Apart from the diminutive (and unrelated) Little Button-Quail, a tropical species which is now almost extinct in Iberia, the Quail is the smallest game bird and also the most migratory. Most of the European population spend the winter in Africa, returning in early spring. This year I heard the familiar ‘wet my lips’ call for the first time on 2 March but some can arrive in late February. The best chance of seeing one is after inclement spring weather, when tired migrants may be found in sparse vegetation at coastal sites.
Quail numbers in any one year are very variable, dependant on the level of breeding success in the previous summer (closely related to the amount of spring rainfall) and conditions in their winter quarters. Although still quite numerous in Iberia, we will never again see the multitudes which used to ‘darken the skies’ in spring in biblical times or even the numbers that glutted Iberian markets in the 19th C. Hunting pressure is still intense in Spain where over a million birds are taken annually, although these include an unknown proportion of the introduced Japanese Quail.
In Portugal the Quail is most abundant in the farming regions of Alentejo province where the number of pairs is normally in the tens of thousands. Elsewhere, birds will occupy any area of suitable crops and pasture but few breed in the coastal areas of the north-west where the Atlantic influence is greatest.
There is an increasing tendency for birds to overwinter in Iberia. This may in part be related to hybridisation with the more sedentary Japanese species, although climate change is no doubt also a factor.
The demand from gourmets interested in the consumption of quail eggs (regarded as a delicacy since at least Roman times) is now increasingly being met from captive birds. Fortunately, like most gamebirds, they lay large clutches!
The Quail has a wide Old World distribution, from western Europe east to Central Asia, with resident races in the northern Sub-Continent and Africa. There are also resident populations on the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands which presumably derived from displaced migrants in the distant past.