For the Birds Radio Program: Declining Species: Northern Bobwhite

Original Air Date: Aug. 3, 2007

One of the rapidly declining but formerly very common birds deserves our attention.

Duration: 4′48″


A few weeks ago, the National Audubon Society released a list of the most rapidly declining common birds in North America. They based their list on 40 years of data from the Breeding Bird Survey sponsored by the US Geological Survey and Audubon’s own Christmas Bird Count. In the coming weeks, I’ll be doing programs about all the birds that are included on this list. The very top one on the list, a species that has declined 82 percent since the 1960s, is an adorable little game bird, the Northern Bobwhite.

Unless you keep track of these things in nature, Bobwhites don’t seem all that rare. They’re easily raised in captivity, to serve as food for zoo animals, for hunters to use in training and working with their retrievers, to provide targets for unlicensed game farm shooting, and even to serve as pets. Because the call is so well-known, a lot of people who’d never before seen or heard a real bobwhite knew exactly what it was when a couple of years ago bobwhites suddenly started appearing in backyards throughout Duluth—apparently there was a mass exodus from a game farm. Throughout the summer people kept seeing the birds, many of which were shockingly tame. I found that a sobering insight into the lack of real sport in game farm shoots.

Unfortunately, captive birds don’t mix well with wild ones—they sometimes have genetic or behavioral weaknesses or are reservoirs of diseases that can infect wild populations. Up here in North Country, of course, Bobwhites can’t survive winters, which is why this has never been part of their range. Except for the ones that were taken in by merciful Duluthians, the birds that escaped two years ago were doomed, though I guess there’s something to be said for dying free compared to dying at the hands of one’s captors.

In the wild, Bobwhites are magnificent birds. I used to see and especially hear them pretty regularly in southern Wisconsin, and when birding in southeastern states. So far in my driving career, I’ve hit three birds—an unidentified owl one dark night, a Yellow-rumped Warbler on Highway 61 one fall day, and a Bobwhite on an Oklahoma highway late one afternoon 16 years ago. That’s one knocked my headlight out of alignment, causing a certain deserved level of inconvenience in return for killing it. I’ve never been able to get the thump of impact out of my head, which is part of the reason I still almost always drive well below the speed limit.

Fortunately, I’ve had many opportunities to see healthy, live Bobwhites in the wild since then. They’re sociable birds, sleeping together in groups called coveys, in tight circles with each bird’s tail in the center and head and beak pointed straight out—a formation which prevents mid-air collisions when the birds take off in a hurry when a predator approaches—a handy thing because these birds are very popular with predators. Unlike many gallinaceous birds, male Bobwhites don’t display on a lek—they form pairs for the most part, although the species is no more monogamous than the characters of a soap opera. The charming old story, “That Quail Robert,” is about a wild Bobwhite living in captivity. Because of their distinctive whistle, Bobwhites feature in a lot of literature, too—Dill, Scout and Jem call each other at night by whistling Bobwhite in To Kill a Mockingbird. A researcher named Stoddard once calculated that individual bobwhites sing an average of 1,430 songs per day. It’s primarily unattached males who call, primarily to attract a mate. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in “The Harvest Moon,” “The song-birds leave us at the summer’s close, Only the empty nests are left behind, And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.” Long may this worthy bird continue its pipings.