The Bob-white: Ontario’s only quail

This handsome little bird is Ontario’s only native quail.
It was never here in the north at any time, but was quite common in southwestern Ontario, Essex, Kent, and Norfolk counties in particular.
At one time, it had spread as far east as Kingston. I can quite well remember seeing, and hearing, the Bob-whites in the farmers’ fields around Cobourg.
But alas, this once-popular bird has almost gone entirely from our province. There are, and have been, several programs afoot to restock the Bob-white, but none have taken hold so far.
These were quite common in the very farthest south of the province, even up to the late 1900s. By 1972, there were only about 200 coveys left. Most of this large decline was due to weather—drought in the far south, and very hard winters in the northern states and Ontario.
Well, what are these little chicken-like birds really like? They are quite small, not much bigger than a robin, but a lot stockier.
Their predominant colour is brown, with a mottling of black and white feathers. The head of the male bird is very distinctive, with prominent lines of black and white. The head of the female is brown and buff. They are very trim little “chickens,” indeed.
The Bob-white has some habits all its own. For one thing, it spends almost all of its time on the ground, never in the trees.
While lots of bird hang around in flocks, this one lives in covies. A covey is usually made up of several quail families, and may be up to 30 or more birds.
While it lives almost entirely on the ground, it does make use of fences, especially wooden ones, like those old-fashioned ones that are almost all gone.
The covies have their own method of “roosting.” Just before dark, they form a ring. All the birds’ heads point out, and they make sure that their bodies are touching.
If something startles them, they just take off—each flying straight ahead. So they go in all directions, cutting down the loss from a hungry weasel or fox.
They usually talk to each other, too. Their talk is very low in volume—just enough to be heard. And so the covey stays together. If they get separated, they call out loudly to each other until they are all back together once more.
The Bob-white’s nest is rather unique, too. It is really just a depression in the ground, lined with grass. Then an arch is woven above the nest, and an opening is left on the side, to come and go. Very well hidden, indeed!
Another odd thing is that several pairs may use the same nest, so a nest may have up to 30 eggs in it.
This little quail was very good to eat—so we are told. And it was hunted for a very long time.
The severe decline began about 100 years ago. By 1990, there were only about 180 birds remaining in all Ontario. For the past several years, the population has remained at about 225 or so.
The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunter has had many release of the Bob-whites, with only limited results. For one thing, pen-raised birds do not adapt to conditions in the wild. The only ones which seem to be able to live and form covies are those which are raised in the wild, then released somewhere else.
The future does not look too bright for our only quail.

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