How old is that quail or rooster in your hands?
Story and Illustrations by Kellie Hayden
The beautiful tawny and dusty gray-brown of a quail’s wing. The dangerous potential of a rooster’s spurs. The features that make our favorite gamebirds so charismatic also provide details into the ages of these birds. When we read the clues that feathers and spurs hold, we can make smart decisions on maintaining high-quality habitat.
Feathers take time and energy to grow — two things young birds don’t have much of when they need to quickly learn how to forage, fly and evade predators. This means the first set of feathers many birds are equipped with are not high quality, and it doesn’t take long for these feathers to become heavily worn. These ratty feathers can give us insight into how old an individual quail is.
The outer flight feathers, called the primaries, are counted inward. The outermost primary is called P10, and the innermost primary is P1. Northern bobwhites molt flight feathers starting with P1, working outwards to P10. Once P1-P8 are fully molted and replaced with adult feathers, bobwhites are considered over 150 days old. When looking at the primaries, you may see that your bird has retained one or more of their juvenile primaries. If this is the case, the innermost primaries will look sleek and strong (adult feathers), while a couple of the outermost primaries look heavily worn, dull, and may even be broken (juvenile feathers yet to be molted).
Another clue is the primary coverts. These are the small feathers that cover the shafts of primaries. In bobwhites, juvenile primary coverts have light-colored tips. They may also resemble low-quality juvenile primaries in looking heavily worn. As bobwhites molt into their adult plumage, these light-tipped coverts are replaced by uniformly colored coverts. If your quail has primary coverts with light-colored tips, that’s a giveaway your bird is a juvenile. No buffy or white tips on the coverts indicates an adult. Examining both the primaries and primary coverts will give you the best insight into your bird’s age.
Ring-necked pheasants molt differently than bobwhites. That means it’s more difficult to age pheasants by their plumage. You can watch out for some feather clues to determine a juvenile, such as the rare, retained, heavily worn P10, a buffy-colored wash on all the feathers, or a P1 shaft that is shorter in juveniles than in adults. (See the quail wing section on the next page to understand what P1s and P10s are!) But those characteristics can be very subtle, are difficult to evaluate in the field without clear comparisons, and may vary in reliability. The most tried-and-true method is to assess spurs.
Spurs that are lighter and dull in color, measure 10mm and under and have a blunt point, tend to belong to juveniles (birds hatched this year). Spurs that are darker and glossy in color, measure 10mm or more, and have a sharp point tend to belong to adults. There is some intersection in spur length between juveniles and adults, so checking first for the chance of retained juvenile primaries, then assessing spurs second will provide a more accurate picture.
Check both sides: When aging any bird, always look at both wings (and in the case of pheasants, both wings and both spurs). While molt can be the same on both wings, a juvenile feather may be retained in one wing and not the other. Or one spur may endure heavier wear, and look more juvenile than the other.
Why does aging birds matter? Data about the age of harvested birds can help inform land management practices. When managers have insight into the age of birds on the land they steward, they can better understand the health of breeding bird populations. This information can impact and even improve vital practices that maintain high-quality habitat, such as prescribed burns, grazing methods and seed mix selection.
And, it’s just fun to know!
Kellie Hayden is a published writer, artist and raptor banding apprentice who is passionate about grassland habitat and conservation.
This story originally appeared in the winter issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to read more great upland content, become a member today!