The Harlequin Quail, sometimes called the African Harlequin, is a captivating bird species native to the grasslands and woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa.
Renowned for its beautiful black and white plumage, this small, ground-dwelling bird has earned its name from its harlequin-like appearance.
In this blog, we will cover the following:
- History and origin
- How they interact with one another
- How they influence their local ecosystems
- Current problems they face
- Their domestication
- How to breed them
- And many more!
Let’s get into it!
Harlequin Quail Origin and History
The Harlequin Quail, scientifically known as Coturnix delegorguei, is a species of wild bird native to Africa.
This breed is primarily found in sub-Saharan Africa, spanning various regional countries, most notably in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, and the Ivory Coast. They can also be found in Madagascar.
Its natural habitat includes grasslands, savannas, and open woodlands, making it relatively adaptable to our ever-changing world.
This species is well known for its distinctive plumage, which includes striking black and white markings, hence the name “Harlequin.”
The Harlequin Quail was first described by the French naturalist and ornithologist Adolphe Delegorgue in the 19th century.
Delegorgue collected specimens during his travels in southern Africa in the 1830s and 1840s, which is when he found these beautiful birds.
He saw his first Harlequin quail in Transvaal. The Province of Transvaal (1910-1994) has since been subdivided into three provinces: Gauteng, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo.
His collected specimens were used to identify and classify the quail.
The Harlequin Quail belongs to the family Phasianidae, which includes other game birds such as pheasants, partridges, and quails.
It is part of the Coturnix genus, which includes various species of “Old World” quails.
The Harlequin quail had a bottleneck event about 200,000 years ago during the Pliocene-Pleistocene boundary.
This is the same time frame that Homo sapiens first emerged in East Africa.
This evidence strongly suggests that the first humans hunted Harlequin quail for sustenance.
Today, quail are not the primary source of poultry protein in most rural African households, but they make up a good portion.
They are gaining popularity as a vital dietary supplement.
Harlequin Quail Characteristics and Appearance
Harlequin Quail Size
They are about six to seven inches (about fifteen to seventeen centimeters) long and four to six inches tall.
They weigh eight to ten ounces at full maturity.
Harlequin Quail Feather Color and Pattern
The most prominent feature of the Harlequin Quail is its striking black and white plumage, which gives it its name.
These unique patterns serve as effective camouflage in its natural habitat, which includes grasslands, savannas, and open woodlands.
The contrasting patterns help the bird blend into its surroundings, making it less visible to predators.
The back and wings of the bird are predominantly black, with a bold pattern of white, cream, and tan spots, streaks, and bars.
These markings create a harlequin-like appearance, resembling a checkerboard pattern.
The face and throat are adorned with intricate black or dark brown and white markings.
Below the beak is creamy white, with two black semi-circle markings that wrap around the face, like a mock jawline (or a smiling face or a necklace, depending on who you talk to).
If you look at the birds from the front, they have a central black streak of plumage that extends from the center of the semi-circle markings on the throat down to the breast and into the belly.
The belly is generally sorrel (reddish brown) with a few black spots or thicker black stripes, providing a strong contrast to the darker upperparts.
Males and females are marked similarly, though the males will have darker colors (usually black lines) while the females will be lighter colored, with brown or creamy tan lines.
Harlequin Quail Communication
Harlequin Quails communicate through a range of vocalizations, which include whistles, chirps, and calls.
These vocalizations serve multiple purposes, including maintaining contact with other members of their covey (a group of quails), signaling an alarm when a potential threat is detected, and during courtship displays.
Vocalizations also play a role in maintaining social cohesion within the group.
They may use pecking or gentle nibbling as tactile interaction, especially during courtship and pair bonding.
During courtship and mating displays, both males and females may use their plumage to signal their readiness and receptivity to potential mates.
During courtship rituals, males may perform strutting displays, puffing up their plumage and showing off their patterns to attract females.
Males may also become more vocal and active in courtship displays to attract females, but overall, their behavior remains relatively low-key.
It’s believed that Harlequins also produce pheromones, or chemical cues, to find and attract mates. Some research has been conducted, but it’s not entirely conclusive yet.
Submissive behavior, such as lowering the head while making soft cooing sounds, can be observed when one quail defers to another in social interactions.
When threatened or alarmed, Harlequin quails may adopt a defensive posture, crouching down and remaining still to avoid detection.
Males make a louder “whit-whit-wheet, whit-whit wheet-whit” sound to search for their female if they are separated.
Their female will reply with a quiet and shorter “quick-ic” or “queet-ic.”
They keep their vocalizations to a minimum to avoid detection from other animals.
Harlequin Quail Temperament and Lifespan
Harlequin quail are quiet birds that have a much shorter lifespan than most other wild birds.
Most in the wild only live to be one or two. Those in captivity may live for their fifth (or older) birthday.
Are Harlequin Quail Noisy?
The Harlequin is a relatively quiet breed that can be a stealthy addition to your house (or even apartment) without your neighbors noticing them.
