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The Enigmatic Black-Throated Bobwhite: An In-Depth Look into its Identification Plumages Molts and Behaviors

The Black-throated Bobwhite is an intriguing bird species that inhabits the southwestern parts of the United States and Mexico. Also known as Colinus nigrogularis, it is a small-sized bird that belongs to the quail family.

Its unique traits, including its distinct black markings make it easy to identify in the wild. As a bird enthusiast or someone interested in this charming species, it is essential to know its identification, plumages, and molts.


Field Identification:

The Black-throated Bobwhite has several characteristics that make it easily recognizable. It is a small-sized bird, about 19-23 cm (7.5-9.1 inches) long, with shiny black feathers covering its throat, face, crown, and eyes, leaving a white streak between the eyes.

Its breast is light brown, heavily spotted with white, and its flanks are grey-brown. Its legs are reddish-brown, and have scales all over the exposed part.

It has a distinctive whistle-like call that is used to communicate with others of the same species. Males have a more elaborate call than females, making it easier to identify the sexes in the wild.

Similar Species:

At times, it can be difficult to differentiate Black-throated Bobwhite from other quail species due to their resemblance. California Quail, Gambel’s Quail, and Northern Bobwhite are some of the species that are often confused with Black-throated Bobwhite.

The Black-throated Bobwhite’s black markings differentiate it from the other three species. Northern Bobwhite is similar in size, but with buff and brown feathers on the head, and a white throat.

Gambel’s Quail is characterized by a brown head, chestnut and black streak on the belly, and a white-tipped crest. California Quail is larger, with a black crest, and a chestnut face.


Black-throated Bobwhite has two basic plumages, juvenile, and adult. Juvenile plumage:

The juvenile’s plumage is much duller, with buff and brown feathers overall, and the black markings are barely visible or absent.

Young males have a less elaborate whistle-like call compared to the adult males. Adult Plumage:

The adult’s Plumage is more vibrantly colored than the juvenile’s plumage and involves shiny black feathers covering its throat, face, crown, and eyes, leaving a white streak between the eyes.

Its breast is light brown, heavily spotted with white, and its flanks are grey-brown. Black-throated Bobwhite adults undergo a partial molt twice a year.

This molt has two distinct phases, called prebasic or prealternate molt, and postbreeding molt. Molts:

Prebasic or Prelternate Molt:

The pre-basic or prealternate molt coincides with the breeding season, which occurs between February to August.

The molt involves replacing flight feathers to optimize their performance during the breeding season. The duration of this molt varies between males and females, with males undergoing a more extended molt than females.

Postbreeding Molt:

The post-breeding molt coincides with the end of the breeding season and runs from August to November. During this time, adult birds optimize their plumage for the non-breeding season, where the environment is harsher.

Glands located at the base of feathers produce oil that keeps the feathers waterproof. These glands also contain higher concentrations of pigments that enhance the brightness and color intensity of feathers.


The Black-throated Bobwhite is an exceptional bird species that is worth learning about. Its black throat markings, shiny feathers, and distinctive call set it apart from other quail species.

Understanding its identification, plumages, and molts can help us appreciate this intriguing bird species even more. Knowing the different plumages and molts can also help in identifying the age and sex of Black-throated Bobwhite in the wild.

Systematics History:

The Black-throated Bobwhite (Colinus nigrogularis) belongs to the New World quail family. Systematic studies of this bird species have undergone several changes over the years, even its classification into the quail family was not always straightforward.

It was once placed under the partridge family, known as the Odontophoridae family. Today, Black-throated Bobwhite’s classification shows it as part of the Colinus family, which it shares with other North and South American quail species.

Geographic Variation:

Black-throated Bobwhite’s distribution range is between northwestern Mexico and the southeastern parts of Arizona. They inhabit open scrubby woodlands, deserts and savannas in this region.

The bird’s range extends to the subtropical regions of Tamaulipas and Veracruz in eastern Mexico, further into the northeastern Mexico highlands. The desert regions of Baja California, California, Arizona, and New Mexico host the northernmost populations.


The Black-throated Bobwhite has at least nine recognized subspecies:

1) C. n.


2) C. n.


3) C. n.


4) C. n.


5) C. n.


6) C. n.


7) C. n.


8) C. n.


9) C. n.


Each of these subspecies differs from one another slightly with variations in their physical characteristics, distribution range, and habitat preference. Some subspecies overlap in their range, and they have hybridized extensively with each other.

Related Species:

The Black-throated Bobwhite has several closely related species in the New World quail family. They include the California quail (Callipepla californica), Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelii), and the Elegant quail (Callipepla douglasii).

The differences between these species can be subtle and often confuse birders without paying close attention.

Historical Changes to Distribution:

Black-throated Bobwhite populations have undergone fluctuations in their distribution range over time.

