Northern bobwhite

The grasslands and savannahs of Walpole Island support what may be the last, viable, native population of this pint-sized wildfowl.

By Tim Tiner

Indigenous to Ontario’s nearly disappeared tallgrass prairie and savannah, the northern bobwhite highlights the plight of many imperilled grassland birds. The pint-sized wildfowl, which in Canada is found only in southwestern Ontario, once took to and thrived on farmland but has all but vanished with the changes to agriculture in recent decades. Today, the species just barely holds on at the extreme southwestern edge of the province and is in steep decline across its range in the eastern and central
United States.Unlike many species at risk, the bobwhite has been well studied because it is a popular game bird in the United States, especially in the south. The plump, chicken-like native quail stands about the height of a robin but weighs two or three times as much. The bobwhite forages, roosts and nests on the ground, and is beset by a long list of predatory raptors and mammals, though it’s capable of short, low bursts of flight. About 80 percent of bobwhites live less than a year. However, the species has a high reproductive rate, laying clutches of up to 16 white eggs, starting in May. From late summer to early spring, these birds form flocks, called coveys, usually of three to 20 individuals.

Bobwhites once inhabited the approximately 1,000 square kilometres of prairie that flourished in southwestern Ontario. Their habitat requirements are very specific. These birds require open, grassy fields or croplands for feeding, and make their nest in shallow ground depressions concealed by tall vegetation and arching canopies of grass and plant stems. Though pioneer farmland largely replaced native prairie and savannah, it proved a good substitute for them. The birds’ range expanded north to southern Muskoka and the Kingston area, and peaked in the mid-1800s.

“Bobwhites did pretty well on small, diverse farms for many years. The hay was cut later and it was not all just corn and soybeans,” says Patrick Hubert, a senior avian biologist with the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). “They were able to use fallow fields, pasture and haygrounds, and hedgerows in the winter.” Fallow fields were ideal, notes Hubert, because fruitful annual weeds provided abundant seeds and excellent nesting and brooding habitat.

Over the past 40 years, however, the bobwhite, like many grassland birds, has been hit hard by the shift toward larger, less varied fields of crops, less pasture and the near disappearance of fallow lands and hedgerows. Farmers in the province now leave well under 1 percent of their fields to rest and rejuvenate naturally, instead usually applying nitrogen fertilizer or planting nitrogen-fixing soybeans.

Land devoted to pasture in Ontario fell by 65 percent between 1921 and 1986, and again by more than 40 percent over the following two decades. Herbicides and pesticides, meanwhile, reduced bobwhite food sources and poisoned the birds.

While bobwhite coveys require winter home ranges of five to 20 hectares, suitable habitat has become highly fragmented, exposing these birds to predators such as foxes, coyotes, raccoons, skunks and cats. As well, bobwhites’ diminished haunts often lack enough dense shrub thickets for winter cover. In many areas, the birds have been unable to recover from heavy losses caused by long periods of deep snow and cold or ice storms. Since the birds tend to move less than a kilometre in their lifetimes, many local extirpations have resulted.

Ontario had an estimated population of a little more than a thousand bobwhite coveys in the early 1970s – mainly in Lambton, Elgin and Middlesex counties – before their numbers were severely knocked back by three consecutive hard winters later that decade. Based on surveys in 1989 and 1990, MNR calculated that the population had fallen to only about 185 native birds in 16 coveys. Hunting, which usually involved released, pen-raised birds, largely stopped in southwestern Ontario by the early 1990s, and the species was designated as endangered nationally by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada in 1994. In 2007, Ontario’s Endangered Species Act ended hunting even of pen-raised birds, except on private game bird preserves away from remnant native populations.

Breeding Bird Survey records in the United States from 1965 to 1995 show the bobwhite has declined by 70 to 90 percent in four-fifths of the states in which it occurs and has disappeared completely from many areas. Habitat loss is thought to be the main cause. The grassland and savannah of Walpole Island, on the north shore of Lake St. Clair, are thought to have the only viable native bobwhite population left in Ontario, though some coveys may remain in nearby mainland areas. About 8 percent of the island’s 24,000 hectares is still considered prime bobwhite habitat. However, the last partial survey for the quail in Ontario, in 2006, found just a few calling on Walpole Island. Despite their camouflage colouring, the birds are fairly easy to count in spring when males, which sport striking white chins and eyebrows, whistle their distinctive namesake “bob-WHITE” calls to attract mates. According to the latest Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, a few bobwhite sightings have been reported as far east as the Niagara Peninsula and north to southern Grey County. But authorities think that quails turning up beyond the far southwest are probably escaped or released pen-raised birds. Such birds often come from southern stock that’s less suited to a northern climate and usually die out within a year. Worse, they may weaken the original population by interbreeding and passing on their less-hardy genes.

