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Brown Quail - Coturnix ypsilphora (C. australis)

Description

Quails are ground dwelling birds, and the Brown Quail is one of three native species of quail in Tasmania. The Stubble Quail is less common on mainland Tasmania, being more common on King Island. The Painted Quail is uncommon. The Brown Quail is the only species that is permitted to be shot during an open season in Tasmania.

The Brown Quail are well camouflaged, their feathers being dark brown, marked with chestnut and black, and with each feather having a central white stripe. This enables them to blend in with dry grasses and leaf litter. The patterning of their feathers is complex, with close inspection showing that few individuals are exactly alike. Males and females have similar colouring, but the females have darker bars on their chest feathers, and a broader white stripe on the shoulder.

Their legs range from orange-yellow, bright or dull, to greenish yellow or brownish yellow. Their bills feature a black upper, and a grey to blue-grey base.

Whilst their iris is usually red to brown, in Tasmania some birds have a yellow iris. These birds, once thought to be a different species called the Swamp or Silver Quail, are now thought to be another form of the Brown Quail, but sometimes a little larger and more grey in colouring.

They weigh from 65-140 grams, with females tending to be larger. They are 175-205 mm in length.

Distribution

The Brown Quail can be found throughout Tasmania, including Flinders Island and the Furneaux Group, King Island. Once common on King Island, it is now regarded
as rare. It is also found on mainland northern and eastern Australia, from the Kimberley region in Western Australia to Victoria, New Guinea, Indonesia, and in New Zealand where it was introduced.

Habitat Requirements

Quails enjoy grassy habitats, particularly in moist, low lying and swampy areas. They are also seen in eucalypt woodlands, heath, melaleuca scrub and rainforest edges. They are common near riverbanks, have adapted to certain croplands, and are often spotted on roadsides.

They like a mix of thick cover suitable for nesting, more open and sunny areas for feeding and basking, and areas suitable to escape from predators The tussock grasslands of Tasmania offer a perfect habitat.

Diet

The diet of Brown Quail consists of seeds of grasses and small herbs, some greenery such as clover or grass, and insects. They feed on the ground, searching the leaf litter and soil for seeds and insects.

Breeding

The breeding season runs from October to March in Tasmania. The Brown Quail has been found to be monogamous in captivity.

They make their nests in grassy areas where there is knee high cover, with both birds co-operating in nest building. The nest is built in a slight depression scraped in the soil,with the use of dead grasses and stems to line it.

The hen lays one egg per day until there are up to 14 eggs. Incubation begins when the egg laying is completed and the incubation period is around 21 days. Whilst it is mainly the female that will incubate the eggs, males will sometimes take on incubation duties. The male will feed the female on the nest.

The eggs usually hatch within a few hours of each other, and the chicks are not much bigger than a walnut. Like many other ground birds, the chicks are covered in down and are mobile from day one, although they are unable to fly for the first fortnight. They develop quickly, but are very prone to predation and bad weather in their first two weeks of life. They are fast growing - by thirty days they are the size of an adult. They develop juvenile plumage, quickly followed by adult plumage by the time they are 100 days old. Sometimes Brown Quail nest more than once in a season.

Adults attempt to protect their young by distracting predators. Like other birds, such as ducks, they may pretend to have a broken wing and stumble as they walk in order to lure a predator away from chicks.

Mortality is high amongst juveniles, with up to 80% of the population in autumn, having been predated upon, or died due to natural causes, such as food shortages, by the following spring.

Habits (Family/Social)

They spend the summers feeding, having cleansing dust baths and resting.

Social groups of quail are called coveys which may vary in size from 3 up to 30 birds, with covey size reducing as winter approaches, as does their movement.

Difficult to spot in thick vegetation, they will often go undetected unless ‘flushed’, or frightened from their hiding place. When disturbed they tend to move rapidly in spurts and bounces.

They fly fast and directly, but don’t fly far, preferring to land and run away. When a covey is frightened from cover, they burst into flight in all directions, their wings making a whirring sound. They can fly almost vertically for a distance of 1-2 metres, before making a short horizontal flight.

Their call is a loud two-noted whistle which rises at the end. They can often be heard in the early morning, late afternoon or at night. When flushed they may give a chatter or a sharp chirp. Other calls include clucking, shrieks and mewing.

Threats & Persecution

As ground dwelling birds, quail are vulnerable to predation by feral cats and also foxes, should they establish in Tasmania.

Their food source and shelter is threatened by overgrazing of native grasslands, particularly by sheep. It is also threatened by increasing droughts (as their preference is
for damp, swampy areas), land clearing and increasing urbanisation.

In Tasmania the Brown Quail is a partly-protected species and is shot for ‘sport’ in Tasmania during an annual season. See Issues Sheet No. 3 for more information.

Did you know?

Brown Quail have an interesting way of bedding down for the night. They roost together in a circle on the ground with their tail feathers together and heads pointing out.

It is assumed that they do this partly for social reasons, but also to enable them to keep a look-out for predators. If one bird spots a predator, it will warn the other birds. The flock will then take to the air, and the majority of the birds will be safe.

Photos: © Alan Fletcher


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