For the Birds Radio Program: Northern Bobwhite in Duluth

Original Air Date: July 31, 1995

What was a bobwhite quail doing in Duluth?

Audio missing


(date is certain) Last week I received a phone call from a nice lady in Duluth’s Woodland neighborhood who came home from her cabin to find an unusual bird visiting her yard—a bobwhite! Bobwhites are fairly common in the southern states, and are still found in southwestern Wisconsin, though numbers are much lower than in past years. In 1958, the Wisconsin hunting take was about 47,000 birds, but two years later, in 1960, it had dropped to only 8,500. Hunting was closed in Wisconsin from 1962-1972, but the population remained at that level, with annual hunting kills since 1980 remaining below 8,000. In Minnesota they can be found only in four counties in the southwestern and southeastern corners of the state, but because numbers are low and the longer stocks them, they haven’t been a legal game bird since 1958. Of course, bobwhite have always been essentially unheard of in the northland.

So where did this one come from? Presumably it escaped from one of the local game farms. The prognosis for a lone little quail making it through a long Northland winter on its own isn’t good. In the wild, quails join groups called coveys and share body warmth through those long winter nights. This one will be all alone. But if it stays near some understanding people with well-stocked feeders, it at least has a chance, and freedom clearly meant more to hiim than the security of captivity.

So what do you feed a quail that shows up at your bird feeder? I recommend stopping by Dan’s Feed Bin. Feed stores not only stock the kinds of seed mixtures game farms use, but the people who work there know which blends are right for different species. In a pinch, of course, regular bird seed will work. That’s what attracted this bird in the first place.

Bobwhites are primarily vegetarians, but in the summer about 30 percent of their diet is insects. Margaret Morse Nice watched one captive bobwhite eat 568 mosquitoes in 2 hours in what must have been most unpleasant circumstances. Perhaps we should bring pet bobwhites along on visits to the Boundary Waters. Nice also recorded one bobwhite eating 5,000 aphids in a day, and another eating 1,000 grasshoppers and 532 other bugs in a day—she must have been doing her studies in a bug sanctuary!

I used to see lots of bobwhite when I started birding in southern Michigan and Illinois, but now seeing them is a rare event. There were plenty when I went to Oklahoma a few years ago. Driving along I-35 late one afternoon, I saw one on the road up ahead. There were no cars in the left lane, and I managed to swerve in time to miss it, but I didn’t see its mate hidden in a shadowed road dip in the left lane, and hit that one instead. It knocked my headlight badly out of alignment, but that was at least reparable. It knocked its own lights out permanently, becoming the first bird, and so far the last, that I ever killed, teaching me to slow down. Each bobwhite pair lays as many as 16 eggs in a single brood, but between natural predators, cats, human hunters, habitat destruction, mowing machines, farm and lawn pesticides, and automobiles, they’re in decline just about everywhere, and I’ll always feel sad that I contributed to their problems. If one ever turns up at my feeder, you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll lavish it with nutritious food, water, and love.