Profile
Scientific name: Colinus virginianus, from the Latinized rendering (via Spanish) of the bird’s Nahuatl name, Zolin, and “Virginia”
Length: 20–28 cm
Wingspan: 37–39 cm
Weight: 190–230 g
Breeding territory: 10–280 hectares
Clutch: 12–16 eggs
Incubation period: 13–15 days
Fledging age: 1–2 weeks
Food: Seeds of grasses and other wild plants and trees, waste grain, berries, leaves and insects

Kyle Breault, however, isn’t so sure that all bobwhites beyond the Walpole Island area are non-native birds and is frustrated that MNR is not surveying and doing genetic testing to find out. The program coordinator for Tallgrass Ontario, an umbrella organization supporting groups doing prairie restoration, Breault says that upland game bird hunting was never popular in Ontario, and very few captive bobwhites have been released in the past 30 years. “We don’t have enough information,” he asserts. “There hasn’t been any work done by MNR.”

In recent years, according to Breault, about 30 organizations – county stewardship councils, conservation authorities, municipalities and naturalist groups – have been creating or restoring an average of about 243 hectares of prairie and savannah annually on private and public land. He hopes these scattered projects can be coordinated to establish areas large enough to support bobwhite populations, which require about 1,000 hectares of fairly contiguous habitat to thrive. Even so, recovery would be very slow without the reintroduction of wild birds from other areas, something Breault and other prairie enthusiasts would like to see. While such reintroductions have taken place in parts of the United States in the past decade, says Breault, he believes that MNR is deeply divided over the issue. “I don’t know why. It worked with turkeys,” which, he notes, were reintroduced in Ontario in the 1980s.

“There is a lot of difference of opinion on what should be done,” agrees Ken Tuininga, senior species-at-risk biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, which is taking the lead in drafting a bobwhite recovery strategy, in cooperation with MNR, Walpole Island First Nation and others. Much work on the strategy and the issue of reintroduction still needs to be done, he says. “There are so many unanswered questions right now. What are the most significant threats? How much habitat is there left that is appropriate? What is our population and how many are native?”

Until researchers have those answers, the bobwhite remains in danger of following the greater prairie chicken into extirpation from Ontario. “My concern is whether we can restore enough habitat in time to re-establish a viable population,” says Hubert. “The future is uncertain at this point.”


contribs_tinerTim Tiner is the author of several nature guidebooks and a long-time contributor to ON Nature.

19 Comments

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  1. Renee Dawson Renee Dawson
    June 8, 2011    

    I must admit, until yesterday, I did not even know what a Northern Bobwhite was. I had never seen one before. My husband called me out to our deck to see this bird in our backyard pecking for seed under one of our feeders.

    I even have pictures of this bird following a chipmunk around trying to get a maple seed out of its mouth. It was so adorable!

    Am pretty sure it’s a northern bobwhite and would be happy to email pics if you are interested.

    Sincerely,
    Renée Dawson
    Carrying Place, Ontario
    Prince Edward County

  2. Roger Richards Roger Richards
    November 5, 2011    

    I live in London Ontario and I have a Bobwhite feeding at my feeder next to my 34 foot weeping cypress tree. I’ve put out a dish of water and am spreading some seed on the ground. Should I be doing any thing to help it with the cold and snow to come?

  3. We have a Bobwhite here at Salthaven that came in this winter. What a facinating bird and what a cheery song! OMNR doesn’t want it released for fear of contaminating existing genes of true Northerns. There has actually been gene sequencing done for northerns at U of Calif., so there’s half the battle done before you start the sequencing process.

  4. Kenneth Kenneth
    August 2, 2012    

    There were coveys of them in the old fragmented bush of brush and farmer’s fields behind our house in Windsor, Ontario in the 60’s. They were small quail that would suddenly fly up in a rush. A very distinctive call, one note, a second one same pitch, then a third up note. Then they seemed to disappear completely. I wondered if pheasants had anything to do with it since they seemed to take over and occupy the same habitat.

  5. Dominic Palermo Dominic Palermo
    December 6, 2012    

    In Ontario anyone caught destroying fish habitat in any way is fined and the habitat ordered restored.The fines are hefty.This goes for people who own shoreline as well.Why doesn’t this also apply to other wildlife habitats as well.
    Land owners should be held accountable,laws should be in place for maintaining suitable habitat and government showed have funds set aside to compensate any farmer losses.We send millions of dollars overseas,charity begins at home.If this downward trend continues there will be nothing left for my granchildren to enjoy.

  6. Michelle Michelle
    March 25, 2013    

    I have a home on a large corner lot(all wild flowers, shrubs, native trees) located in a small town in Northern Alberta. There is a large open field and forest nearby. Since late September 2012 a female Northern Bobwhite visits below two blue spruce trees. I don’t live at the property, every three days or so I return and replenish the seed mix on the ground, she’s always there to greet me. Approximately three weeks ago she no longer visited, but last week after a very terrible snowstorm she was back. I’m told she must be an escapee, still nice to see her, probably the only one ill ever get to see.

