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The bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) is one of the most widely distributed and hunted game birds in the United States. There are 1.7 million quail hunters in the United States. Bird watchers and naturalists also enjoy the sights and sounds of bobwhites.
Bobwhites play a key role in Indiana’s upland game management plan. Although it is surpassed in popularity by squirrel and cottontail rabbit hunting, it still holds first place as this state's most pursued upland game bird.
Quail appear to be drab and rather ordinary, but a close look will reveal color combinations and contrasts. Throat, chin and stripe are white on the cock, buff on the hen. Underparts are tawny and white, blending with chestnut, black and gray. Each breast feather sports a black chevron. Upper parts are a mixture of warm brown, a tinge of deep yellow and shadings of black. The birds can achieve invisibility by merely “freezing” in light cover. They weigh from 6 to 8 ounces and are about 10 inches long.
At the start of the breeding season the male and female pair. Females lay from 12 to 18 white eggs and then begin a 24-day incubation period. The male helps in brooding, feeding and protecting the young. The family group, known as a covey, usually remains together until the following spring when they split up to mate.
Quail are gallinaceous birds, that is they dwell on the ground, scratch for their food and have crops and gizzards. Weed seeds, waste grain and insects constitute the backbone of their intake. Quail are gleaners and seed scavengers, never disturbing grain or fruits until they have fallen to the ground. Food habits vary considerably according to season and type of land use they inhabit. Those living in heavily cultivated areas consume more waste grain, while those around woodland fringes take more seeds falling from vines, trees and shrubs. Southern Indiana quail lean heavily on corn, sassafras seeds, lespedeza, ragweed, wheat, foxtail, shattered acorns, insects, ash seeds and soybeans. A tough gizzard and grit are employed to grind the flinty coverings from rough fare. Bits of greenery provide vitamins, minerals and moisture.
Grade-A quail range is a delicate balance of cropland, nesting cover, woodlands and fence rows or waterways which serve as travel lanes. Early explorers found quail only in our prairie openings or around Indian clearings. Quail closely followed the ax and plow of our early settlers, probably reaching their peak abundance about the time of the Civil War. Improvements in farm machinery resulted in larger fields, fewer fencerows and odd areas, and less living space for quail. Oddly, some bobwhite range in southern counties has been hurt because too much land has gone back to timber or has been converted to grasslands which go not support quail.
Southeastern and southwestern Indiana provide the ideal climate and habitat to support the highest quail numbers. South central Indiana is too heavily wooded, and central Indiana is intensely farmed. The northern third of the state has always been marginal range because of recurring years with persistent snow.
Predators and adverse weather are easily observed factors affecting quail. Less obvious, but more critical, are the effects of competition for living space presented by creeping concrete, housing developments and intensive agriculture. Roaming dogs of every breed destroy nests, as do raccoons, skunks and snakes. Predators and assorted problems do not normally affect quail abundance if their living conditions are adequate, but these losses may assume greater importance if the balance of food and cover is below that required for production and survival.
Bobwhite quail is the No. 1 game bird in Indiana on the basis of popularity and is second only to the mourning dove in number bagged. Since 1940, the estimated harvest ranged from more than a million birds in the early 1940s and late 1950s to less than 100,000 following the severe winters of the mid-1700s. Populations are recovering, however, peak numbers will be determined by the amount of quality quail habitat available. The number taken each fall depends upon weather conditions during the season and, of course, the number produced the preceding summer from those that survived the winter.
Hunters may assist quail populations by killing only a few birds out of each covey, by keeping all dogs confined during the nesting season, not hunting during critical storm periods, and self-imposing a season limit of 50 birds. It has been clearly demonstrated that closed hunting seasons and blanket predatory control programs do not result in more quail. The birds do respond to feed and cover supplies where they are needed.