Historical records suggest that these birds possibly occurred throughout southern Arizona and southeastern California, covering regions that stretched eastward to the Mexican border. In the early to mid-20th century, severe habitat destruction from grazing, agriculture, and human development led to a significant decline in populations across their range.

These activities led to a fragmentation of habitat areas, resulting in the formation of small and isolated populations that could no longer interbreed. Scientific research confirms that the southernmost populations suffered the most significant declines, with some subspecies experiencing local extinctions.

Black-throated Bobwhite populations are still threatened today due to habitat loss, deteriorating habitat quality, and exotic grass invasion, among others. Current population numbers are estimated to be as low as 2,500 with no more than 1,500 mature individuals.

In conclusion, Systematic studies of the Black-throated Bobwhite continue to shed new light on this bird species and its related quail family members. Geographic variation and subspecies identification, including the family members’ physical characteristics, are of utmost importance in distinguishing the different taxa.

Current populations remain threatened due to several factors, including habitat loss and deterioration. Continuous scientific research and conservation efforts aimed at restoring habitat areas and protecting endangered subspecies can guarantee a bright future for Black-throated Bobwhite populations in the wild.


The Black-throated Bobwhite inhabits a range of ecosystems, mainly characterized by scrublands, savannas, and mesquite grasslands. They prefer open and arid habitats with a mix of grass, mesquite shrubs, and cacti.

The birds favor moderately dense and tall grass canopy for cover, making it hard to spot them. Black-throated Bobwhite can also be found in semi-arid regions with little rainfall, but this is not common.

In northern Mexico, the bird prefers habitats with oak trees where they forage for food. Black-throated Bobwhite’s range is restricted to areas of lower elevation and is usually found up to 1700m in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range.

Movements and Migration:

Black-throated Bobwhite are non-migratory birds that make small movements in response to seasonal changes in their habitat. Populations in the southern part of their range tend to be more sedentary, while those in the northern part make small movements to lower elevations during the winter months.

During the breeding season, males establish territories in their preferred habitats, and females move around the territory in search of food and nesting sites.

Black-throated Bobwhite’s movements are restricted by several factors, including habitat availability and food resources.

Changes in habitat quality and availability can cause seasonal movements, which determine the abundance of these birds in different areas during different times of the year. These temporary movements are usually not for long distances, making the species an excellent indicator of the quality of their preferred habitat over an extended period.

Habitat quality determines the abundance of Black-throated Bobwhite, and individuals in suboptimal habitats may undertake movements that may lead to their deaths. Human activities, such as urbanization, can lead to habitat loss and fragmentation, resulting in the contraction of natural habitat.

Without adequate space, Black-throated Bobwhite cannot make the necessary movements, and this could potentially lead to population and genetic isolation. Black-throated Bobwhite populations in the northern part of their range may undergo short-distance migrations to lower elevations in winter.

During these movements, the birds gather in larger flocks, making them vulnerable to predators. Habitat limitation in winter can also force populations to move southward, causing a decline in population density.

These migrations are necessary for Black-throated Bobwhite to survive severe winters in higher elevations with reduced food availability and harsh weather conditions. In conclusion, Black-throated Bobwhite birds inhabit specific ecosystems with an apparent preference for open, arid, and grassy habitats.

Movements of these birds are results of habitat quality, availability, and seasonal weather changes. They may make temporary movements to different areas in search of food or to flee from harsh weather conditions.

However, these movements are not migrations since they are not extensive and are not seasonally predictable. Therefore, it is essential to protect their preferred habitat and maintain the quality for breeding and feeding requirements.

Diet and Foraging:

The Black-throated Bobwhite is primarily a seed-eater but also feeds on grasses, insects, and plant material. The species has a unique relationship with grass and mesquite canopy, which provides it with important food resources and shelter.

The bird’s foraging behavior is often influenced by the time of day, temperature, and vegetation coverage.


Black-throated Bobwhite has a unique foraging style; they use their feet to scratch around the ground, overturning leaves and debris to expose insects.

They then pick the insects from the ground with their beaks. During this process, the bird moves slowly and targets areas with more foliage in search of a bountiful meal.


The Black-throated Bobwhite’s diet varies with the season, with seeds forming the bulk of their food source. Seeds, mostly native grasses such as grama, are the primary component of their diet measured, and up to 90% of this species’ diet is plant material.

Insects form a small portion of their diet, especially during the breeding season when chicks require a high protein diet.

Mesquite beans are another important component of the Black-throated Bobwhite’s diet.

