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Flight of the Bobwhite Quail

 Bobwhites avoid death from predators by remaining perfectly still, running, or flying. Quail can not survive in habitats that eliminate any of these options; therefore, flight capabilities and airspace are habitat management considerations. The primary flight muscles in the breast are large, but poorly supplied with the nutrients that release energy for sustained flight. The heart is small, relative to body mass, which reduces endurance. This combination constrains the bobwhite to short distance flyers.

  Research from Nick Kassinis, a graduate student at Texas A&M University, measured 300 bobwhite flights in 1993-1994. A flight has three parts: acceleration, cruise, and deceleration. He found that the average distance from take off to landing was 47 yards, with 88% of flights less than 75 yards. He observed an average altitude of 7 feet, with a high of 39 feet, and an average flight time of 5 seconds. Kassinis observed an average flight speed of 20 mph with a maximum of 27 mph over the duration of the flight. Maximum flight speeds can reach 40 mph, but averaging reduces overall speed.

  Bobwhites are restricted to habitats that are conducive to short, low, and relatively straight flights. Kassinis’ observations showed an average take off point provided 272 degrees of flight opportunity out of a possible 360 degrees. The message is that bobwhites seldom inhabit areas where they can not fly in nearly all directions to escape predators. Landing points provided 250 degrees of flight opportunity. Kassinis attributes this difference to selection of landing points having woody cover as a way to hide from predators. Muscle physiology limits bobwhites from executing long flights; they are more like sprinters than long-distance runners. There is no need for bobwhites to push the limits of their endurance if acceptable cover is nearby.

  Kassinis’ findings are applicable to bobwhite management. His study reveals that escape cover and feed cover should be approximately 75 yards apart. Managers have reason to believe that to improve bobwhite survival, it is beneficial to rotate hunting and training pressure among managed areas. An area can provide all the necessities of quail survival, yet support no quail if the airspace is inhospitable. Quail may be genetically programmed to avoid areas in which they lose a predator-avoidance option such as flight. Flight obstruction becomes a concern in dense brush habitat or a forest with closely spaced trees. Managers must address the problem of tall brush and trees obstructing flight.

  It is now known that temperature affects flight. The normal body temperature of a bobwhite is 108 degrees. Flight raises body temperature and heat overload of 116 degrees leads to death. Consequently, shorter flights occur in warmer temperatures than during cooler temperatures. It has also been learned that bobwhites select cooler sites to land in warmer temperatures, since these sites help to dissipate body heat gained during flight.

  Bobwhites select a cover as soon as they spring into the air. They beat their wings with tremendous speed until they have sufficient momentum to glide with bowed wings to the selected site. During flight, if the distance is misjudged or another landing site is selected, the rapid wing beat is resumed to pick up the required speed to glide to the newly selected site. They avoid obstacles in their path with marvelous skill considering the speed at which they fly. This dodging ability makes them a very difficult target in woodland or thicket cover.

  Bobwhites do a great deal of wing exercising while feeding and moving about, although they may go days at a time without flying. Fully mature birds are rapid flyers, but lack endurance. Adult bobwhites sometimes become so wet from feeding in the rain or water-soaked vegetation that they can fly only feebly for shorter distances. Immature birds have even less endurance and can sometimes be caught by a dog after two or three flights.

Bob Warner

Research of Nick Kassinis can be examined in the book “On Bobwhites” by Fred S. Guthery.