Northern Bobwhite

(Colinus virginianus)

Colinus virginianus

Colinus virginianus
Photo by Kenneth Bader

The popular Bobwhite is a favorite of game bird breeders, hunters and bird lovers alike. Just about everyone is familiar with male's call for which the species is named. These plump little birds have the most widespread range of the American quail species, with over 15 supspecies ranging from Canada to southern Mexico. They have also been introduced abroad, to such places as Hawaii and New Zealand, as a game species. Commercial game bird farms raise thousands each year for release in the US and Canada.

Sometimes up to 16 subspecies are recognized. The northern races consist of the Eastern Bobwhite (C. v. viriginanus), found throughout most of the eastern half of the US; Florida Bobwhite (C. v. floridanus) occurs only in Florida; Taylor's Bobwhite (C. v. taylori), occurs in the central US, from South Dakota to northern Texas; Texas Bobwhite (C. v. texanus), found in southwest Texas and northern Mexico; Cuban Bobwhite (C. v. cubanensis. They are found in a variety of habitats, from open woodlands & fields to suburban parks. Those with bird feeders in their yards are sometimes greeted a few quail who come to feed on the seed that is dropped by the other birds. Males of the northern races have a white throat and eye-line, with a dark crown and a black line that seperates the white on the throat to the eye-line. The lower breast is mottled white & dark brown; sides have light brown streaks and the back and rest of the body mottled brown overall; tail gray. The hens are similar, but her throat and eye-line is buff and her overall color is somewhat lighter. They form large groups during the winter called coveys. These coveys can consist of up to 30 or more birds and when disturbed, all will burst into flight at once. It is probably certain that the majority of our captive Bobwhites are a combination of one or more of the above races.

Geographic variation is greater as you travel further south. The Masked Bobwhite (C. v. ridgwayi), is an endangered race that is found in southeastern Arizona. These birds are similar to the eastern race, but males have a very dark face & throat. Compared to the other southern races, the Masked Bobwhite is fairly well represented in captivity.

The Rufous-bellied Bobwhites occur over much of central and eastern Mexico. Seven races make up this group - C. v. maculatus, C. v. aridus, C. v. graysoni, C. v. nigripectus, C. v. pectoralis, C. n. godmani and C. v. minor. The males of this group share the same white facial markings as the northern races, but darker on the throat and the belly relatively unmarked rufous-brown.

The southernmost group consits of the Black-headed Bobwhites, which are found in extreme southern Mexico into Guatemala. The races of C. n. atriceps, C. v. thayeri, C. v. harrisoni, C. v. coyolcos, C. v. salvini and C. v. insignis are similar to C. v. ridgwayi, but the black is more extensive and extends over the breast.

It is a shame that some of these races have yet make their way to our aviaries, as they are beautiful birds. Perhaps in the future, some may make their way and become established in captivity.


Bobwhites present no problems in captive care, and can be produced easily in modest surroundings or large aviaries. It is recommended that birds housed on the ground be wormed regularly and ensure the aviary is well drained. Many producers house their birds in tiny breeding batteries, this is discouraged and I recommend to keep them aviaries with natural surroundings.

Bobwhite hens begin laying in mid April and may lay all summer long. The eggs are pure white and are incubated for 21 days. You will probably have to use artificial incubation with this species, as many captive hens are mass producers of eggs are highly unlikely to go broody in a cage setting unless plenty of cover is available. Bobwhites are also induced into laying earlier than normal using artificial light. Some larger farms also use the lights to have hens produce eggs year round.

Chicks are easy to raise in the brooder. They require a high protein diet and lots of room, as they are very active and prone to picking if overcrowded. The chicks are kept in a brooder setting for about six weeks, then they are moved to covered, outdoor enclosure.

As mentioned, Bobwhites are easy to keep and raise. They are often one of the first species of quail for the beginning quail keeper and many long-time breeders keep them around for the male's call.

During the Winter, birds that are not kept indoors such as a barn should be grouped together so they can form natural coveys for warmth.

Bobwhite should be fed a good quality game bird ration of at least 16% protein during the non-breeding season to 20% during the laying period. I also supplement their diet with various grains, greens and mealworms.

There have been a number of mutations developed in captivity. Some of the popular colors include the Mexican Speckled, the Tennessee Red, Smoke, White and Silver Bobwhites. There are also strains developed for their large size, such as the Wisconsin Jumbo and the Indiana Giant.


Click on thumbnails for larger views.

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Photo Credits
(l to r): 1, Myles Lamont; 2-3, Dan Cowell; 4, Jim Riddle; 5-7, Kenneth Bader.

Bibliography and Further Reading


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