  7. Lynell Wight Lynell Wight
    May 9, 2013    

    One of these lovely birds has been visiting my parents backyard daily this spring
    . There is a steady supply of birdseed as well as a choke cherry tree and a source of fresh water for him or her. Apparently this bird is an escapee from somewhere in the city of Ottawa. I think my parents find it quite ironic that of all the places this bird could have escaped to, it chose the home of Bob Wight 😀

  8. Patrick Patrick
    May 11, 2013    

    I saw and heard them last spring. Managed a photo after discovering finally what was making that call so early every morning. I live in a rural area off the island of Montreal, Quebec and am told it is a rare species in my area.

  9. Kaye Kaye
    May 29, 2013    

    I live in Richmond Hill , Ontario.Yesterday while walking my kids home from school,one of these birds ran right in front of us! We were in a parking lot of a large open park with areas of grass that have been left to grow naturally , as well as many evergreen trees.
    We watched him ( it was a male) run under one of the huge evergreen on the property. I am wondering now if that is where the covey was.
    What a cute little bird! I recognized it as a partridge , but thought it was a baby because of its size.

  10. Ted Gorsline Ted Gorsline
    November 12, 2013    

    About 50 years ago I used to shoot the odd quail on the Rupununni Savannahs of Guyana. They looked like bobwhite quail to me and there were thousands of coveys. I realize that a tropical subspecies would be unsuitable for re-introduction to Ontario but these birds left me with the impression that the bob white range goes much further south than the southern USA and these same birds are probably also found on the vast Takatu and Paroe savannahs of Brazil and the Apure Illaos savannah of Venezuela.

  11. November 15, 2013    

    The range of some species found in Ontario can extend to other geographic territories, however, the threats towards and decline of species in Ontario can result in their becoming extinct, extirpated or at risk here, but not in other regions. The decline of native biodiversity is a very serious context. (ON Noah)

  12. Robert Crawford Robert Crawford
    July 16, 2014    

    I remember hearing bobwhite quail sing growing up on a farm in Middlesex county west of London. I now live in Cambridge and recently heard this species on a side road near Killean, they must be birds in captivity or released birds I am assuming. Does anyone else have information about birds in this area?

  13. sue smith sue smith
    August 11, 2014    

    we have been hearing this odd bird calling for weeks now and have not been able to see him. today we did and it was the bobwhite quail, my husband recognized it right away and couldnt believe it. We live in the Niagara Region of Ontario on 28 acres of woods and a large soy bean field beside us. My husband said he is probably ” farm raised” and has got away. we will continue to listen for him, call back to him and see if we can sight him again

  14. jill bradford jill bradford
    August 11, 2014    

    A male Northern Bobwhite has been in my neighbourhood in Grimsby for the past couple of weeks. He seems to have little if any fear of humans & is often around the children living across the road from me. He sits on my fence outside the kitchen window & I listen for his call every morning, hoping he is still around. I’m worried about the winter, though. Apart from putting out seed (which I do anyway for all birds), is there anything I can do to help him through this winter? He seems to be entirely on his own.

  15. Ken Fowler Ken Fowler
    October 13, 2014    

    It’s Saturday Oct 12/2014 and I’m visiting some family south of Ottawa.
    I spent the day Grouse hunting and and hour before dusk I went for a drive
    in hopes of spotting some doves.
    To my astonishment I watched a covey of Bobwhites
    cruise low over the road in from of me and land in a freshly
    cut bean field. Fresh enough that the farmer was out and the far side if the field
    working his combine.
    I ran out to the farmer and asked if I could walk out in his field and gained permission.

    I was able to locate the covey that consisted of 2 split up groups in the field
    consisting of approx 35 birds.
    They were not released birds, these were wild coveys of quail.

    I am beyond amazed and very happy to see these little
    game birds thriving down here.

  16. Poul Hansen Poul Hansen
    December 25, 2014    

    As a kid in the 50s and early 60s I lived next to Ojibway Park in Essex County Ontario and clearly remember the Bobwhite quail with their distinctive call. Now I live in Victoria BC but was back there a short a while ago. It saddens me to hear they are gone. This is where I started my bird watching.

  17. September 8, 2015    

    […] 2010 Northern bobwhite John and Mary Theberge: Natural […]

  18. cliff leroux cliff leroux
    January 25, 2016    

    i have a northern bobwhite feeding on the ground below my feeders now for about a week. It seems to be a male because off the pictures i seen with the tuff on top off his head. I live in Monkland in the Cornwall seaway area and this is a 1st i ever seen off this so called Quail. He comes to the feeders only in the early morning and again as it is getting dark…Very interesting bird that looks like a benty hen when feeding. Hope he sticks around till spring.Thks

  19. January 26, 2016    

    Hello Cliff,

    Thanks for letting us know!
    Have you reported your sighting to Birds Studies Canada or the Ontario Field Ornithologists?

    These are professional organizations dedicated to the study and protection of birds, their webpages are: http://www.bsc-eoc.org/ and http://www.ofo.ca/index.php.

    You’re very lucky to have seen a bobwhite quail Cliff, they are endangered.

    ON Noah

  1. Winter 2010 | on September 8, 2015 at 8:43 pm

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