ABOVE: One of my illustrations of a Black-rumped Buttonquail. This is a female, which is slightly larger and more colourful than the male. Buttonquails appear to be polyandrous, meaning that their sexual roles are reversed: females sing to proclaim a territory and attract a mate, but leave the parental duties to the male.
My vote for the weirdest birds? Buttonquails are definitely on the short-list. For a start, it might be hard to believe, but buttonquails are nothing more than terrestrial waders. There has been a great deal of debate on their taxonomy, with suggestions that they are related to the cranes, crakes, rails, sandgrouse, pigeons or bustards (hence the alternative name ‘bustard quail’). However, with the advent of genetic analysis the buttonquail family (Turnicidae) is now universally accepted as belonging in the wader radiation, Charadriiformes. Like some other wader groups such as phalaropes and painted-snipes, buttonquails are polyandrous, with the larger and more brightly patterned females calling to attract mates. This they do by inflating a special part of the oesophagus, enabling them to produce a hollow, ventriloquial hooting. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) is thought to have referred to the call of the Common (or Kurrichane) Buttonquail, Turnix sylvaticus, when he wrote about the ‘Taurus’ (bull), in reference to a small bird that imitated the calls of lowing oxen in southern France. Incidentally, populations of the Common Buttonquail in southern Europe and the Meditarranean have crashed, and it is now one of the rarest species in the Western Palearctic region.
Despite having been known for two millennia, there are still many questions surrounding these mysterious and seldom-seen dryland waders. Much of what we do know has been learned from studies of captive birds, as buttonquails are popular aviary birds. Because they are so small, secretive, cryptic and difficult to study in nature, even basic ecological and demographic information about buttonquail is still lacking. For example, we do not have accurate estimates of the populations of two threatened SA species. Another complication is the fact that buttonquails tend to undergo extensive nomadic wanderings depending on conditions, and are prone to local irruptions in good years, only to disappear for years thereafter.
Buttonquails are weak flyers, and when pursued only take flight as a last resort, when an approaching observer or vehicle is within 1-4 m of them. However, despite appearing reluctant and clumsy in flight, they do undertake local or large-scale movements, and are able to respond rapidly and in vast number to rainfall events. The Common Buttonquail, for example, responds quickly to storms in the Kalahari. During mass breeding events the hooting of female Common Buttonquails may be heard all night long. Movements tend to occur primarily at night and possible in waves of multiple birds, as evidenced by soft keoo calls of birds flying overhead. While moving at night, they are attracted to artificial lights and frequently collide with illuminated windows or walls, particularly during misty or drizzling weather. One report from Mpumalanga mentioned that 21 buttonquails were captured between 23:00 and 01:00 one night in December at a migration bottleneck. According to this report, buttonquails were crashing into trees, flying into the house, floating in the swimming pool, or sitting on the lawn, with 36 captured over 2 nights. Many more were heard passing 10-20 m overhead, all heading in the same northerly direction.
…buttonquails were crashing into trees, flying into the house, floating in the swimming pool, or sitting on the lawn, with 36 captured over two nights…
ABOVE: Study skins of Black-rumped Buttonquail, Turnix nanus, from the collections of the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History in Pretoria. I can’t read the labels, but I would venture a guess that the smaller, more barred bird at the bottom is a male, whereas the other two are females. Photo by Faansie Peacock.
ABOVE: Study skins of Black-rumped Buttonquail, Turnix nanus, from the collections of the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History in Pretoria. Females are somewhat larger and have brighter orange on the underparts and face, and have fewer “spot-bars” on the breast-sides and flanks. Photo by Faansie Peacock.
The Black-rumped Buttonquail T. nanus (featured here) and the Fynbos-endemic Hottentot Buttonquail T. hottentottus were previously lumped as the same species. Both are currently classified as regionally Endangered. The latter is one of the least frequently recorded resident breeding birds in South Africa, with a total population of probably fewer than 1,000 birds restricted to a global range of less than 1,600 square km’s in a single province of a single country. Fortunately, much of its habitat is mountainous and remote, and consequently unlikely to be developed, and unsuitable for agriculture. The fynbos habitat of the Hottentot Buttonquail recovers rapidly after fires, and the species is reliant on fairly frequent burns to maintain its habitat’s open structure. However, fires of inappropriate frequency and intensity may pose a threat. Commercial afforestation and infestation by alien plants are further concerns, and climate change may pose a severe future threat.
The rarely encountered Black-rumped Buttonquail faces a similar suite of threats that contribute to degradation of its dwindling grassland habitat. Around human habitation, additional minor threats include collision with lit windows at night, entanglement in fences, disturbance by e.g. dogs and quad bikes, and predation by feral cats. Hunters targeting Common Quails may accidentally kill the superficially similar buttonquails. Other potential threats are intrinsic (but may be exacerbated by man). For example, in some threatened, polyandrous buttonquails males greatly outnumber females; such skewed sex ratios make the species vulnerable to genetic bottlenecks.
