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Northern Bobwhite

Colinus virginianus ORDER: GALLIFORMES FAMILY: ODONTOPHORIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Near Threatened

An emphatic, whistled bob-white ringing from a grassy field or piney woods has long been a characteristic sound of summers in the Eastern countryside. It’s quite a bit harder to spot a Northern Bobwhite, as the bird’s elegantly dappled plumage offers excellent camouflage. They forage in groups, scurrying between cover or bursting into flight if alarmed. Bobwhites have been in sharp decline throughout the past half-century, likely owing to habitat loss and changes in agriculture, and they are an increasingly high priority for conservation.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Other Names
  • Colin de Virginie (French)
  • Codorniz cotuf (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Because of its history as a game bird, the Northern Bobwhite is one of the most intensively studied bird species in the world. Scientists have researched the impacts of various human activities, from pesticide application to prescribed burning, on both wild and captive bobwhites.
  • Northern Bobwhites are divided into 22 subspecies, some of which were formerly considered to be separate species—such as the Masked Bobwhite, the Rufous-bellied Bobwhite, and the Black-headed Bobwhite. Although the females mostly look alike, the males vary dramatically from one subspecies to the next.
  • Northern Bobwhites were thought to be monogamous until researchers began radio-tracking individuals to follow their activities. It turns out that both male and female bobwhites can have multiple mates in one season.
  • The bobwhite genus is represented by more than 700 known fossils, dug up in sites ranging from Florida to Arizona to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Some of these fossils are at least 2.5 million years old.
  • The oldest Northern Bobwhite on record was 6 years, 5 months old. They have short life spans but make up for it with prolific breeding abilities. Under good conditions, a bobwhite pair can produce 2 or 3 broods, totaling 25 offspring or more, in a single breeding season.

Habitat


Grassland

Northern Bobwhites are year-round residents in open habitats of southeastern North America. They live in agricultural fields, grasslands, open pine or pine-hardwood forests, and grass-brush rangelands as far north as Massachusetts and southern Ontario, and as far west as southeastern Wyoming and eastern New Mexico. They seem to avoid mature woodlands, inhabiting instead the early stages of regrowth after a fire, farming, logging, or other disturbance. They are most numerous in patchwork areas of fields, forests, and croplands; in coastal Texas rangelands; and in southern pine forests that are intensively managed for bobwhite hunting. During snowfalls in the northern part of their range, bobwhites depend on woody cover to prevent snow from reaching the ground and blocking their foraging habitat.

Food


Plants

Bobwhites eat mostly seeds and leaves, supplemented with varying amounts of insects during the breeding season. Chicks are fed mostly insects until they are 6–8 weeks old. Arthropods can make up 5 percent of the male’s diet and 20 percent of the female’s diet during the breeding season. Bobwhites forage as a group, scratching and pecking through leaf litter or foraging on low plants. When snow falls they seek out patches of bare ground under brushy areas. Their staple food of seeds comes from agricultural crops, weeds, forest plants, and rangeland vegetation. During fall and winter they eat many legume seeds, ragweed seeds, pine seeds, and acorns. In the spring they eat more leafy green parts of plants, and in the summer their diet includes grass seeds, some fruits, and arthropods—such as bugs, flies, bees, wasps, beetles, and spiders.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
7–28 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
1.2 in
3 cm
Egg Width
1 in
2.5 cm
Incubation Period
22–24 days
Nestling Period
1 days
Egg Description
Dull or creamy white.
Condition at Hatching
Active and covered with down, but dependent on parents to stay warm and find food.
Nest Description

Both sexes work together to dig a scrape in the ground, about 6 inches across and 2 inches deep, and line it with grass and other dead vegetation. They often weave weeds and grasses into an arch to completely hide the nest from view. Nest building takes about 5 days.

Nest Placement

Ground

The male and the female jointly choose a nest site on the ground or in low vegetation, usually within 65 feet of an opening such as a field or road.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Northern Bobwhites are highly social, usually found in groups, or coveys, of 3–20 individuals. They feed in early morning and late afternoon. At night, coveys usually roost on the ground (or occasionally in vegetation) in a close-packed, outward-facing circle with their tails pointing toward the center, probably to conserve heat and stay on the alert. They coexist peacefully for most of the year, but in the breeding season male bobwhites fight to attract mates. Both males and females perform courtship displays. Originally thought to be monogamous, they actually have several breeding strategies: males can raise broods with multiple females; and females can raise broods with multiple males (although males often abandon such broods). Bobwhites sometimes intermingle their eggs with those of Ring-necked Pheasants and free-range domestic chickens. Hawks, owls, raccoons, opossums, skunks, foxes, and snakes prey on adult bobwhites and their young. Adults flutter and drag their wings to distract predators from their chicks.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Near Threatened

Northern Bobwhites were once a common species in eastern North America, but experienced widespread, sharp declines between 1966 to 2014, up to 4% per year, resulting in a cumulative decline of 85%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 5.8 million with 84% living in the U.S., and 11% in Mexico. They rate an 11 out of 20 on the Partners in Flight Continental Concern Score. The 2014 State of the Birds Report listed them as a Common Bird in Steep Decline, and placed the rare "Masked" race of Northern Bobwhite, found in southeastern Arizona, on the 2014 Watch List. The bobwhite’s decline probably results from habitat degradation and loss owing to urbanization, fire suppression, and changes to agriculture and forestry. Agricultural fields have become less suitable for bobwhites with higher levels of pesticides and herbicides yielding less insect and plant food, and fewer hedgerows to provide cover. Although forest-clearing can increase bobwhite numbers in the short term, it can also lower them in the long term if forests don’t regenerate. Some landscapes, when managed with prescribed fire, grazing, or other controlled disturbances, can produce high bobwhite densities, and hunting plantations in the Southeast have long done this. Upland pine forests could be managed for the Northern Bobwhite and the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker at the same time. In economic terms, the Northern Bobwhite was one of the most important game birds in North America. Population declines from habitat loss now mean that in many places there are no longer enough to hunt. Bobwhite hunting can be sustainable if controlled properly, but currently management varies widely across the continent. The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative is a consortium of state agencies, conservation organizations, and hunters working to improve the prospects of this species.

Credits

Range Map Help

Northern Bobwhite Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Mostly nonmigratory. In at least one area, the Smoky Mountains of the southeastern United States, Northern Bobwhites move from low-elevation wintering habitats to high-elevation breeding habitats.

Backyard Tips

In places where bobwhites are common, they may eat bird seed from ground feeders in open backyards with shrub cover.

Find This Bird

Despite their sharp population decline, it’s still possible to find Northern Bobwhite in fields, rangelands, and open forests over much of their range. Their call is one of the easiest to learn of all bird sounds. The two sharp, whistled notes really do sound like “bob-white!”—and the call carries a long distance, so if bobwhite are around you will probably know it long before you see them. Look for these unobtrusive birds pecking and scratching on the ground near to or underneath vegetation—or, more likely, bursting upward into a short flight of flurrying wings if you get too close.

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The Bobwhite Blues: Story in Living Bird Magazine.

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