species of native quail and the only one found east of the Rockies.
You can easily recognize the bobwhite from its song. To attract mates and defend territories, males perch on fence posts and stretch their bodies to full length, raising their crests and sounding off with a clarion "bob-bob-white."
I'll never forget hearing that crystal-clear call while experiencing a really bad day in the 1950s. I was a U.S. Army officer cadet at summer training in Virginia. My colleagues and I were suffering through one of those scorchingly humid days common in the South.
Just when I thought I was about to die,
the melodious whistle of "bob-bob-white" pierced the moist air. At that moment, I suddenly regained the spirit to forge ahead.
While most birds live in flocks, bobwhites live in coveys. This consists of several families, totaling up to 30 birds, that remain together throughout the year, except during breeding season.
The covey members feed, rest and roost together. Just before dark, they form a circle of 10 to 15 birds with their heads pointed outward, tails pointed upward and bodies touching to conserve heat.
Like a circle of covered wagons, they have 360 degrees of protection. If threatened, they flush in all directions, minimizing their losses and maximizing the challenge to predators.
Good communication helps keep the covey together. They talk to one another in low, conversational notes. If they get separated, they use their louder assembly call, "ka-loi-kee, ka-loi-kee," to get back together.
Coveys break up in April and May with the start of breeding season. Though very simple structures, bobwhite nests are well hidden and camouflaged.
Growing Up Fast
To build their homes, bobwhites use an impression in the ground, line it with grasses and other vegetation and then weave an arch over the cup. The birds leave an opening on the side that they use to enter and leave.
Quail are precocious birds. The chicks leave within hours after hatching, never to return to the nest. Families join others in late summer and form coveys that remain together until the next breeding season.
Though bobwhite populations have declined over the past few decades, they still hold a prominent spot in southern states.
Back at Roland's tree stand, he's not seeing any deer, but he doesn't seem to mind. The sound of the bobwhite echoes in the air. And he gladly returns the call.