No game bird more epitomizes the South than the northern bobwhite quail. Some call it The Prince of the Game Birds. Veteran hunts simply call the bird quail. Regardless, due to the bird’s popularity, some researchers suggest that wildlife biologists have spent more time researching the bobwhite quail than any other gamebird. With so much research being focused on the life history of this popular game bird, if you thought that there could not be much left for us to learn about the quail’s breeding behavior, you would be wrong. Research conducted during the past several decades suggests that the bobwhite mating behavior may be much more complicated than it appears to be.
Throughout most of the 20th century our knowledge of the bobwhite’s mating behavior was based solely on observations.Herb Stoddard, the pioneer of quail management, lamented in his writings during the early part of the 1900s that studying the bobwhite’s mating activities in the wild is extremely difficult due to fact the quail inhabits brushy/grassy areas and is so wary. As a result, most of our knowledge regarding this subject is based on watching birds living in large enclosures. It was assumed that the behavior exhibited in these large pens probably reflects what happens in nature.
Based largely on these observations the northern bobwhite was classified as being monogamous. In other words, one male mates with one female. This is the mating behavior exhibited by most birds. In fact, it has been estimated that approximately 90 percent of all birds are monogamous.
The foundations supporting this belief began to crack during the late 20th century when biologists began using radio telemetry to study bird movements. The technique involves attaching radio transmitters to birds. The signals given off by the transmitters are detected using a hand-held receiver. When biologists plot these precise locations on a map they able to accurately track the movements of individual birds.
A study designed to monitor the breeding behavior of quail was launched in 1988 by biologists hailing from North Carolina State University and the Tall Timbers Research Station. The two study areas selected for this work were Fort Bragg, North Carolina and The Tall Timbers Research State located near Tallahassee, Florida.
Wild quail were trapped, aged, sexed, and equipped with radio transmitters. Their movements were then followed by the biologists during the nesting season. The results of their study were subsequently published in the Proceedings of the National Quail Symposium. Their paper was entitled Polygamous Breeding Behavior in the Northern Bobwhite.
Out of the 19 birds radio-tracked at Ft. Bragg, it was discovered 18 to be polygamous. In other words, each quail bred with more than one mate. Remarkably one male actually remained with the same female throughout the nesting season.
The birds tagged at Tall Timbers displayed similar behavior. Here 25 (93%) of the 27 birds that were equipped with transmitters appeared to be polygamous. Only two (2 percent) remained faithful to the same female.
Although polygamous behavior had been previously observed primarily among penned birds, researchers thought such behavior would rarely occur in the wild.
One of the conclusions made by the researches is that polygamy is practiced by both male and female northern bobwhites. They further concluded that both males and females incubate eggs and assist in raising the young with more than one mate during the same breeding season.
They also reported that both males and females mated with multiple partners.
Clearly if the results of this study are replicated in other locations, the northern bobwhite deserves to be reclassified as being polygamous.
In addition, it would then be up to today’s quail biologists to determine what impact the northern bobwhite’s diverse mating strategies have on quail populations.
It also goes without saying that modern technology is advancing our understanding of the natural world in ways we never imagined not too many years ago. I, for one, cannot wait to see what new discoveries await us down the road.
Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.