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Northern Bobwhite


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.

Keys to identification Help

Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Bobwhite are small quail with rounded bodies, small heads, rounded wings, and short tails.

  • Color Pattern

    They are intricately patterned in brown, rufous, buff, and black. Males have a bold black-and-white head pattern. Females have a buffy throat and eyebrow.

  • Behavior

    Northern Bobwhites travel in coveys and run across the ground from the shelter of one shrubby patch to another. When they are flushed, they explode into flight with quick wingbeats and then duck into the nearest cover.

  • Habitat

    Northern Bobwhites live in open pine forests, overgrown fields, shrubby areas, and grasslands. They respond well to areas managed with prescribed fire, which helps to maintain an open, grassy ground layer.

Range Map Help

Northern Bobwhite Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Northern Bobwhite

    Adult male
    • Pudgy and chicken-like with bold facial pattern
    • Bright white throat and eyebrow
    • Mottled flanks
    • Gray and brown patterned body
    • © Stephen Pollard, Texas, June 2009
  • Adult female

    Northern Bobwhite

    Adult female
    • Pudgy, rounded body
    • Small, rounded head with small bill
    • White belly
    • Tan-orange eyebrow and throat
    • © Roy Brown, Birdsong Plantation, Grady County, Georgia, October 2010
  • Adult female

    Northern Bobwhite

    Adult female
    • Rounded head with stubby bill
    • Tan-orange throat and eyebrow
    • Belly mostly white with black scaling
    • © Jeff Loomis, Reeds Beach, Cape May County, New Jersey, June 2009
  • Adult male

    Northern Bobwhite

    Adult male
    • Stout legs with clawed feet
    • Ruffled crown feathers give crested appearance
    • White and black mottled belly
    • Bold white and dark brown patterned face
    • © Carlos Escamilla, Laredo, Texas, June 2010
  • Adult male

    Northern Bobwhite

    Adult male
    • Bright white throat and eyebrow
    • Rounded body
    • Gray and tan barred body
    • Stout legs
    • © Carlos Escamilla, Laredo, Tennessee, July 2010
  • Adult female

    Northern Bobwhite

    Adult female
    • Round head with stubby bill
    • Gray and brown patterning throughout
    • White belly with black scaled pattern
    • Orange-tan throat and eyebrow
    • © cdbtx, Lake Kayak, near Monroe, Washington, June 2011
  • Adult male

    Northern Bobwhite

    Adult male
    • Perches upright
    • Short wings and tail
    • Bold white and dark brown facial pattern
    • Stout legs with clawed feet
    • © Danny Bales, Oak Hill, Florida, July 2006
  • Adult male and female "Masked"

    Northern Bobwhite

    Adult male and female "Masked"
    • Rare "Masked" race endangered and restricted to southeastern Arizona
    • Male shows solid rufous body with black head
    • Female similar to other races of Northern Bobwhite
    • © Brendan O'Connor, Arizona, July 2011

Similar Species

  • Adult female and male

    California Quail

    Adult female and male
    • More elongated and longer-tailed than Northern Bobwhite
    • Scaled belly
    • Gray scaling on sides of neck
    • Curving top-knot feather on crown
    • © Ben Clock, Point Reyes Station, California, October 2008
  • Adult

    Ruffed Grouse

    • Larger than Northern Bobwhite with longer tail and neck
    • No facial pattern
    • Bold, dark barring on belly
    • © Greg Schneider, Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada, October 2010

Similar Species

In regions where Ruffed Grouse overlap with Northern Bobwhite, Ruffed Grouse typically are in more heavily forested areas. They are larger with a longer tail and neck, with a lighter and less mottled color pattern than Northern Bobwhite, and without the bobwhite’s strong facial markings. In the West, Northern Bobwhite has a restricted range but may overlap with California Quail, Gambel’s Quail, Mountain Quail, and Scaled Quail; these species are overall much grayer than bobwhite, and the first three sport a prominent topknot of feathers from the head.

Regional Differences

Male Northern Bobwhite vary considerably, but females look similar across their range. Males in the Southeast have more extensive black on the throat and breast than birds elsewhere. Great Plains and Texas birds are grayer on the back. Eastern birds have rufous across the breast. An isolated and endangered Southwestern population, called the “Masked” Bobwhite, is nearly all black on the head and rufous on the breast. Females are not as variable and look very similar across their range. There are also extremely rare rufous adults that are almost entirely reddish brown.

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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