There is every reason to believe that this strikingly beautiful color phase will remain a rarity in the wild in the future, as it has been in the past. – Herbert Stoddard
I was recently visiting a friend of mine named Harold Ray. He is known through out the field trial world as one of the best ever shooting dog trainers. He has won eighty championships and was elected to the Field Trial Hall Of Fame in 2007. Early in his career Harold was hired by Elvin and Inez Smith to be the trainer for Smiths English Setters. Last year Mrs. Smith passed away, and Harold was asked to go through some of the records and materials she had accumulated. During this process he came across a binder of very old issues of American Field magazine. Harold told me that one of them contained an article that discussed the red quail of the Ames plantation. At this point my ears perked up.
Over the years I have had many people ask me about the red quail.
Questions like, Where did they come from?,Why is it called the Tennessee Red?, Is it a separate species?, Are their calls different from the Northern Bobwhite?Will red quail and northern bobwhite form mixed coveys?
Maybe this was an opportunity to get some answers.
Harold went on to say that according to the article some of the first reports of Red Quail came from sightings on the Ames Plantation around 1925.
I had heard of the Ames Plantation since that is where the National Field Trial Championship is held every year. I knew it was a large place (over 18,000 acres), and was located in west Tennessee.
Unfortunately, Harold had loaned out the magazine article, so I could not read the entire thing myself to learn more about the sighting. But I left his place with enough of a lead to begin digging for more information about red quail on my own. Heres what I found out.
According to ornithologists, if a quail shows a lack of pigmentation in its feathers, this condition is called albinism. If it shows an abnormal red coloration, it is referred to as having an erythrism. In Herbert Stoddards classic book, The Bobwhite Quail, he addresses the subject of erythrism. He says that a female quail of the red color phase was sent to the U.S. Biological Survey after being shot in 1921. The bird was collected ten miles south of Potomac, Virginia in King George County.
Not much more was said about this curious red quail until the manager of the Ames Plantation in Grand Junction, Tennessee wrote Mr. Stoddard a letter in February of 1927. The manager, Mr. C.E. Buckle, wrote:
There is a mixed covey of quail here of which seven are distinct auburn red, and when flying they look a richer red than they are in your hand. We killed one a day or two ago and it is the most beautiful quail I have ever seen.
Soon after he penned this letter, Mr. Buckle wrote an article for American Field in which he describes the unusual coloring of the birds this way:
The auburn red is much like that of the red Scotch grouse.
A year later he shot a red quail there at the Plantation, and sent it to Stoddard for his collection.
If I had been Herbert Stoddard, I would have seen this as an opportunity to go quail hunting at the Ames Plantation. That is exactly what he did a few weeks later. While there he saw five of the red phase quail in four different coveys.
The red quail seemed to spread out and increase on the Ames Plantation. About 1930 Stoddard noted, no less than one to five red quail have been noted in seven different coveys over several square miles…
In the years following many red quail were captured on the Ames Plantation and propagated for release in an attempt to increase their numbers. Some were also trapped and sent to Sherwood Plantation in Thomasville, Georgia, for genetic experiments.
From these early studies it was determined that the red quail condition was a natural trait that can crop out from time to time in the northern part of the bobwhite range. However, it seemed that Grand Junction, Tennessee was the only location where it actually had a tendency to persist.
However, efforts to increase the number of red quail were very discouraging. In a summary of this work, published in 1949, researchers made the following comments, Both at Grand Junction and in Georgia, the red quail that had been released as adults appeared in a few instances from five to 35 miles away —— . They also noted, the reds lacked the vigor of the normal birds, their egg fertility was much lower, and their mortality rate both before and after hatching was higher .
Since some quail growers are currently propagating this muted strain commercially, it is obvious that much knowledge has been gained about rearing the red quail since the 1930’s. So what might one expect to see in the red quail obtained from breeders in this day and time? Once again I turned to Harold Ray for his insight. I figured anyone who trained four Hall of Fame dogs and has been working with all kinds of released quail since the
1960’s, had to be very discriminating when it came to bird performance.
Harold told me he had used Tennessee Reds for a couple of years on his place. He used some in Johnny Houses(recall pens) and others to establish free ranging, pre-season release coveys. From his experience, Harold said the red quail seemed to hold to a smaller home range, be very strong fliers, and demonstrate a stronger covey instinct than some of the normal bobwhites he has used.
This experience has led me down a scent trail to some great historical documents on red quail and the answers I had been seeking. I had learned that these quail were not a separate species, but rather a naturally occurring muted strain of the Northern Bobwhite. Also, I found out that since this color seems to persist in Tennessee, it is sometimes called a Tennessee Red.
As for their behavior, I surmised that since they had first been found in mixed coveys with Northern Bobwhite, they must get along pretty well with their relatives. In addition, they have the same spring mating call and fall covey up call as the brown phase .
Out of a casual conversation with a friend I was able to learn something new about quail. In turn I am able to share this information with you. You never know what can come out of something like a simple visit with your neighbor, especially when that neighbor has seen as many covey rises as Harold Ray.
Buckle, C.E.:American Field, vol. CVII, no. 17,p.444, April 23,1927.
Cole, et.al., Auk66:28-35,1949.
Stoddard, H.L., The Bobwhite Quail, 1931: 86-87.