When Marco Polo had travelled in India, he ventured on the observation that all the birds and beasts there were different from those of Europe, except the quail; and though, as we all know, this is by no means correct, it is nevertheless striking to find a bird so well known in Europe as the quail also equally familiar in the East. There are, however, several little game-birds which go by the name of quail in India, and it is as well to point out the distinctions of this species, which is the original quail, from all the rest. In the first place, it is distinguished from most of them by having such a very indistinct tail, the real, tail-feathers being so soft and so exactly like those of the rest of the hind-parts, that it is difficult to sort them out, as it were ; this character is also found in the button-quails, which are not true quails at all, but these only have three toes instead of the usual four. The soft tail and four-toed feet will, then, distinguish the common quail from all familiar quail-like birds except its allies the rain and painted quails, and it is larger than either of these, to say nothing of other differences ; the closed wing measures at least four inches, whereas it does not attain this length even in the rain-quail, while the painted quail is far smaller again than this. The distinctions of the rare Japanese quail will appear later.
There is nothing very noteworthy in the general plumage of the common quail; it is often called grey quail, but the name is misleading, as the plumage is not grey or even greyish, but light brown, well variegated with black, and diversified above by well-marked longitudinal streaks of cream-colour. The pinion-quills of the wing are drab, barred with buff, and this is the chief distinction from the rain-quail, in which these quills are uniform drab with no markings.
The difference between the sexes is not apparent on the upper plumage, but is noticeable enough below, where the cock is a plain clear uniform buff, with the throat marked with sooty-black on a whitish or brownish-red ground. In the hen the throat is always all white, but the breast is marked with short blackish streaks as in a lark, and the general tone below is paler and not so buffy, more of a cream-colour. The largest quail of this species are hens, but many cocks are as big as most of their mates ; the weight ranges from 3.2 ounces to 4.62 ounces—a big variation for so small a bird, but a good deal has to be allowed for condition, the quail being a bird which under favourable circumstances gets very fat. Nothing need be said about its value for the table, since it has been esteemed in this capacity for untold ages, and therefore persecuted by man longer and more thoroughly than any other species of bird whatever. Nevertheless, it is still exceedingly common almost throughout the north temperate parts of the Old World, and in India, which is one of its great wintering-places, is the most abundant of all game birds during the winter months, though its numbers vary much in different years, and also the wideness of its distribution. A few—a very, very few—remain to breed here, but nearly all normally leave us by the end of April.
It is, indeed, essentially a long-distance migrant, the only one of its family; indeed, most of them, whether pheasants, partridges or other quails, are considered good fliers of their kind if they go ordinarily a mile without alighting, while this little quail crosses both the Mediterranean and the Bed Sea, though often absolutely worn out by a long passage. There is a great loss of life during migration owing to the powers of flight of the birds being barely sufficient for such long journeys, and evidently thousands of years of evolution have failed to completely adapt this bird to habits so unlike those of its kin. The difference in flying power would never be appreciated by observers of the ordinary habits of the quail, for when flushed in the fields it seldom flies a quarter of a mile, or rises more than a yard or two from the ground ; its flight is very straight and steady, and performed by a continuous quick beat of the wings. Although swift, it is not a difficult bird to shoot, and where it is common may be shot in enormous numbers ; bags of a hundred brace in a day are mentioned by Hume, and yet the birds are not at all gregarious, but get up and fly singly, though when on the move they do travel en masse. When migrating they travel at night, and must often go very high, as they cross the Himalayas on one of their migration routes; in fact, the bulk of our quail in India come to us in this way, arriving usually during the first half of September. These have summered in Central Asia ; but a further set come in on our north-western coasts, from Arabia and Africa, and these arrive before August is out.
Once arrived in India, the quail proceed to distribute themselves according to circumstances ; a place may be swarming with them one day and deserted the next, for they still keep moving on in many cases. They never reach the extreme southern and western parts of our area, however, not penetrating as far as Ceylon, nor have they been found in Tenasserim, while even in Chittagong and Burma they are rare. In Lower Bengal, also, they cannot usually be very common, for I only heard of them as abundant in the winter of 1900-1901, out of seven I spent in Calcutta. In years of scarcity they are common in Central and Southern India, and the worse the season the further they naturally go ; but normally Upper India is their stronghold, though they are only really abundant locally. In March they are commonest, because then they are drawing up for the northward migration. The variation in their visiting numbers is estimated by Hume as probably one of many millions, and this is quite likely, for this quail is probably one of the most numerous birds in the world. Man, it is true, is a great enemy, as has been said ; but, on the other hand, he creates conditions favourable for the bird, which is quite at home in cultivation, and only avoids deserts, swamps, and forest, which are just the sort of country which man desires to see converted into cultivable land, and which without him form the major part of the earth's surface. The common quail not only finds shelter, but food in human cultivations ; for although in the wilds its food must consist only of grass-seed, small berries, and insects, it gladly feeds on grain, especially the various kinds of millets. When the crops are reaped, it takes to bush-jungle and a diet of wild produce. Quail feed in the morning and evening, and probably also at night, for in captivity they are active then ; by day they are very sluggish, and may even be trodden upon sometimes before rising, though at others they will run some distance. When winged, they are easily lost, as they hide adroitly, and will readily " go to ground " in any hole.
When at ease their note is a low whistling chirp, but is harsher when they are forced to rise, and the male's spring call is very distinct, a loud clear trisyllable, of which many renderings exist. Mr. E. Kay Robinson's "Dick, be quick" expresses it best to my ear. Although possessed of but a small bill and devoid of spurs, the cock is intensely quarrelsome, and quail-fighting is as popular a sport in India now as it used to be in ancient Greece. This quail is a very prolific bird, laying as many as fourteen eggs, but such as breed in India do not appear to lay over ten ; the nest is made of a little grass, of course on the ground, for, like all typical quails, this species never even perches. The eggs are very distinctive in appearance ; they are large considering the number laid, measuring more than an inch in the long diameter, and are marked, generally heavily, with chocolate on cream colour. Such quail as breed here lay in March and April, but these are, no doubt, usually "pricked" birds, though in 1872 these quail bred freely about Nowshera, probably influenced by the backward season of that year; but there appears no general tendency in Asiatic common quail to become residents, as they often do in some other countries, notably Spain and Ireland. Probably the competition of other birds of similar type is the deterrent to their colonization of India, for the strong point of the species appears to be the power of flight which enables it to occupy ground which other birds of the family can never reach.
The many names of this bird probably mean " quail" in general in most cases— Butairo in Sind and Batri in Bengali recall the Hindustani name ; Bur-ganja and Gur-ganj are used at Poona, and Burli at Belgaum, while in Tamil and Canarese the names are Peria-ha-deh and Sipale haki, the Telugu name being Gogari-yellachi. Botah Surrai is the Assamese name, and Soibol in Manipur, while the Uriyas use Gundri. When mentioned specifically the species is distinguished in Hindustani as Gagus or Burra Bater.