Creature Feature: Northern Bobwhite

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Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus). Photo by Baxter Beamer.

Northern Bobwhite

Colinus virginianus

Family: Odontophoridae

Other common names: Bobwhite Quail, Virginia Quail

Distinguishing Features/Description

Northern bobwhites are a small, round bodied species of quail with short legs and tails. Their bodies are finely patterned with bold rufous, brown, black and white markings. Most bobwhite populations have a striped white and black head, with a white throat, dark eye stripe, white supercilium and dark crown. The only exception to this head coloration is the endangered subspecies masked bobwhite (C. v. ridgwayi) of southern Arizona, which has an entirely black head.

The coloration of male northern bobwhites varies significantly across their range, while females look similar. Eastern males have rich rufous colored chests and flanks and a light brown back. Males from the Southeastern U. S. are much darker overall, with a nearly black chest and very little rufous on the flanks. Western birds are paler, with some light rufous underneath and a pale gray back.

Northern bobwhites are the only quail throughout the eastern part of their range; however, they do overlap with scaled and Gambel’s quail in the West. Where they overlap with other quail species, bobwhites can be easily identified by their smaller size and brighter coloration, including their rufous chest and striped head.

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Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata)

Distribution and Habitat

Northern bobwhites occur naturally in most of the eastern United States, roughly from Massachusetts to South Dakota and south through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas to Florida. They also can be found on many of the Caribbean Islands and south through Mexico to Guatemala. Bobwhites have also been introduced to other parts of the world — including the Pacific Northwest and Europe — as a game bird.

In Virginia, northern bobwhites can be found statewide, although in many areas native populations have declined precipitously since the 1970s. Bobwhites are fairly rare in the Shenandoah Valley, becoming increasingly frequent as you travel east through the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. There are quite a few around Scottsville in eastern Albemarle, although some of these birds are likely hunting releases.

Northern bobwhites need early successional habitats — various natural grasslands and savannas — to do well, and the decline of these habitats in Virginia is probably a large cause of their decline. These kinds of prairies and open forests are maintained by disturbances, such as clear cutting or burning. Two plant communities that bobwhites rely on in Virginia are Piedmont prairie and loblolly pine savanna. Difficult Creek Natural Area and Piney Grove Preserve are two preserves in Virginia that exemplify these two plant communities respectively.

Piedmont prairies are a particularly diverse form of natural grassland, which makes them great habitat for bobwhites. The rich assemblage of flora that can be found in these disturbed habitats is often dominated by many species of grasses, legumes and asters. Since there are so many species of native plants, there are also many insects and seeds for the bobwhites to eat. The dense herb layer also provides cover from predators.

The diversity of flowering plants found in good bobwhite habitat also makes great habitat for pollinators. Many species of native butterflies, bees and wasps would also benefit from the restoration of natural grasslands.

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Piedmont Prairie at Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve

Ecology and Life History

Bobwhites feed mostly on seeds and nuts in the fall and winter, but in the summer when they are raising chicks, they also eat many insects. Preferred seed sources include asters, legumes, grasses, pines and oaks.

Like other quail species, bobwhites live in groups — called coveys — of 3-20 birds. Coveys feed and sleep together, and they get along peacefully for most of the year, except during the breeding season when males fight for mates.

Nests are a shallow, grass lined scrape on the ground. Bobwhites often weave grasses over the nest into a canopy, forming a dome like shape. Typically, there is only one brood per season, but up to three have been recorded. Clutch size is large, usually more than 10 eggs. The young fledge after two weeks.

Notes

As mentioned above, northern bobwhites used to be a common bird in the eastern United States, but their populations have declined by 85% in the past 40 years, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The IUCN Red List currently considers them “near threatened”. These declines have been attributed to widespread loss of the early successional habitat that bobwhites favor to development, forest succession, and more land intensive farming practices. Historically, the Piedmont of Virginia held extensive natural grasslands. What little remain today are widely scattered and fragmented. Bobwhites are only one of the many animals and plant species that rely on these incredibly biodiverse habitats.

Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve

A friend, Drew, and I started planning our trip to Halifax County’s Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve in January. Difficult Creek is a former Pine savanna with hardpan soils, making it a very unique site in Virginia. Recently the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) announced on Face Book their discovery there of a new colony of Tall Barbara’s Buttons, a southern piedmont endemic with only one other known extant site in the world and one of our main targets for the trip.

On our way down Route 15 just north of Farmville, Drew spotted a huge mass of white wands of flowers in a power cut. Excited at the thought of what they might be, we quickly stopped. Hundreds of White Colicroot (Aletris farinosa) grew in the power line cut along with Green Milkweed, Smalls Ragwort, Carolina Rose, and Sundrops.

