The Northern bobwhite is a member of the order Galliformes, from the Latin ‘gallinaceus’, which means “of poultry.” They belong to the same order as domestic fowl, also including turkeys, grouse, pheasants, partridges, and other quail. They are also members of the family Odontophoridae, New World quails with a serrated lower mandible. The strong whistle of bobwhite in piney woods or a grassy field has long been associated with summer in the countryside of the east of the American continent. It’s much harder to sight a northern bobwhite, as its elegantly dappled plumage affords excellent camouflage. These birds are more often heard than seen; although they are not especially shy, often they remain within a dense low cover.
Northern bobwhites are found from Central America to southeastern Ontario. The largest populations are in Mexico and the eastern United States. They are also found throughout Cuba, with isolated populations in northwestern Mexico, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. This species is found in a range of habitats, usually within pine woodlands or at the edges, in shrubs, pastures, cultivated areas, and fallow fields.
Northern bobwhites are gregarious birds and live in flocks or “coveys”, averaging about a dozen, outside of the breeding season. At night they roost in circles on the ground, tails pointing inward, heads pointing outwards. They have a male social hierarchical system. Northern bobwhites prefer to hide amongst vegetation when threatened or disturbed. They can stay motionless, their plumage blending into the environment. These birds are typically diurnal, and most feeding takes place during the early morning and late afternoon. Able to fly relatively short distances, an average flight being 5.1 seconds, they are usually on the ground. Populations typically are sedentary, year-round residents, especially in areas where there is a habitat of moderate to high quality. Bobwhites use many calls to initiate and direct group movement: one call is for food location, there are 11 to help avoid enemies, six are sexual or combative and two are parental calls.
Northern bobwhites are predominantly herbivores (folivores and granivores). They mainly eat plant matter like the seeds of various plants, acorns, leaves, fruits, buds, and tubers. In summer, they catch spiders, insects, snails, and small vertebrates.
Originally considered monogamous, now clear evidence shows a polygynandrous (promiscuous) mating system for Northern bobwhites, meaning that males and females both incubate and raise chicks with not just one mate during a breeding season. The season is from February to October, according to the region. Courtship displays involve a variety of postures by the male, with his wings spread or dropped, for the purpose of exposing to the female his plumage and head pattern, There is also ritual courtship feeding of the female by the male. These birds nest in a shallow depression in the ground lined with dead vegetation and grass. The nest is often hidden and covered. Usually, 12-14 eggs are laid. If there is a second clutch, there are fewer eggs. Incubation is for about 23-26 days. Chicks are precocial, and, soon after hatching, they wander off from the nest. They are guarded by both parents or just the female. Chicks grow quickly and are able to flutter at one week old and fly at two. Northern bobwhites can mate within their first year.
Populations of this species are declining. The major reasons for this are thought to be habitat loss, especially as a result of the increase in farming on a large scale, and the reduction of suitable habitat plots and fence rows. Hunting in the U.S. is another threat.
The All About Birds resource records that the total breeding population of Northern bobwhites is 5.8 million, with 84% in the U.S., while 11% are in Mexico. Currently, this species is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are decreasing.
Northern bobwhites are an important prey species for birds of prey as well as small terrestrial predators. These birds are also important foliage and seed predators and may have an effect on the plant communities where they live.