The northern bobwhite, found in coveys except during breeding season, is the most widespread and familiar quail in North America. It exhibits the greatest range of geographic variation of any galliform. Polytypic (20 ssp.; 4 in North America). Length 9.7".
Plump, short-tailed quail with reddish brown plumage. Adult male: intricate body plumage of chestnut, brown, and white; blackish plumage on head; white throat and eye line. Adult female: similar to adult male but throat and eye line buffy and plumage on head brown. Juvenile: similar to adult female but body plumage browner, less rufous, and eye line less prominent. Rufous morph: very rufous body plumage masks markings. Black face superficially resembles the “masked bobwhite.” Extremely rare. “Masked bobwhite:” similar to eastern birds, but it has a black face with the white eye line greatly reduced and flecked with black. Underparts are entirely rufous with white markings on the flanks; the upperparts have prominent rufous markings, becoming browner on the lower back and rump.
The northern bobwhite is remarkably complex, with differences sometimes being striking in the plumage of the adult male. The species is often broken into 4 distinct groups, 2 of which occur in the United States. The northern group occurs in eastern North America; it is made up of 5 similar subspecies that are differentiated by changes in overall coloration and the width of barring on the underparts. The second group is the “masked bobwhite” (ridgwayi) found in southern Arizona and Sonora; at times it has been considered a separate species.
The northern bobwhite is distinctive; no similar species exist within its range. The Montezuma quail is superficially similar, but its range overlaps with the northern bobwhite’s only in south-central Texas.
The male’s advertising call is a whistled bob-white or bob-bob-white. Other calls include a low whistled ka-lo-kee and a variety of clucks.
Status and Distribution
Uncommon to common year-round in a variety of open habitats with sufficient brushy cover. Introduced to northwestern North America, the Bahamas, several Caribbean islands, and New Zealand. The “masked bobwhite” is rare in the Altar Valley of southern Arizona and is the result of a reintroduction effort from remaining populations in Sonora; it is federally listed as endangered.
Although still locally common, northern bobwhite has declined significantly in the United States. Manipulation of habitat and the high populations of the introduced fire ant are believed to be key factors in the decline. Dramatic declines have left the species virtually extirpated in many areas where it was once common. The native population of “masked bobwhite” was extirpated from the United States by 1900.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006