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October 2021

Not just an ooming quail

The attached pic shows a dead baby bird that hit the side of our house just now. What type of bird is it?

Answer

QuailThe dead bird after colliding with a house. Photo: Sharon Dennison A Pair of Painted Button-quails

A pair of Painted Button-quails with the more boldly coloured female in the foreground. Photo: QM.

While small, this bird is in fact an adult. It is a female Painted Button-quail (Turnix varius). They are an interesting ground-dwelling species that can grow to about 20 centimetres in length and around 100 grams in weight. They occur in woodlands and forests of temperate and eastern Australia. It is one of the seven species of button-quail (Family Turnicidae) found in Australia, with all occurring in Queensland. 

These birds superficially look like some of the true quails found in Australia, such as the Brown or Stubble Quail (Coturnix species). However, button-quails are quite different in more ways than one. The first being their origin and evolutionary relationships. Surprisingly, button-quails are considered close relatives of some of the shore and seabirds (Charadriiformes). The close outward resemblance to the distantly related true quails is one of the striking examples of a process called convergent evolution.

Button-quails lack the rearward facing toe that true quails possess, with three forward facing toes on each foot. This is sometimes obvious from their footprints in the circular scratchings (called platelets) created in the ground when they are foraging for seeds and small invertebrates. They are also unusual because the typical roles of the sexes in birds are reversed. The females are larger and more brightly coloured than the males. They defend territories and may breed with several males (polyandrous). The males take responsibility for incubating and raising the young. These button-quails can produce a variety of vocalisations but it is the females that possess the vocal apparatus for producing the better-known ventriloquial call, variously described as ooming, booming or moaning (somewhat similar to a Tawny Frogmouth call).

The Queensland Museum has had several recent inquiries relating to injured or dead Painted Button-quails. Of note, all have been female Painted Button-quails (like yours), which can be discerned by their bolder colouring and larger rufous shoulder patches. What is going on? Well, it is possible that this is purely by chance or it could represent a population that is skewed toward females being more numerous. Regardless, it seems that with the different roles of the sexes, it is more likely to be females that are driven out to run the gauntlet through other female territories during population influxes or dispersal. Unfortunately, it seems likely that this female-female aggression increases their chances of demise through various means, such as the encounter with your house.

 

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