Our Bird Neighbors – Bob White

(Colinus virginianus)

Called also: QUAIL; PARTRIDGE; VIRGINIA PARTRIDGE Length—9.50 to 10.50 inches.

Male and Female—Upper parts reddish brown or chestnut, flecked with black, white, and tawny; rump grayish brown, finely mottled, and with a few streaks of blackish; tail ashy, the inner feathers mottled with buff; front of crown, a line from bill beneath the eye, and band on upper breast, black; fore-head, and stripe over the eye, extending down the side of the neck, white; breast and under parts white or buff, crossed with irregular narrow black lines; feathers on sides and flanks chestnut, with white edges barred with black. The female has forehead, line over the eye, and throat, buff, and little or no black on upper breast. Summer birds have blacker crowns and paler buff markings. Much individual variation in plumage.

Range—” Eastern United States and southern Ontario, from south-ern Maine to the south Atlantic and Gulf states; west to central South Dakota, Nebraska; Kansas, Oklahoma and eastern Texas. Of late years has gradually extended its range west-ward along lines of railroad and settlements; also introduced at various points in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, California, Oregon, and Washington. Breeds throughout its range.” A. O. U.

Season—Permanent resident.

Endless confusion has arisen through the incorrect local names given to the Bob White, which in New England is called quail wherever the ruffed grouse is called partridge, and called partridge in the middle and southern states wherever the ruffed grouse is called pheasant; but true partridges and quail, quite different in habits and appearance from ours, are confined to the Old World, however firmly their names cling to the American species. That which we call a quail, by any other name would taste as sweet; and it is surely time the characteristic game bird of this country received in all sections its characteristic, distinctive title. Bob White, the name it calls itself, also has the sanction of that dignified, conservative body, the American Ornithologists’ Union, than which can there be two higher authorities ?

Before the snow and ice have been melted by spring sun-shine, Bob White ! ah, Bob White ! a clear staccato whistle, rings out from some plump little feathered breast swelling with tender and sincere emotions. Mates are not easily won : sharp contests of rival males, that fight desperately, like game cocks, occur through-out the pairing season; the demure, coy little sweetheart, concealing her admiration for the proud victor strutting before her, only fans his flame by her feigned indifference. In vain he jumps upon a stump and, like a ruffled orator, repeats his protestations. He runs beside her, now bowing, now crossing her path, ardently entreating some sign that his handsome feathers, his gallantry, his musical voice, his sworn devotion to her, have made an impression; but the shy little lady, appearing to be frightened by such ardor, discreetly withdraws, knowing perfectly well, as every coquette must, that such coyness never discourages a suitor worth the having. Marriage is not entered into lightly or irreverently by these monogamous birds, unlike their European Mormon kin that utterly lack the gallantry and affectionate nature characteristic of the American bird. It is a slander to call Bob White by the name of the disreputable, pugnacious, selfish, mean-looking quail. Rarely, indeed, does he lapse from rectitude and take a second mate.

In May, a simple nest, or slight depression in the ground, lined with leaves and grasses, is formed sometimes in the stubble, in a grassy tussock that meets overhead, and must be entered from one side; or beneath a small bush, next a worm-eaten old log, at the foot of a stump; or in the cotton rows-anywhere, in fact, where seclusion favors. Some nests have been found with well constructed domes, and the entrance a foot or more from the nest proper. Incredibly large numbers of brilliant white eggs—as many as thirty-two—are reported in a single nest, all skilfully packed in, pointed end downwards to economize space. Does the amiability of the female extend to sharing her nest with a rival, or are all these eggs hers ? Remove an egg, and it is impossible for the human hand to rearrange the clutch with such faultless economy. In the middle and southern states, where two and even three broods have been reared in a season, the number of eggs laid at a time rarely exceeds ten, so that the autumn coveys there are no larger than those in the north. Both parents take turns in covering the eggs, the male encouraging his brooding mate by cheerful, musical whistles introduced by a half-suppressed syllable, that the New Englanders translate into No more wet! more wet! or Pease most ripe ! most ripe ! and the Western farmers into Sow more wheat! more wheat! A shrill weeteeh, used as a note of warning; quoi-hee, quoi-hee, to reassemble a scattered covey; a subdued clucking when undisturbed, and a rapidly repeated twitter when surprised, are Bob White’s vocal expressions. One feels happier for having heard his exuberant joy and pride whistled from a fence-rail or low branch of a tree. How readily he answers the farmer’s boy whistling to him from the plough ! He is decidedly in evidence, bold and fearless during the twenty-four days of incubation; but one rarely sees the female then. She is ever shy. Ray, the English naturalist, says the European quail hatches one-third more males than females—a proportion that corresponds with the numbers generally bagged by our gunners. Should the eggs be handled when first laid, the nest is at once deserted. Mowing machines work sad havoc every year.

Precisely as a brood of chickens follows a mother hen about the farm, so a bevy of comical little downy Bob Whites, some-times with the shells still sticking to their backs, run about through the tangled brake and cultivated fields, learning from both devoted parents which seeds of grasses, cereals, and berries they may eat. Farmers bless them for the number of weed-seeds and insects they destroy. The fox and the hawk, next to man, are their worst enemies. A note of alarm sends the fledgelings half-running, half-flying, to huddle up close to the mother; or when a cold wind blows, a soft, low, caressing twitter summons the babies to shelter beneath her short wings, that barely cover the large brood.

