Quail are a bit of an anomaly in the bird kingdom. They have wings, but are often only seen flying in short, awkward bursts when frightened. This begs the question of whether or not quail can actually fly. Many people believe the answer is no, so what follows may surprise you. So, can quails fly?
All species of quail can indeed fly. But, here’s the catch, they will only do so when and if it is convenient for them. These birds, despite having powerful wings, prefer to remain grounded.
To be fair, some species of quail are more capable of flight than others. However, we will discuss this, as well as why quail prefer to be ground dwellers, in more detail further into the article. Read on to discover more about these unique birds!
A flock of California Quails (Callipepla californica) in flight
Quail have strong wing muscles, which allow them to fly well. However, they prefer to walk or run on the ground. Quail can run at speeds of up to fifteen miles per hour.
Most species of quail can fly for about 100 yards (91 meters). Generally, they only do so to reach a roost or to escape predators.
If you have ever startled a quail - let’s be honest, it probably startled you, too - you likely noticed how abrupt and loud their take-off can be. These short, sudden bursts of flight are referred to as flushing. For non-migratory species of quail, flushing is usually the extent of their flight.
Common Quail (Coturnix coturnix) hiding in the grass
When quail fly, they are capable of reaching speeds of up to 40 mph (64 kph). So why don’t they choose to spend more time floating on the breeze? Well, the answer has to do with weight distribution.
Although a quali’s wings are powerful enough to sustain such a speed, many species are not capable of long flights due to their body type. These birds have adapted well to life on the ground.
While quails are generally ground-dwelling, they can actually fly quite high. Their wings are pretty powerful over a short distance. Because of this quail are capable of flying straight upwards with a lot of force, especially when alarmed. They can reach tree limbs well out reach of most predators.
Male and female California Quail perched on a post
Now that we are all equally perplexed by the anomaly that is the quail, let’s discuss the truths behind why they choose to run instead of fly.
The answer lies largely in the habitats they occupy. Across the quail's broad range, they are generally found in a mixture of woodland and shrubland habitats, all of which are rich in food, cover, and security. These spaces offer high points, such as tree limbs, for the bird to escape to if absolutely necessary. However, they blend in well with their ground surroundings, therefore, with adequate cover, quails have a good chance of escaping and hiding from predators by running.
They also expend less energy by running. Depending on the season and food availability, conserving energy can be extremely important for a quail's survival.
Female Gambel's Quail (Callipepla gambelii) in flight, Arizona, USA
Baby quail can usually start to fly around eleven days or two weeks old. Compared to other birds, quail chicks are fairly independant once they begin flying.
They are capable of finding their own food and resting places. However, they are still too vulnerable to be on their own for the first thirty days or so. Their wings and legs are still developing during this time, so they cannot run or fly as quickly as their parents. For safety, you will usually see quail chicks following in a line after their parents.
Gambel's Quail chick
The short answer is yes, quail can migrate, but not all quail are migratory. This is usually determined by their genes.
Because their wings are incredibly powerful, some species of quail, such as the common or European quail (Coturnix coturnix), can make long migratory trips. Some even migrate across oceans. They may start their voyage in northern Europe and finish it in South Sahara, Africa.
Surprisingly, migratory patterns can fluctuate within the same flock. Some quails will journey long distances, while others travel only as far as the southern Mediterranean. Then, there are those who don’t migrate at all. The number of migratory quails has actually been declining.
This could be due in part to changes in weather conditions and food availability. In areas where quails can now find adequate food and shelter to survive year round, they are adapting to stay in place. Migration requires birds to expend exorbitant amounts of energy, so it is only worth it when absolutely necessary. Birds that are able to adapt to staying in one place have a far greater chance of survival.
European Quails can be difficult to see, due to their secretive nature
Quail are not flightless birds. They are very capable of flight, most simply choose to spend their days on the ground. This is largely due to their diets and habitat requirements. If startled, they will quickly flush into the air to the safety of a limb.
Given the choice though, quail will normally escape on foot. They live in habitats that provide ample ground cover, which makes running and hiding from predators easier than flying away.
This group of curled feathers that crowns a quail's head is sometimes referred to as a top-knot or plume. It occurs across several species of quail and can be seen on both males and females. The best explanation as to why the plume exists has to do with genes and breeding. Female quail prefer a mail with a healthy, vibrant plume to a male with an unkempt one or none at all. A healthy plume indicates a healthy male who will pass on good genes to offspring.
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