Capture of buttonquails for the pet trade is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, they have high reproductive potential in captivity, with established husbandary practices, and captive-breeding and re-introduction programmes are a potential conservation avenue. Given buttonquails’ elusive and itinerant nature, perhaps the biggest threat is simply our lack of knowledge. Organised surveys, atlasing programmes, basic ecological research and population estimates are needed.
A case-in-point that illustrates how little we know about the true status of this species, is the recent discovery of a small but apparently healthy breeding population of Black-rumped Buttonquails on the outskirts of Gauteng, far out of the known range of the Black-rumped Buttonquail! On a continental scale, the Black-rumped Buttonquail is actually very widespread, but generally sparse, occurring in moist woodland belts, savannah and grassland in much of sub-Saharan Africa. It occurs from Senegal and Gambia eastwards to Uganda and western Kenya, and south through much of central Africa to northern Angola, Zambia and Malawi. In Zimbabwe, it is known from the south-eastern Lowveld, and also from across the Mashonaland Plateau between Harare and Marondera, where it is an itinerant and nomadic visitor, mostly in the rainy season. It status is uncertain in Mozambique, where it is probably widely overlooked; north of the Save River considered an uncommon breeding summer migrant to moist grasslands, and fairly numerous on low-lying plains from Beira northwards; in southern Mozambique it is recorded from a few scattered localities, mostly in summer. In South Africa it is restricted to the moist grasslands in the eastern half of the country, from high altitudes along the main escarpment down to sea-level in KwaZulu-Natal.
ABOVE: A typical sighting of a Black-rumped Buttonquail, i.e. a little blur of feathers rapidly disappearing in the distance. You have to have lightning reflexes just to get some sort of view through binoculars, and getting a photo is almost unheard of, unless you are Dylan Vasapolli, of course.
ABOVE: This would be considered a really good sighting of a Black-rumped Buttonquail! Photo by Dylan Vasapolli, from Amatikulu NR on the KwaZulu-Natal coast.
Which brings us to our story. Ursula Franke-Bryson and her husband Tom Bryson split their time between Germany and the African bush. They particularly enjoy ringing birds, and have handled and measured specials that most birders only dream of glimpsing! For this expedition the Brysons teamed up with Michael Mills, probably the world’s foremost authority on birding Angola, for a ringing expedition to Mutinondo Wilderness in north-eastern Zambia. Once they arrived at Mutinondo, they were joined by lodge manager, ecologist and guide Frank Willems. The team’s patience and planning (and early mornings!) succeeded in allowing them to net a number of special birds, which were carefully measured, documented and photographed before they were released unharmed – with their unique identifying numbers on their new “bling” of course. Unbelievably, one of the little bundles of feathers suspended in their nearly invisible mistnet was a Black-rumped Buttonquail! The team took this rare opportunity to photograph the bird from all angles – a very valuable reference source! When Ursula sent me some of these images I couldn’t believe the detail – much more than I have been able to find anywhere else on the Internet. She wholeheartedly agreed that these should be published and made available online…you can see the results below.
ABOVE: Ursula admiring the buttonquail, and checking the flight feathers for signs of moult. This images also gives you an idea of just how small these buttonquails really are. Photo by Frank Willems.
ABOVE: As far as I can tell all the world’s 18 buttonquail species have pale irises. In the case of the Black-rumped, the eye is a beautiful blue-grey. Around the eye is a thin crescent of bare skin, which is again bordered by a circle of tiny feathers. These concentric circles really make the eyes “pop” and give buttonquails’ eyes an almost reptilian or amphibian look. You can also see the interesting shape of the bill, with the nostrils partly hidden under a tube-like extension. Photo by Ursula Bryson.
ABOVE: I cannot see any obvious signs of moult on this right wing. Buttonquails have ten primaries, the outermost being distinctly curved with a pale edge. So counting back from those you can see that the outermost secondary is quite a bit shorter. In flight, buttonquails’ inner and outer wings (i.e. ‘arms’ and ‘hands’) often look quite separate to me, and not as neatly streamelined as in Coturnix quails, which have superior flight skills. Photo by Ursula Bryson.
ABOVE: Here the bird is holding its feather tracts rather loosely and fluffed up. The triangular piece on the right is the mantle, while the two oval pieces on the top and bottom are the scapulars. When the wings are retracted, they can be covered almost completely by the scapulars and breast/flank feathers. The orange wing coverts of the right wing are just visible. The back/rump/uppertail coverts are not really distinguishable here. Buttonquails have little tail to speak of, and the few straggly tail feathers they do have are often very worn and torn. Photo by Ursula Bryson.