Later, the young scatter and hide among the grass, while the parents, feigning lameness and the usual pathetic artifices familiar to one who has ever disturbed a family of young birds, dare all things for their dear sakes. Should some accident befall the female during incubation, the male faithfully covers the eggs and ministers to every want of his happily precocious family; and in the south, where the female frequently begins to lay again when her first brood is but a few weeks old, it is the father, a pattern of all domestic virtues, that then assumes its full care. When the second brood leaves the shell, one large happy family, known in sportsman’s parlance as a bevy or covey, makes as charming a picture as one is likely to meet in a year’s tramp. Southern sportsmen, especially, sometimes express surprise at finding birds still in pin feathers and unable to fly in November, when part of the brood, at least, may not be distinguished from adults ; but these most prolific of all game birds not infrequently devote six months to nursery duties. Bob Whites are eminently affectionate, and a covey never willingly disperses until the spring pairing season.

” It is a glorious day : come, let us kill something ! ” says London Punch’s famous sportsman ; and when the splendor of autumn glorifies our fields and woods, domed by a sky of clearest, most intense blue, and the keen, frosty, sparkling air invigorates both mind and body, the American sportsman likewise takes down his light, short gun and some shells loaded with No. 8 shot, whistles up his dog, which nearly twists himself inside out’ with happiness, and at sunrise is off. Now the coveys are feeding in the field of buckwheat—a favorite resort—or in the stubble of the corn, rye, or oat fields, or along the ditches and clearings fringed with undergrowth, or in the vineyard or orchard—just where it is the dog’s business, not the author’s, to disclose. The seed of the locust, wild pease, tick, trefoil, sunflower, smartweed, partridge berry, wintergreen and nanny berries, acorns, and beech-nuts do not complete the Bob Whites’ menu. Late in the fore-noon, the hearty breakfast having at length ended, a bevy of birds will first slake their thirst before huddling together to preen and dust their feathers and enjoy a midday siesta on a sunny slope. They keep near water during droughts ; but after long rains, look for them on the dry uplands and along the sunniest coverts, not too early on a frosty morning, when they are likely to remain huddled together late to keep warm until the hoar frost melts in the sunshine. These birds have a unique manner of sleeping : forming a circle on the ground, in a sheltered open, beyond thickets where prowling fox and weasel lurk, they squat close together as they can huddle to save heat, and with their tails toward the centre, and their heads pointing outward to detect danger from every possible direction, rest secure through the night and sometimes part of cold and stormy days, the male parent usually remaining outside the ring to act as sentinel. As winter approaches, they leave the open, cultivated fields to with-draw into sheltered thickets and bottom lands, sometimes to alder swamps. Now, when hunger often pinches cruelly, the food scattered for barnyard fowls is fearlessly picked up ; indeed, these birds haunt the outskirts of farms at all seasons, following the pioneer and railroad westward, and ever going more than half way in establishing friendly relations between themselves and mankind. While all efforts to domesticate them have ended in runaways when the nesting season came around and wild birds whistled enticing notes of happiness and freedom, protection from the shooters, and a few handfuls of buckwheat scattered about for them in the bitter weather are all the encouragement these appreciative little neighbors need to keep them about the farm. Like the ruffed grouse they will allow the snow to bury them, or voluntarily bury themselves in it to escape extreme cold ; but an ice crust forming over a sleeping covey often imprisons it, alas ! and not until a thaw is the tragedy revealed in a circle of feathered skeletons.

A loud whir-r-r-r-r-r-r, as a flushed flock rises to wing, indicates something of the speed at which the Bob Whites rush through the air. They are not migratory, usually remaining resident wherever found, although from the northern boundary of their range coveys seen travelling afoot in autumn certainly appear to be going toward warmer winter quarters. Rising at a considerable angle from the ground, on stiff, set, short wings, after a flushing, the birds, heading for a wooded cover, are off in a strung out line that only the tyro imagines makes an easy target. Suddenly dropping all at once and not far from each other, squatting close, in the confidence inspired by the perfect mimicry of their plumage with their surroundings, each bird must be almost trodden upon before it will rise to wing. Very rarely they take refuge in trees. It has been said a Bob White can retain its odor voluntarily, since the best of pointers often fails to find it even when within a few feet. When lying close, the wings are pressed against the side, every feather clings tightly with a tension produced by fear, in all probability, rather than by any voluntary act ; but the result is that by flying upward, rather than running and giving the scent to the dogs, and by compressing its feathers on dropping to the ground again, brave little Bob White often gives the sportsman a lively chase for his game. After much shooting, birds become ” educated.” Wonderfully clever they are in matching the sportsman’s tricks with better ones. They school the wing shots finely until the crack marksman confesses his chagrin. The best trained dog may bushwhack an entire slope, where they are known to be scattered, without flushing one ; for vainly does the dog draw now. His usefulness was greatest in standing a covey before the reports from the gun gave fair warning that no one-sided sport had begun.

Once the firing ceases, sweet minor scatter calls—quoi-hee, quoi-hee—reunite the diminished members of a flock. A solitary survivor has been known to wander about the country through an entire winter, calling mournfully and almost incessantly for the missing brothers and sisters, until a farmer, whose family had feasted on their delicate white flesh, unable to listen to the cry that sounded to him like the voice of an accusing con-science, again picked up his gun and put the mourner out of misery.

Among the thousands upon thousands of “quail” shot annually, some sportsman finds either an albino or some other freak wearing plumage that he is certain belongs to a distinct species; but the Texan and the Florida birds alone are true, but merely climatic, variations of our own Bob White. The former is distinguished by its paler, more grayish tone of the upper parts, that are marked with tawny, while the Florida bird has darker, richer coloring, with heavier black markings, and a longer, jet black bill.

Several allied ” quail ” (partridges) are of too local a distribution on the Pacific slope and in the southwest to be included in a book that avowedly excludes ” local and rare birds.” Wherever the prolific Bob Whites have been introduced and protected in the west, they have so quickly spread as to encourage the hope that since true sportsmen everywhere are taking active measures to stay the hand of bird butchers, our national game bird may some day regain the vast numbers brutally destroyed.