Buttonquails are small birds that are short and thick in build. They have small heads, short necks, short legs, and almost no tail. Unlike most birds, buttonquails have only three toes; the hind toe is absent. Buttonquails have short bills that vary between slender (in species that eat mostly insects) and stout (in species that eat mostly seeds). Buttonquails vary in size from 4 to 9 inches (10 to 23 centimeters) in length and 0.7 to 5.3 ounces (20 to 150 grams) in weight.
Buttonquails tend to be brownish, grayish, or dullish red in color. Their backs are often mottled, that is, covered with spots or splotches, or irregularly striped, helping them to blend in against their habitat. The breast, however, is often red or black and white. Buttonquail females are larger and more brightly colored than the males.
Buttonquails are found in southern Europe, Africa, south and Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Solomon Islands.
Buttonquails live in grassland, brush, and some forest habitats. Although they can fly, they live almost exclusively on the ground, often in grasses or amid crops or weeds.
Buttonquails are primarily seed-eaters. However, they may also eat plant material, insects, and snails. In order to help grind up their food, buttonquails also swallow a small amount of sand. They find their food on the ground, in litter (the layer of leaves and other material covering the ground), and in low vegetation. In many species, individuals have a distinctive foraging (food hunting) behavior of standing on one foot while scratching the ground with the other, turning in a circle.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
The buttonquail breeding period is generally spring and summer, although tropical species breed all year round. In dry areas, buttonquails tend to breed only during the rainy season.
Buttonquails have an elaborate courtship routine. Females puff up, call with booming notes, stamp their feet, and scratch at the ground. In some species the wings are also spread. Then the male and female rock together, huddle together, dust bathe together, and preen each other’s feathers. The female also offers the male a bit of food. In the “scrape ceremony,” the female and male act out the motions of building a nest. The actual nest site tends to be in grass, frequently next to a tree. Either the male or female will throw bits of vegetation to the site, while the other partner builds it into a bowl shape, sometimes with a roof. The female does most of the work of nest-building.
Some species of buttonquails are monogamous (muh-NAHguh-mus), meaning a female mates with a single male. In other species, however, there is a mating system known as sequential polyandry (PAH-lee-an-dree), in which a female courts a male, lays a set of eggs, and then leaves the male to incubate the eggs and raise the chicks while she courts another male. This mating system is fairly unusual among birds.
The number of eggs per clutch varies by species, but is generally between two and seven. Eggs hatch after twelve or thirteen days. Chicks are precocial, meaning they hatch at a developmentally advanced stage, covered with feathers and able to move. They follow the father, who feeds them termites and seeds.
BUTTONQUAILS AND PEOPLE
Many buttonquail species were once hunted for food, although this is no longer legal in most western countries. Some species, including the common buttonquail and some Australian species, are bred for food. Buttonquails have also been important in some of the rituals of the Australian Aborigines.
Of the seventeen species of buttonquails, two are listed as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction, or dying out, in the wild, by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the black-breasted buttonquail and buff-breasted buttonquail. There are approximately 500 black-breasted buttonquails in existence, and 5,000 buff-breasted buttonquails. Four additional species are listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild: the Worcester’s buttonquail, Sumba buttonquail, Australian chestnut-backed buttonquail, and plains-wanderer. The spotted buttonquail is listed as Near Threatened, not in immediate danger of extinction. Most species of buttonquails are declining due to habitat destruction for agriculture.