Button quails a unique Australian group of birds | NATURE DIARY

UNIQUE: Our local button quail is the painted button quail, formerly known as the poetic-sounding butterfly dotterel and the New Holland partridge.
UNIQUE: Our local button quail is the painted button quail, formerly known as the poetic-sounding butterfly dotterel and the New Holland partridge.

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.

Our local button quail is the painted button quail, whose old names are very poetic: the butterfly dotterel, or the New Holland partridge. Unlike most birds, it’s the brightly coloured female who calls and attracts a male. If you are very lucky, you may hear the repetitive call of the female painted button quail – a rapid, rising “woo-woo-woo-woo”. It sounds a bit like the more commonly heard bronzewing call – also low and rising but slightly longer – the bronzewing pigeon sounds like more of an “ooom oom oom”.

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 10 days or so. After this, the young button quails can fend for themselves.

One of my workmates, Bonnie Humphreys, at Connecting Country in Castlemaine has seen small, quail-like birds wandering around her garden for weeks, even on her doorstep.

Until now, they’ve escaped her efforts to capture a photo and confirm identification as painted button-quail. The two birds pictured were resting quietly together.

The birds pictured 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.

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 calling.

The favourite haunts of this small quail are scrublands, grassy forests and woodlands.  They particularly like areas with fallen timber and a good layer of leaf litter mixed with grass tussocks on stony ridges, hillsides and slopes.

They may also be seen in grassy clearings on the edges of wetter forests. Painted button quails can show up in unusual places in autumn, such as backyards – but little is known about their migration patterns.

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. Shrubs such as acacia, cassinia, dodonea, daveisia and banksia provide seeds, fruits and leaves, and a source of insects. Tussock grasses and rushes are used as roosting and nesting sites.  

I have seen painted button-quails a few times over the years. Once on Christmas Eve, crossing Sawpit Gully Road in Dry Diggings, and I was thrilled when a couple moved into my bush block in 2011 and stayed for a short while. I caught a few glimpses of the birds as I parked the car, and also would flush them out of the tussock grasses as I walked around the property.

Also in 2011, I saw an adult and two extremely tiny chicks by the Glenlyon Malmsbury Road near Denver. The chicks looked like ping-pong balls covered in fluff – I hope they survived, as it is a very dangerous road for animals and people alike!

On another note, I’ve been involved in the Hepburn Biodiversity Strategy rewrite and community reference group. Brian Bainbridge, the new biodiversity officer, is a wealth of knowledge and an enormous asset to the shire; it is a pleasure to work with him. And importantly, Brian has the support of senior management and councillors, so I think real positive change is in the air.

TANYA LOOS