“We had not seen a quail around here for years,” Donna Adams told me during a phone call on July 31. “We now have two, including one that’s been scratching away at our feeders.”
Her husband, John, managed to get a photo of the male Northern Bobwhite that visited their feeders. The couple heard another Bobwhite calling, but never saw the second bird.Donna speculated that a population of coyotes might have been detrimental to the health of the local quail population, which had declined severely in the past couple of decades.
Experts recognize 22 subspecies of Northern Bobwhite in North America. Northeast Tennessee is hardly alone in experiencing diminishing numbers of this once common and familiar bird. One subspecies, the Masked Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus ridgewayi), is listed as endangered with wild populations located in Sonora, Mexico and a reintroduced population in Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Southern Arizona.
In most places in the United States, this little quail is still hunted extensively as a game bird. Whether its current population numbers justify being listed as a legal game bird is open to debate.
The Northern Bobwhite consumes a variety of plants and invertebrates, including slugs and insects. Plant matter in this bird’s diet includes grass seeds, wild berries, partridge peas and cultivated grains. The Northern Bobwhite forages on the ground in open areas with some spots of taller vegetation.
Some related species of New World quail include the Spot-bellied Bobwhite of Central America, the Crested Quail, also of Central America, and the Black-throated Bobwhite of Mexico and Central America.
In the eastern half of the United States, the Northern Bobwhite is the only native quail species. In Texas and the western United States, several species of quail are known, including Gambel’s Quail, California Quail, Scaled Quail and Mountain Quail.
Jim Lane sent me an email this past week asking about a “mystery duck” he observed and photographed at Milligan College.
“To me this is an odd looking duck,” he wrote in his email. “Do you know what breed it is?”
I wrote Jim back to let him know that his duck is a Muscovy, a species of duck that has been domesticated from wild Muscovy ducks, which can still be found in southern Texas and Mexico.
The Native American tribes of that part of Mexico and Central America first domesticated the Muscovy duck, much as Europeans and Asians domesticated the Mallard duck.
The Muscovy Duck is an interesting duck that also shows up in its domesticated form on the region’s ponds, lakes and rivers.
The Muscovy is a large duck — a male can weigh 15 pounds — and is native to Mexico and Central and South America. A small wild population reaches into the United States in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
There also are feral Muscovy breeding populations of domesticated Muscovy Ducks in North America in and around public parks in nearly every state as well as the Canadian provinces.
Although the Muscovy Duck evolved as a tropical waterfowl, it has adapted well to life north of its native range. These ducks can tolerate icy and snowy conditions with temperatures dipping to 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Muscovy Duck was domesticated by various Native American cultures in the Americas by the time of the first visits by Christopher Columbus. The first Muscovy Ducks arrived in Europe by the 16th century, brought from the New World by early European explorers.
“Muscovy” is a term meaning “from Moscow,” but this duck has no ties at all to Russia. Some experts theorize that early European explorers misinterpreted the Native American name as “muscovy.” For instance, early Spanish explorers encountered the Muisca, a Native American tribe living in the central highlands of present-day Colombia. The Spanish first made contact with this tribe in 1537. Perhaps, in an error of translation, “Muisca” was understood as “Muscovy.”
Whatever its origins, the name stuck. The wild Muscovy Duck is blackish overall, with large white wing patches. Both sexes have a bare black-and-red or all-red face that is devoid of feathers. Drakes also sport prominent fleshy caruncles — similar to the dewlaps and wattles of domestic chickens — at the base of the bill. They also display a low crest of feathers atop their heads.
The Muscovy Duck doesn’t seem to have any close relatives, although most experts think it is probably closely allied with the Aix genus of ducks, which consists of the Wood Duck and the Mandarin Duck.
Domesticated individuals may have a similar appearance to wild birds, with most domesticated Muscovy Ducks being dark brown or black mixed with white. All-white individuals are also common.
Many color patterns have been successfully introduced by selectively breeding Muscovy stock. Some domesticated form of this duck appear in such colors or color combinations as Black, Blue, Chocolate, White, Bronze, Lavender, Bronze, Barred and Pied, which consists of white feathers paired with any other color.
Various domestic ducks, both of Mallard and Muscovy descent, reside at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park in Unicoi County and on the Doe River near the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton.
Other lakes, rivers and ponds in the region now have domestic (but living wild) Muscovy ducks on them in addition to the no-longer-quite-wild Mallards.
I enjoyed watching an immature Red-bellied Woodpecker forage for the ripening fruit of wild cherry before leaving for work on the morning of Aug. 2. In addition to the young woodpecker that I saw, I heard two other Red-bellied Woodpeckers calling and figured that the wild cherry trees had probably attracted an entire family.
It has also been pleasant to watch the dueling Ruby-throated Hummingbirds present at the feeders and at some of my blooming flowers. You’d think they’d be content to exist at peace with one another, but instead they choose to run themselves ragged squaring off with fellow hummingbirds for the “rights” to a favorite stand of flowers or sugar water feeder. It’s difficult to get a count on how many are present, but it has been easy to observe about a dozen hummingbirds at any one time.
To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, call me at 297-9077 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.