"Bob-bob-white, bob-bob-white, bob-bob-white," comes the call from the chunky northern bobwhite. In spite of the geographic reference in its name, you won't hear the song of the bobwhite in north-central Minnesota.
Unless, that is, you're Terry May, who hears a whistled "hoy" in spring when the birds are looking for mates. Terry has a male bobwhite coming to his bird feeder in Crosslake. The consensus among seasoned birders was unanimous: the bobwhite escaped from captivity.
Lately I heard from Terrie Griep, who reported she had a northern bobwhite in her yard seven miles east of Pine River in late November. She hasn't seen the bird since it snowed.
According to Bob Janssen, noted specialist of Minnesota birds, our best, and perhaps only, bet of seeing or hearing this species in the wild is to take a trip to Houston or Fillmore Counties in the extreme southeastern part of the state. Although bobwhite once were widespread and hunted across southern Minnesota, today they're relatively rare.
However, Daryl Tessen, Janssen's Wisconsin cohort, says come on over to his state to see a northern bobwhite. While the numbers fluctuate yearly, it's fairly common to see one in the southern half of the state. Look for them in farm fields, roadside ditches, grassy fence lines, near woodland edges and brushy understories.
Janssen's "Birds in Minnesota" provides the status of the bobwhite, migratory data, seasonal information and maps showing the counties where they live. His new book, "Birds of Minnesota and Wisconsin," has information on each species found in the two states and quality illustrations by Gary Ross and Ted Nordhagen. The book covers 427 species seen and recorded in Minnesota and 421 in Wisconsin. Among these, more than 320 species make annual appearances in the region. Either of the above books would make a great holiday present for the novice or veteran birdwatcher.
Back to the bobwhite. At this time of year they form large family groups, or coveys. When resting during cold weather, the birds huddle together, each member facing outward, much like musk oxen. This affords the individual birds not only increased warmth but maximum security.
In spring, breeding bobwhites separate from the covey. To entice a female, the male establishes singing posts, from which they whistle their namesake call. The call isn't a territorial defense vocalization, but rather an announcement of sexual availability. Intricate courtship displays are performed prior to mating.
According to "Birds of the Great Plains" by Paul Johnsgard, when bobwhites bond their whistling becomes soft and infrequent, or even terminates. Both sexes seek for and build the nest site, which is often nothing more than a shallow scrape on bare ground. It's well-lined with grasses, moss or pine needles. Vegetation often conceals the nest. Breeding habitat also needs a source of water and a place for dusting.
Anywhere from eight to 20 smooth white eggs are laid, one per day. Incubation by the female commences when the clutch is complete. In the wild, males rarely assist with incubation, which takes about 23 days. But males assume nest duties if their mate is killed.
Double broods are possible in the southern part of the bobwhite range, which extends into Mexico. In the north, single broods are the rule. Bobwhites will re-nest if their first attempt is foiled.
In captivity in the north, when food is supplied or supplemented and shelter is provided, bobwhite may readily produce second broods. Often the male takes over the care of the first brood while the female begins a second clutch.
Like most gallinaceous species, the fluffy young are precocial and readily able to run shortly after birth. The youngsters grow quickly and in less than two weeks can fly short distances. Families remain together through out the summer, fall and into the winter, providing the basis for coveys. These groups may be joined by unsuccessful nesting pairs, since six or more birds are needed to form the heat-conserving circular roosting formation.
Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey data indicate an overall decline in bobwhites. Severe winters, increased use of pesticides and habitat fragmentation, degradation and destruction all play a part in the decline.
Thanks, Terry and Terrie, for telling me about the bobwhites in your yard. It's fun to hear from readers and I often use the calls, letters and e-mails as the basis for a column. Sharing these experiences make us all more aware of the bounty of Mother Nature and the blessings we have so close to home.
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