This week I bring you facts on a bird with a fascinating life history, it is nearly impossible to see in the wild so is not well known generally, except on restaurant menus where its eggs and meat are famous delicacies. This is a shame as it is a lovely bird that is not doing too well in the wild at present due largely to our farming practices – yet scarce though it may be, mid to late summer is the best time to at least hear the call of the Quail.
Quail are not common in Sussex and breeding has yet to be confirmed in the county, yet every year there are a handful of reports, almost all from the central section of the South Downs. So the other day when I was going for a stroll near Amberley, just under the north slope of the downs, in gorgeous hot sunny weather, the last thing on my mind was Quail. Yet as I walked out onto the floodplain of the river Arun, amidst tall meadows humming with grasshoppers, I caught in my ear an unfamiliar call; ‘whip-wip-wip‘. I traced the call as best I could to the far side of a meadow, it was distant but clear in the still, warm, quiet air and I listened intently for some time until at last I was quite sure that I was listening to none other than a Quail Coturnix coturnix. This was my first encounter with the species and it was great to hear a call that is so scarce and closely connected with the height of summer in England – I had no chance of seeing it but was well pleased none the less.
- Quail populations run on a boom-and -bust cycle meaning that it can be very rare in some years and widespread in others. This is related to its breeding habits, which are complex; males may breed with several females and the young from the first brood can breed in 6-8 weeks, meaning a male Quail can become a grandfather or great-grandfather in just one season!
- Quails are present in Britain from late April to late August, though in some years a 2nd wave of migrants may arrive to breed in August and September – these may be birds from broods raised in the Mediterranean earlier that spring.
- Quails rarely fly when on their breeding grounds, and even when flushed they only fly a short distance, this makes them very difficult to see as they nest in crop fields or meadows with long vegetation.
- Quails migrate from Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe and Asia each spring in vast numbers, one of the few game birds to do so. They suffer great losses as they pass over North Africa and the Mediterranean where they are shot or netted for food.
- Although listed as ‘Least Concern’ on a worldwide scale, it has amber status in the UK due to a long-term decline of its breeding population, mirrored across Europe.
- Just 540 calling males make up the average UK population, centered on Dorset and Wiltshire, though it can be found up to southern Scotland in good years.