ABOVE: In Afrikaans buttonquails are called Drietoonkwarteltjies, meaning ‘three-toed quails’. Waders (like buttonquails) may or may not have short, weak hind-toes. Most plovers lack them, but most sandpipers have them (exceptions to this rule of thumb being Grey Plover, and Sanderling, for example). Photo by Ursula Bryson.
ABOVE: A nice angle showing the extent of the barring on the breast-sides and the orange on the throat, breast and supercilium (contrasting with an unmarked white belly, unlike in Hottentot Buttonquail). Michael Mills is photobombing. Picture by Ursula Bryson.
ABOVE: This image clearly shows the ‘black rump’ after which this species is named. This can be quite tricky to see in flight as the bird is flying away from you. Also note the rich orange-gold bands formed by the edges of the tertials/scapulars – this is often far more obvious in the field. Photo by Ursula Bryson.
ABOVE: Not much to see here. Pretty smooth grey-brown undersides to the flight feathers, with orange-toned underwing coverts and axillaries. Photo by Ursula Bryson.
ABOVE: More details of the upperparts. The markings on these feathers are incredible intricate, and they are a real headache to paint, I assure you. To me this pattern is quite reminiscent of some of the nightjars (especially Square-tailed) which also need such patterns for terrestrial camoflage. Photo by Ursula Bryson.
ABOVE: If you ever find a dead or injured bird sporting a ring around its leg, please make every effort to inform somebody who can forward it on to the relevant authority. In southern Africa, SAFRING coordinates ringing activites. Visit them at http://safring.adu.org.za/found_ring.php or email email@example.com. Retrap information is incredibly valuable, and is the main reason why we ring birds in the first place. The feet of buttonquails look like those of bustard to me, with a series of bubble-like pads on the toes. This one has ‘shopping mall feet’ – like my kids when they go the mall barefoot and return with black foot soles! Photo by Ursula Bryson.
ABOVE: This is pretty cool! A quick series of photos, which I subsequently stitched together, shows how the bird takes off vertically. One moment it is sitting on the ground after being gently released, and the next second it is almost 2 m up and level with Tom’s head! This vertical take-off will also come in handy when the bird needs to escape an approaching threat in tall grass: it first needs to rise above the vegetation and then it shoots off into the distance on an unwavering horizontal flight path. Photo by Ursula Bryson.
MUTINONDO WILDERNESS, ZAMBIA
Mutinondo is pretty much as off-the-beaten track as you can get. The 10,000 ha reserve is wedged between the Shoebill-infested Bangweulu Swamps on one side, and the Luangwa Valley on the other. The area is well known to birders as one of the best sites to find the elusive Bar-winged Weaver, but this is just one of the many specials that Mutinondo’s matrix of miombo woodland, dambos, riparian forest and granite outcrops offers. What tickles your fancy most? Spotted Creeper, Miombo Scrub-Robin, Red-capped Crombec, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Chestnut-headed Flufftail, Blue Quail, Bocage’s Akalat or Rock-loving Cisticola. Or perhaps Anchieta’s Barbet, Locustfinch, Trilling Cisticola, Stout Cisticola, Laura’s Warbler, White-tailed Elminia, White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, Fawn-breasted Waxbill, Eastern and Western Miombo Double-collared Sunbirds, Ross’s Turaco or Black-backed Barbet is more to your liking? Take a look at this Google Map of the surrounding habitat – I guarantee you’ll be tempted to visit www.mutinondozambia.com to check rates and availability.
Hi Faansie, great article, had a close encounter with a t.nanus many years ago when fleeing an area after bumping into a hippo near St Lucia (don’t ask….)
Have you seen Quail-plover yet, and how does that fit in taxonomically with the Turnicidae?
I am extremely interested in the buttonquails, in Australia we have some, but the hardest to find has to be the Buff-breasted in north Queensland, probably my next challenge….
Hi Tom, thanks for the comments. Sounds like there is more to your St Lucia hippo story. I have not seen African’s unique Quail-plover, but would dearly love to one day. It is in monotypic genus, Ortyxelos, within the Turnicidae family. It differs from Turnix buttonquails in having a longer tail with stiffer tail feathers; it also has longer wings with a striking black-and-white pattern quite unlike that of buttonquails. The flight is said to very erratic, like a large butterfly, quite different from the powerful, low bursts of wingbeats of buttonquails. Of course there is also your Australian Plains-wanderer, Pedionomus torquatus; despite its buttonquail-like appearance, genetic analyses suggest it is more closely aalied to the South American seedsnipes (!).
Yes, Australia is indeed blessed with an abundance of buttonquails! I’ve only manageded to connect with Black-breasted Buttonquail at Inskip Point near the Fraser Island ferry. So still plenty of searching to do. Good luck with your mission to find the mythical Buff-breasted.
Thanks for an interesting and informative article
Thank you very much for the comment Mike, I appreciate it!
302 species in 24 uur, dit is bedonnerd, ek is ongelooflik beindruk