During lean times, especially in summer, mesquite beans form an essential food source for this species. Mesquite beans are an unconventional bird food as they are highly energy-dense, and while difficult for most animals to digest, Black-throated Bobwhite have evolved a unique digestive capability that enables them to process the beans’ high tannin content.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation:

The Black-throated Bobwhite’s metabolism provides it with unique temperature regulation that dictates its foraging behavior. The birds reduce their activity levels during the hottest hour of the day, preferring to forage during the cooler parts of the day.

They also prefer foraging along the edges of the mesquite canopy where the ground temperature is slightly cooler. Additionally, the birds tend to seek out areas with higher humidity, allowing them to endure high temperatures without expending unnecessary energy.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior:

The Black-throated Bobwhite males are known for their distinctive vocalizations, which are used in various behavioral contexts, including mate attraction, territory defense, and identifying other members of the same species. Vocalization:

Black-throated Bobwhite’s primary call is a plaintive whistle that sounds like cheer, che-che-che, too-too-too.

Adult males have a richer, more extensive, and more varied repertoire of vocalizations than females, making it easier to identify the sexes. Black-throated Bobwhite use a variety of calls to organize its flock, alert the group to the presence of a predator, and during disputes over territory and mates.

In conclusion, Black-throated Bobwhite’s diet is diverse, ranging from seeds, insects, and mesquite beans. The seed-heavy diet varies with the season, with insects being a vital aspect during the breeding season when chicks need a protein-rich diet.

The birds also have unique foraging behavior and rely heavily on mesquite canopy for food. Temperature regulation plays a significant role in their metabolism translating into specific foraging behavior.

Black-throated Bobwhite’s vocalization behavior is extensive and used in several contexts, including communication within the flock, establishing territories, and attracting mates. Behavior:


The Black-throated Bobwhite’s primary mode of locomotion is bipedal bipedal walking and running.

They have strong legs, which are perfectly adapted for traversing uneven terrain. The birds can move quickly over short distances, and usually run or walk away when threatened or disturbed.

Self Maintenance:

Black-throated Bobwhite spends a considerable amount of time maintaining their feathers. They use several techniques such as preening, dusting, and sunning.

They often dust bath, using dust to clean their feathers and remove parasites. When preening, they use their beaks to clean their feathers and remove any debris that might have stuck onto them.

Sunning is another behavior that helps dry the feathers and control parasites. Agonictic Behavior:

Agonistic behavior is typical in Black-throated Bobwhite social interactions.

The behavior is usually exhibited by males, which use it to establish dominance over other males, particularly during the breeding season. The birds use a series of head bobs and displays of their black throat patch to establish a hierarchy.

Sexual Behavior:

Black-throated Bobwhite breeding behavior is complex, and birds engage in a variety of behaviors. Males establish territories during the breeding season using a combination of visual displays and vocalizations.

They use their distinctive calls to identify potential mates, establish dominance over other males, and defend their territories.


Black-throated Bobwhite’s breeding season typically starts in February and extends to August, depending on the region.

The birds exhibit monogamous mating behavior during the breeding season, and males perform elaborate courtship displays to attract mates. They display their black throat patches and use different vocalizations to establish their dominance over other males.

The female Black-throated Bobwhite chooses a mate based on their displays and vocalizations. The males construct a nest, and the female lays a clutch of around eight to twelve eggs.

Incubation lasts for about twenty-three to twenty-five days, and the chicks are precocial, which enables them to leave the nest relatively soon after hatching. Black-throated Bobwhite’s chicks rely entirely on the parents for food and protection, and both the male and female share parental duties.

Demography and Populations:

Demographic trends show that Black-throated Bobwhite populations have experienced a significant decline in recent decades. The primary threats driving the species’ decline include habitat loss, fragmentation, and deterioration.

Other threats, such as invasive plant species, climate change, and urbanization, have also contributed to the species’ decline.

According to current species assessments, the population of Black-throated Bobwhite is declining, with fewer than 5,000 individuals estimated to remain globally.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List has listed the Black-throated Bobwhite as endangered, highlighting its long-term survival as uncertain. In conclusion, the Black-throated Bobwhite exhibits unique behaviors that determine their survival and success as a species.

The species has specialized foraging strategies, self-maintenance behaviors, and complex breeding behaviors. Environmental factors such as habitat loss, fragmentation, and deterioration have had a significant impact on their populations, leading to a decline in their numbers.

These threats make their conservation and protection of critical importance for their long-term survival. In summary, the Black-throated Bobwhite is an intriguing bird species that inhabits parts of the southwestern United States and Mexico.

The bird’s identification, plumages, and molts, help distinguish it from closely related species in the quail family. Black-throated Bobwhite birds prefer arid habitats with a mix of grass, mesquite shrubs, and cacti.

Their unique foraging strategy involves scratching the ground to expose insects and turning over leaves to access seeds. These birds are non-migratory and undertake seasonal movements in search of better habitat quality and availability.

Black-throated Bobwhite

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