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.