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Saturday, 10 November 2012

Galliformes 12: Common Quail

Common Quail Coturnix coturnix
One of the smallest gamebirds in the UK is also one of the hardest to see, as a result of its secretive nature and its fondness for living in cornfields. While the gamebirds I have covered so far in this series are highly sedentary, the Common Quail Coturnix coturnix that we have in the UK are highly migratory, with western European birds overwintering in the Sahel region just south of the Sahara and with eastern European birds travelling to India. The British population is at the extreme northern edge of its range, and only a few hundred males are heard calling each year. Part of the problem with counting them is that once paired up males become silent, and small silent birds in the middle of a large cornfield are impossible to detect. They arrive in late April and depart for winter quarters in late summer.

During the breeding season they can produce one or sometimes two clutches of up to 12 eggs (usually 6 or 7) that as with other gamebirds are laid in a simple scrape in the ground. Incubation is 16-21 days and the young fledge at 19 days. As with other grassland gamebirds the basic diet is small seeds with added insects for protein, especially with growing chicks.

Quail have never been numerous in Britain, but there has been a modest recovery in the UK numbers in recent years. The chief problem with the population is that they, along with other characteristic farmland birds, are very vulnerable to changes in farming regimes and crops grown, and this can have a serious impact on numbers. In view of their winter quarters, droughts in the Sahel can also cause great reduction in overwinter survival and consequently numbers returning to breed even after good breeding years. The extremely wet weather we have had this year has probably been very bad for quail reproduction, and I expect numbers will be down for the next several years even if we get good breeding seasons. Globally however it is classed as Least Concern, and the population probably numbers in the tens of millions.

Scientifically speaking ‘quail’ is not really a meaningful term as there are two families of small gamebirds that are generically referred to as quail, the New World Quail in the family Odontophoridae, and the Old World Quail which are placed with the pheasants in the Phasianidae. New World quail are more diverse in their ecology, with habitats ranging from rainforest in South America to the grassland specialist Bobwhite Quail in North America. Old World Quail are grassland specialists, varying from dry grassland to rice paddy and bamboo dominated habitats.

Bobwhite Quail
As a result of their original habitat, many have adapted to life in cereal crops, and because they are so prolific they are widely hunted. One species, the Japanese Quail Coturnix japonica, has been domesticated for meat and egg production, and another, the smallest of the Old World Quail, the King or Chinese Painted Quail Coturnix (Excalfactoria) chinensis is a widespread aviary bird. Although the domesticated quail is referred to as the Japanese Quail, it was actually first domesticated in China, arriving in Japan around the 11th or 12th centuries. Owing to their small size and ease of culture, quail farms are now found all over the world, and many are kept even in back gardens. Quail eggs are quite a popular delicacy, and these days most supermarkets in the UK will have them at least seasonally.
King or Chinese Painted Quail
As quail farms are quite widespread, any birder should check if a quail sighting is a true Common Quail or an escaped domesticated quail, as Japanese Quail and Common Quail are very similar in appearance. Many of the domesticated quail are however now colour varieties, so are less likely to be confused. The calls of the two species are the best way to tell them apart in case of doubt, as they are fairly distinct in voice.

That completes all the wild gamebirds to be found in Britain. For the sake of completeness however, it would be unfair not to include two other species of galliform bird to be seen in the UK which will be extremely familiar to any readers, chickens and turkeys – especially as Christmas is coming up! I will cover these over the next couple of weeks.

(images from wikipedia)

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