Barely bigger than a skylark, the quail has the distinction of being our smallest gamebird; it is also our only migratory one. The presence of this diminutive delicacy is usually only revealed upon hearing the sharp three-note call of the male. I, like many other birdwatchers, use the phrase ‘wet-my-lips’ as a mnemonic, as it almost exactly describes the pattern of this call. The call itself is often repeated several times by the male and, since it is far-carrying, it is tempting to use it to locate the bird. Unfortunately, such are the ventriloquial properties of the call that this is a fruitless exercise. Over the past couple of weeks there have been a number of calling birds reported from the west of the county, associated with arable land on that swathe of chalk running from north to south down through Norfolk. Because quail are able to reproduce at three months of age, it is possible that some of the birds calling now are young from breeding attempts that took place further south earlier in the year. Research suggests that there are two components to the British breeding population, with some birds arriving in May and others, including these young birds, reaching us later in the summer.
It may seem surprising that the quail, belonging to a group of species not necessarily known for their powers of flight, should be such a mobile migrant. The species has a huge breeding range, extending east from Britain across Europe and into central Asia, and south through the Mediterranean and down across Africa. Normally a scarce breeder in Britain, in some years much larger numbers appear. Although the exact reasons for these periodic influxes are unknown, it is thought that they may be linked with good breeding seasons in Iberia and North Africa, producing more young birds that move north.
The quail was almost certainly more common historically in Britain than it is now and it appears, as do many other birds, on the lists of species taken for the table. Interestingly, some ancient Greek writers describe the flesh of the quail as being unwholesome, suggesting that this results from the quail’s eating poisonous plants, like hellebore. Having never tried quail (nor likely to, as a vegetarian) I cannot comment on its flavour. Aside from when on migration, it would appear to have been a difficult species to catch, what with the ventriloquial qualities of the song and its tendency to hide in long vegetation. Chaucer alludes to this in ‘The Clerkes Tale’, where he uses the quail as a simile to describe how well someone hides. It is a good job, then, that birdwatchers can appreciate the quail simply by hearing its call.