BIOLOGY AND ECOLOGY

 

 male female
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Systematic - Morphological aspects - Habitat - Feeding - Breeding - Migration - Moult - Hunting
SYSTEMATIC

In the Galliform order (significance : in hen shape), quail is closer to partridges and pheasants, than grouses or capercaillie, it thus belongs to the family of Phasianidae, more precisely to the subfamily of Perdicinae.

Since many years, several subspecies are recognized :
Coturnix coturnix conturbans : Azores (Port.). Then, includes in confisa.
Coturnix coturnix confisa
: Canary Islands (Spain), Madeira (Port.)
Coturnix coturnix inopinata : Cape Verde Islands
Coturnix coturnix africana
: South of Africa, Madagascar and Islands around. 
(see distribution map for these three last subspecies)
Coturnix coturnix elargeri : Highlands of Ethiopia. Now, includes in africana.
Coturnix coturnix coturnix : British islands, northwestern of Africa, Russia, India and possibly to Bangladesh.

Distinction was made by size variations and color of indivuals (nominal race biggest and upperparts less or more dark, chest more or less reddish according to different grounds studied).
 
If geographical isolations don't exist, sedentary insular birds mix regulary with nominal race birds coming from Africa or Europe, these subspecies don't appear in the field.
This fact is confirmed by some halfway plumage birds and it's the same for all the African continent.   

We can note however, that melanistic or albinos birds can be seen sometimes in C.c.coturnix populations.

Discussion about japanese quail sometimes like a subspecies C.c.japonica or like a real species Coturnix japonica, will be finished when genetic analysis will be done.

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MORPHOLOGICAL ASPECTS

Male is slightly smaller than the female by the length of the wing and the tarse, but also by its weight.

Further, in sexual rest period (wintering takes place in Sahelian zone), a male weighs approximately 93 grams against 100 grams for a female, but when birds accumulate lipids before migrating, they can respectively reach 125-130 and 140-145 grams. 
Large males and small females however exist. 
The long-range migrating birds (Sahelian zone - Northern Europe) are in addition smaller than the short-range migrating birds (Sahelian zone - Northern Africa).

In the field, in addition to the call of the male or to the behavior of an individual in breeding period, the plumage remains one of the best ways to identify surely the sex of a quail. The aspect of the chest and the throat are two indisputable criterias. 
After 4 weeks, youngs acquire their adult plumage. Males then present an orange (
see photo) no spotted chest and females a cream-coloured chest (see photo) covered with black round stains. Few weeks later and the black lines of the male on the throat appear definitively drawing an anchor.
Exceptions to these rules exist but remain fortunately rare.

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HABITAT

Common quail lives in farmland with high level of cereal fields like Grey partridge Perdix perdix
However species is only found in openfield where woods, hedges and so on are not present. Situations prefered by quails are high points at the top of the slopes. 

Other species can be regulary found in the same place : Skylark Alauda arvensis, Corn bunting Miliaria calandra, Yellow wagtail Motacilla flava but also Montagu's harriers Circus pygargus and Hen harrier Circus cyaneus. On the most famous grounds rare birds like Little bustard Tetrax tetrax or Stone curlew Burhinus oedicnemus have a good density.

If species occurs in wet grounds (marshes, salt-meadows, polders,...), it avoids dry sites with poor vegetation not enough dense, if possible. High temperatures don't limit quail distribution. However fields irrigation in northern part of Africa since 50th years stop more actively spring migration when birds fly towards Europe.

In lowlands and uplands, cereals (wheat, barley, oats, rye or hybrid wheat-rye) must be present in arable lands. These fields are very attractive for quails. The species moves on ground with good facility , hides very well from birds of prey (harriers principaly) and harvests are very late at the end of the breeding season (last days of june for barley and middle of july for the wheat in lowlands, end of august for rye or hybrid wheat-rye in uplands, if we consider France).
Fallow fields not destroyed by mechanisation or chimical treatments, with a lot of weeds species are so interesting. 
Meadows, that can be natural, artificial (altafa, clover,...) or temporary (rye-grass, dactyl, brome, fescue,...) are also interesting for quails. However bird frequentation fluctuates under influence of cutting that limit available surfaces. First cutting occurs at the beginning of may and meadows can offer few weeks latter new favourable conditions for quails. For example, altafa is cutted three or four times per season. We can note that artifical meadows are also the best fields for feeding, better than cereals with or without chimical treatments.
During june month, quail occurs in fields pea wich is cultivated for cattle .
Maize, rape or sunflower are not interesting for quails. Its avoid certainly because birds cannot take fly through this compact and high vegetation. It's only at the end of the summer or at the beginning of autumn, that partridges ands quails take refuge at the boundery of these crops especially after cereals harvest on grounds with no fallows.

