Maidwell and the curious “yow-yow” call of Common Quail

For local birders trying to catch up with Quail it’s proving to be a tough year so far. Normally by late June they have been heard at up to half a dozen or so sites … but not this year. The only ‘reliable site’ – and I use the term loosely – has been the Blueberry Farm complex near Maidwell, where up to four sporadically singing males have been heard. There they are decidedly elusive, calling only very infrequently during the early mornings and late evenings and it’s possible to spend hours there without hearing even a snatch of song. Perhaps this year’s lower than average temperatures and poor weather have conspired to dampen singing males’ ardour. But are they being overlooked?

It took me four trips to Maidwell before I managed to catch up with one – albeit very briefly. On Wednesday evening I paid a late visit to the site, arriving at the complex’s southernmost setaside field (SP731745) at 22.25. Despite being almost dark, there was still some lingering brightness in the sky but this was quickly extinguished by thickening cloud backed by a light breeze. A Grasshopper Warbler started to sing and continued almost incessantly throughout the time I was there and then, at 22.40, something happened. It was a call I had never heard before – a single “whip” followed by a rasping “yow-yow” and then another “yow-yow”. Initially perplexed I eventually dismissed it. But I was intrigued. I didn’t hear it again and I left the site at 23.00, contemplating my next visit and feeling somewhat deflated.

It was not until I decided to follow up this rasping “yow-yow” call that I discovered that there is more to the vocabulary of Common Quail than I – and I suspect many birders – had realised. While most texts major on the diagnostic “quick-quick-quick” or “wet-my-lips” song of the male, BWP refers in more detail to a ‘pre-song growl call, an abrupt and nasal metallic grinding “mau-wau” often repeated and usually preliminary to’ [the diagnostic song outlined above].

A quick (no pun intended!) listen to the selection of Quail songs and calls on Xeno-Canto confirms this. However, out of the thirty recordings of Quail on this site, only a small minority reflect this “yow-yow” call, most being of the “quick-quick-quick” song normally associated with the species. You can listen to the “yow-yow” call here by clicking on catalogue number XC100988. This recording consists entirely of the rasping “yow-yow” call, which raises the question: is this also used as a general contact call, which also brings me back to my original question, are they being overlooked … ?

Common Quail header photo Dr. Raju Kasambe, Wikimedia Commons
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6 Responses to Maidwell and the curious “yow-yow” call of Common Quail

  1. Adrian Borley says:

    Hello Mike,
    Had a similar experience in Norfolk last June,a singing Quail on the marshes at Burnham Norton was doing its usual ‘kiss me quick’ song until i got to within a few metres of the bird when it several times gave the ‘yow yow’ call you mention,but then it never sang again after that;the Collins guide also mentions this call.The xeno-canto recording states that the birds were disturbed by a tractor so maybe its some kind of distress/alarm call? Its the only time i’ve heard this,but all the Quail i’ve heard singing have been quite distant birds.

    • Mike Alibone says:

      Thanks, Adrian. Yes, I believe you have to be closer to hear it and it also crossed my mind that it may also be used as an alarm call. However, if some Quail are only uttering this call, and not singing, I guess they could be overlooked.

  2. I had so many questioning my Quail sighting at Maidwell I’m glad someone with more experience than myself has located one (perhaps some of the more stupider emailers might you use real names and say sorry!!!). I have to say it wasn’t with the call you describe though Mike, more the recognised “quick,quick”, BUT I have to confess it was very briefly and just the once. Thanks Mrs.Knowles for pointing me in the right direction too at 86 a very good birder indeed.

  3. Dave Jackson says:

    Hi Mike,

    I first heard this call way back at Polebrook Airfield when Quail were more numerous it seems. I noticed at the time that this call preceded the ‘whip de whip’ call but was only audible at close range unlike the main call which carries further. I’ve heard it a few times since but only from birds in shorter crops & grass, I’ve no idea if this is significant or whether it was because the bird could see me and it was some kind of alarm/contact call.

    • Mike Alibone says:

      Thanks, Dave. It was after dark at Maidwell when the Quail was calling. I had no way of guessing how far away it was but the single ‘whip’ which preceded the yow-yow call appeared to be at the same volume.

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