Painted Button-quails in the garden
Posted on 29 May, 2018 by Tanya Loos
Connecting Country staff member Bonnie Humphreys has seen small, quail-like birds wandering around her garden for weeks, even on her doorstep. Until now, they’ve escaped Bonnie’s efforts to capture a photo and confirm identification as Painted Button-quail! The two birds seen here were resting quietly together.
Button-quails are a truly Australian group of birds. Although they look a lot like quails, DNA analysis suggests that button-quails are quite distant from all living groups of birds. Their behaviour is certainly very unusual!
Unlike most birds, it’s the brightly coloured female who calls, and attracts a male. They are polyandrous, with one female mating with several males in an area. After mating, the female builds a domed nest near the ground in a shrub or grass tussock, and lays three or four small white eggs. The male then incubates the young until hatching. Once hatched, the tiny little chicks fledge right away and the male feeds them for the next ten days or so. After this, the young button-quails can fend for themselves.
The birds pictured above could be either males, or immature birds. In females, the reddish patch is brighter. However, the depth of the colour red is quite variable according to light conditions and the position of the bird. Hence it’s quite tricky to identify the sex of the bird. (Happy to hear local birder expert opinion on this one!)
Bonnie’s visiting button-quails are a group of three birds, and the Handbook of Australian and New Zealand birds says they are most often seen in small family groups. At this time of year, breeding has finished, so maybe they are just being companionable and foraging together until the female starts her ‘booming’call.
Their foraging technique is also most unusual. Painted button-quails often feed in pairs, in grasses and leaf litter on the ground. They scratch and glean, spinning on alternate legs to create distinctive circular depressions, known as platelets. Platelets are often the only visible sign that the bird is present. The photo below shows the typical look of platelets in bushland with plenty of leaf litter.
There’s been extensive feeding activity in leaf litter and lawn areas at Bonnie’s place. It was hard to capture on camera the sheer extent of the ground being worked over by these enthusiastic little birds.
Painted button-quails are a member of the threatened Victorian Temperate Woodland bird Community. They are notoriously difficult to capture during typical (20 minute, 2 ha) bird surveys, so we welcome any sightings and observations. You can download a sightings sheet here, and let us know where and when you’ve seen button-quails, or their platelets.
In 2011, Echidna Walkabout Tours captured this amazing footage of a Painted Button-quail foraging in leaf litter in urban Port Melbourne! Do watch the whole video because at the end the female puffs herself up like a frog and starts calling her booming call. The low frequency call is difficult to hear on the video, but you can see the amazing behaviour!