Over 40 cm height vegetation, these informations are always right. The lacks of quails in early breeding season (april to may) on grounds where spring cereal fields are in good number can be explain by a vegetation too many short. Winter cereals sowed during autumn, have a good development, so are more suitable for quail installation during spring.

Parcels division is a key factor which influence distribution and density of quails in each breeding place. If parcels have a little size or present in big number and crops diversified, with already a high proportion of fields cereals, then european quail will be abundant, singers males very close to each others and breeding success important.
Contacts between crops and/or parcels seem to explain the big occurence of the species.

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FEEDING

Adults are more exclusively granivorous throughout the year, except in breeding period

In pre-migratoring autumnal period, quail use cultivated seeds taken on the ground, such as wheat, sunflower and sorghum. In spite of a great availability in different seeds, wheat is always strongly consumed in field crops zones. In medium of less intensive agricultural zones, seeds grass plants or seeds set asides plants become majority. 

In Portugal and Morocco), during wintering period, consumed seeds are often fruits of wild plants found in field crop (first Poacea) like Setaria or Panicum. In Senegal, quails feed in savanna especially from Dactyloctenium aegyptium.

In breeding period, all birds, males and females, eat invertebrates. Ants and many species of coleoptera appear among catched preys. The proportion of eaten seeds (vegetable/animal material ratio) falls then from 90% to 30%.  

Young birds diet changes when they grow, but they are able to eat seeds after 3 days. 

In their first week, birds are nearly totally insectivorous (92% of eaten food) like in the salted meadows of the  "Mont Saint Michel" where diet is composed by invertebrates of small sizes living on the ground : acarina, amphipods (small shellfish of the gammares type) and ants.
However if wild plants are numerous, like in fallows not sown, seeds with small size are prevalent (62%): Viola (Violacea), Stellaria (Caryophyllacea) or Euphorbia (Euphorbiacea). Spiders, collembola, dipterous and coleopterans larvae represent three-quarter of animal preys.

When youngs grow up, consumption of invertebrates falls regularly to be replace gradually by seeds and finally by  grains (wheat, barley or oat) which bigger size.
At 4 weeks, diet of young quail is equivalent to adults diet (only during outside breeding period).

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BREEDING

The aim of the quail breeding cycle is to obtain a maximum production of youngs. 

As soon as males arrive on a breeding ground, they search a female. The arrival of breeders is announced by the sudden abundance of crowing males in spring, singing together to attract females (typical call, the famous "wet my lips" can reach in crepuscular periods more than one kilometer and often preceded by the "ouin ouin" hearing at a short distance). Further, the birds distribution in the field is aggregative, a core of individuals being confined on a few hectares, distant of other groups, of more than 500 meters. The best breeding grounds receive each year and exactly in the same places, always birds.
  
The motivation of the males tends to fall after few days when females are not present or unavailable because living in pair (the migratory halt is generally 4 to 9 days). Then, they continue migration to reach, few hundreds of kilometers more north, grounds may be more favorable.
If a female is present and available, each male tries to attract itself the favours of this hypothetical partner. So, the male association is transformed into vocal competition, most of the time. When a male matchs, the pair vanishs among the vegetation searching a place where the female will be able to lay (lucerne, cereal or meadows). Then, the male stops to sing and couples with the female on several occasions.
Between 50.000 and 200.000 pairs are breeding in France.
The last datas by BirdLife International (2004) : 2,8 to 4,7 Millions pairs in Europe.
(see details)

Male does not defend a territory. The female chooses its future partner according to the characteristics of his call.

Female lays ten eggs (10-12) in a little depression on the ground, at the rate of an egg per day. At the end of the laying, the male leaves the female. It moves searching a new female in northern breeding range (this explains why sex-ratio increases from south to north of Europe: 3 males for 1 female in France and 7 males for 1 female in Denmark!).

Incubation duration is approximately 17 days. Quail chicks born approximately one month after an important migratory peak.

The good production of young depends on a good meteorology, without or with low rainfalls. Thus, in highlands, the average number of young per brood, for birds between two and five weeks, is near 4 (from 3 to 5 according to year). It is 5 in lowlands (no variation between year). The difference can be explain by summer storms, sometimes violent in mountain.
It should be noted however that the destruction of nests and broods could reach 50% in France.

The emancipation of the young occurs towards 4 weeks. They acquire their sexual maturity after 3 months.

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MIGRATION

The only one in european Galliforms with a migratory behavior.