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White Colicroot is much rarer further north so we had never seen it before.

Shortly after entering the preserve on a windy road, we crossed Difficult Creek, its water muddy and torrential after all the recent rain. Southern Sugar Maple (Acer floridanum) and Winged Elm (Ulmus alata) grew in the forest around the creek. Soon we came to a large power line crossing the road. Underneath it bloomed the richest assortment of colorful wildflowers I had ever seen in a power line prairie. Carolina Thistle (Cirsium carolinianum), rare in Virginia, was one of the most abundant species. Plumed Thistle, Butterfly Weed, Dogbane, Green Milkweed, Green-and-Gold, Sundrops, Hyssop-leafed Skullcap, Mad-dog Skullcap, Pale spike Lobelia, and many asters, goldenrods, and other composites that were to young to identify were also plentiful.

Soon, we also found White Milkweed (Asclepius albicans) and Carolina False Dandelion (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus), both life plants for me. As we explored the power cut, we kept finding southern piedmont specialties, plants that hardly ever occur elsewhere in the state. For example, American Ipecac (Gillenia stipulata) is listed by the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora to occur in Virginia only in Halifax and Wise Counties.

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American Ipecac

Other interesting plants we saw there were: Narrow-leaved Bluets (Houstonia tenuifolia), Old Field Milkvine (Matelea decipiens), Sampson Snakeroot (Orbexilum pedunculatum), Smooth Coneflower (Echinacea laevigata), and Lobed Coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata).

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Smooth Coneflower

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Old Field Milkvine

The birds we saw and heard were species typical of southern piedmont pine lands, with the most common species being Summer Tanager, Prairie Warbler, Pine Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, and Brown-headed Nuthatch, always a treat to see away from the coast.  We also heard a Northern Bobwhite call a couple of times, only the second time I have ever encountered it.  Other notable birds were Yellow-breasted Chat and Hooded Warbler.

When we finished exploring the power line prairie, we accessed the preserve at another point, to keep looking for Barbara’s Buttons. Loblolly Pines grew above us, Willow Oak, Blackjack Oak, Post Oak, and Sourwood made a dense shrub layer. The herbaceous diversity was not nearly as high as it had been in the open power line corridor.

As we were finishing our lunch, heavy clouds came in and it started to pour.  We quickly ran back to the car to finish eating, complaining about how difficult the rain would make photography, and how generally unpleasant it was.  Right when we were about to go out again, a DCR truck pulled up and its driver asked if we were looking for wildflowers.  We said we were, and asked him if he could show us the site for Tall Barbara’s Buttons.  It turned out the driver was Chris Ludwig, Chief biologist of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage.  He showed us a small colony of Tall Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia legrandii), which, despite the still heavy rain, we photographed profusely.

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Tall Barbara’s Buttons

The pouring rain necessitated that we keep moving if we did not want to get soaked, so we asked Chris if he would show us a colony of the much more common (but still new to us) Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia obovata), which also grows at the preserve. He took us to a large colony, and I was surprised at how different the two Barbara’s Buttons were from each other. I had been prepared to measure the height of the stalk in order to tell one from the other, but found that Tall Barbara’s Buttons had deep pink flowers and Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons had pure white flowers.  I am sure flower color in these species is somewhat variable, and I am very curious as to the color of Tall Barbara’s Buttons at the other site it is known from in North Carolina, and to the color of other colonies of Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons.

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Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons

Chris then showed us the few other plants we had missed on our first exploration of the power cut, such as Rattlesnake Master, and Glade Wild Quinine (we had seen Common Wild Quinine earlier, so we were able to compare the species). He also identified the strange sheep like sound of an amphibian we had been hearing all day as a Eastern Narrow-mouthed Toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis).

 

Chris also told us how DCR was managing Difficult Creek.  About 40 years ago, the preserve had been converted to a Loblolly Pine plantation from hardwood forest.  As the Pines grew, they forced the herbaceous flora into the adjacent power line clearing that we had just explored. The power line cut was mowed every couple of years, which kept woody plants from encroaching and cutting off light.  DCR’s plan is to restore the preserve to pine savanna, an open canopy of pines, oaks, and hickories maintained by fire, that would have historically occurred throughout the southern piedmont before the colonial period.  They hope to accomplish this by prescribed burns and Loblolly Pine removal, which would let more light reach the ground, allowing the plants to recolonize the preserve from the power line clearing.  In addition to this restoration regime providing fantastic habitat for so many rare southern piedmont plants, it would create ideal habitat for Northern Bobwhites.

We were thrilled by the success of our trip, and the thought of that rich power cut prairie spreading throughout the entire preserve.