European migratory quail leaves wintering sahelian grounds in mid-February.
These birds will join gradually others remained wintering in North Africa (Morocco in particular), in Portugal, in Spain and France (some birds when winter is soft).
They arrive in their first breeding grounds on March but a part of them continues to Europe, after a migratory halt, by the straits of Gibraltar towards Spain or by the Cape Bon in Tunisia towards Italy, thus crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

In France, quails begin to pass in the Pyrénées corridors (East of these moutains), on March, but they are pratically not detect (no calls).
Migrating birds flow in April, it acts mainly females searching for their first breeding grounds of the year.
On May or June, a second major migratory wave starts with a great number of males.
Last migratory birds, arrive during first or second week of July. Birds are near 3 months old, born in North Africa in April of the same year and able to be breeders in France or in other countries of Europe. 
Each year in spring and summer, it's the same thing, but dates of passage change a little according to weather conditions, latitude, longitude but also altitude. Some migratoring birds thus fly several thousands of kilometers as far as very septentrional breeding grounds (many breeding records in Feroes Island, few crowing males at Oulu in Finland 150 kms south from artic circle, and one quail found in Iceland during 1998). Birds fly up to 35 kilometers per hour.
The spring migration is carried out by night in group.

August is a period of erratism for the adult males searching available females (without youngs). It involves in mid-August with the disappearance of vegetable cover (harvest crop carried out), the departure of the first migrating males towards southern of Europe. At the end of august, adult females (young are emancipated now), also return to their known wintering grounds.
It's only when they reach the age of 8-9 weeks, that youngs will can stop moult to accumulate lipid reserves and thus to
begin their first migration. So, departures will be late if breeding has been late.

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MOULT

Quail has two moult periods : in winter, all feathers except wing feathers and tail feathers are changed ; in autumn, all feathers are concerned. Pre-breeding moult is thus incomplete, whereas the post-breeding moult is complete.

This last moult is complex and requires the handling of several hundreds of birds for understanding the various sequences of growth of the feathers, which, according to individuals, are often original. At a time, a bird will be able, moreover, to present feathers of 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation.
It's easy to be quickly losed !

 If you want, you can send  me by email, photographs if you are not sure in ageing or sexing a bird. 

You must to use three outside primaries feathers, to make a distinction between four age groups at the end of the summer :
- youngs (less than 8-9 weeks) : these feathers start to push at 4 weeks age and finish their growth at 7-8 weeks. They are shorter than the other primaries feathers during this time,
- the sub-adults, no matures (8-9 to 12-14 weeks, no matures) : these feathers are new, not worned and have a grey coloration. Other primaries feathers are grey and like secondaries feathers have already been changed (feathers of 2nd generation can be detected by their squared shape). Moult is blocked, no active because feathers are not growing and have a normal size
(see photo) ,
- adults of 1 year : these feathers are worned or very damaged, of sand coloration whereas other primaries feathers, with the same color, are fresher
(see photo) ,
- the 2 year old adults (rare) : these feathers are new because they have been changed on wintering grounds but others primaries feathers appear tired
(see photo) .

Flap color of a male change during the year, for example, from light to dark or dark to light, in only few months.
So, a bird with a dark flap is not inevitably an old individual. It's not a good criteria.

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HUNTING

The quail is hunting in Europe in 5 countries where we find France.

Hunting season to this species has began at 06h00 on 30th august 2003 for this year  (hunting allow only with a dog before general opening), except for Bas-Rhin département (near Germany). Before 2002, quail was hunted after first week-end of september in southern départements and third week-end in northern part. This decision is not without consequence on the future of this species in France. 

This decision will increase hunting pressure on quail, which has an indeterminate status, and this before to obtain first results on population tendancy.
This argumentation is valid for all uplands sites (more than 600-700 height meters) where breeders of lowlands go up to concentrate and where youngs, some years, will be not yet flying. Last week of august is a very critical period to avoid.

A national monitoring is carried out by the Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage (Environmental Ministry for Hunting and Wild Animals) by investigation near a sample of hunters. Bags for seasons 1974-1975, 1983-1984 and 1998-1999, are known with respectively 1.594.000, 640.000 (+/- 2,6%) and 341.130 (+/- 5,2%) birds shooted.

Haute Garonne (around Toulouse), Tarn et Garonne (Montauban)  and Charente Maritime (La rochelle) appear regularly among the first ten French départements where bags are biggest.
The proportion of released birds or "hunting quails" (it means not wild birds, released for hunting aim exclusively), difficult to estimate at the national level, reached in some French départements 75% (for example Haute Garonne at the end of the eighties).

85% of the wild birds bags are youngs less than three months age (when hunting season begins in September).

These results could not give a tendency of evolution of the populations taking into account the very strong interannual fluctuations of species abundance.
Monitoring département bag for each year, could only, on a step of time from at least 10-15 years, to give a major tendency. Some Fédération Départementale des Chasseurs (hunters département association) have already results since few years, because they need this information for management.

Photos : Eric MAASSEN, Van lennep Ringing Station - Holland


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European quail - Patrick MUR