They “speak” softly to one another, but this is typically not audible unless you’re within a few feet of them.
This rings especially true in the wild, where silence and stealth are their only ways to protect themselves from predators.
What is the Lifespan of a Harlequin Quail?
Harlequin Quails have a relatively short lifespan compared to larger and longer-lived bird species.
On average, they live for about one to two years in the wild.
This number can be extended by a few years at least if kept in captivity in good living conditions with plenty of healthy socialization.
Like most other quail, Harlequins have shy, secretive, and elusive temperaments.
They are ground-dwelling birds that spend a significant amount of their time foraging on the forest floor or in grassy habitats. Harlequin Quails have to be predator-savvy to make it in the wild.
They have no defenses against predators once spotted, so their secrecy is their only survival tool.
Uses of Harlequin Quail Breed
Here are a few breed purposes of the Harlequin, both in the wild and as domestic fowl.
Crucial Eco-system and Food Chain Balances
Quail are primarily granivorous, meaning they primarily feed on seeds and grains. As they forage on the ground, they consume various plant seeds, many of which are native.
This feeding behavior makes them essential seed dispersers in their habitats.
After ingesting seeds, quail can transport them to different areas as they move around, aiding in the distribution and germination of plant species.
This helps maintain the biodiversity of plant life in their ecosystems, an invaluable contribution to the ecosystem and the local food chains.
Next, as a part of the food chain, Harlequin quail contributes to the biomass of their ecosystems.
They serve as a link between primary producers (plants) and higher trophic levels (predators), transferring energy and nutrients through their consumption and eventual predation.
Finally, they control insect populations, which is beneficial in ways we cannot fully measure.
Changes in quail populations can sometimes serve as indicators of broader ecological health and ecosystem changes.
A decline in quail populations may signal shifts in habitat quality, availability of food resources, or changes in the abundance of predators, which can have cascading effects on other species and ecosystem dynamics.
While not typically bred for formal conservation programs, the presence of Harlequin Quails in captive collections can raise awareness about the species and the importance of preserving their natural habitat.
In some cases, breeding programs might be initiated to maintain genetic diversity and ensure the species’ survival in captivity.
Ornamental and Aesthetic Purposes
Harlequin Quails are prized for their striking black to brown and white plumage, which makes them attractive and visually appealing birds.
They are often bred for ornamental purposes and are kept in aviaries, bird collections, or private gardens to enhance the aesthetic appeal of these spaces.
Additions to Aviaries and Zoos
Some aviaries and zoos may include Harlequin Quails in their collections as part of their efforts to showcase a diverse range of bird species to the public.
These quails can contribute to educational programs and conservation awareness.
Hobbyists and Exotic Bird Enthusiasts Appreciate Them
Bird watchers or enthusiasts may choose to seek out or breed Harlequin Quails as a way of engaging with and appreciating exotic and unique bird species.
Breeding the birds in captivity can be a rewarding hobby that can help the agricultural community plus the Harlequin population.
Birdwatching is also highly gratifying, and it aids in the local tourism economy.
Harlequin Quail Distribution and Habitat
The Harlequin is a sub-Saharan African species that still lives in the region but has also been imported to other continents as domestic birds.
While you can find Harlequin quail for sale in the US, in this section, we’ll just focus on their known distribution and habitats in the wild.
If you choose to raise this breed on your own, keep this information in mind while you build their coop or hutch.
The better you can mimic their natural habitat, the happier and healthier they will be.
- Southern Africa. You may find them across several southern African countries, including South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and parts of Zambia. It has also been reported in Lesotho.
- Eastern Africa. Harlequin Quails have been documented in eastern African countries like Tanzania, particularly in the southern and eastern regions.
- Western and Central Africa. They are less commonly found in the western and central parts of the continent, as their range is primarily concentrated in southern and eastern Africa. With that said, it is possible to find a few outliers.
- Grasslands. The Harlequin quail is often associated with grassy habitats, including open grasslands, savannas, and grassy clearings within woodlands. These areas provide suitable foraging grounds where they feed on seeds, grains, and small invertebrates found in the vegetation.
- Savannas. Harlequin Quails are frequently found in savanna ecosystems characterized by a mix of grasses and scattered trees. These habitats offer a balance between open spaces for foraging and some cover for protection.
- Open Woodlands. They also inhabit open woodlands with a sparse tree canopy and understory vegetation. These woodlands provide both food resources and some protection from predators.
- Farmlands. In some regions, Harlequin Quails may also utilize agricultural fields, especially during the harvest when food resources, especially grains, are more abundant. Quail (like all other wild animals) have suffered serious habitat loss due to land use changes. They did not typically frequent agricultural areas until it became a necessity. Farms are not always safe places for them, as machinery, livestock, domestic cats, and domestic dogs will harm them– unintentionally or not. Plus, frustrated farmers may illegally hunt them to protect their crops.
- Moist Areas. They may also be found near wetlands, marshes, and water sources, particularly during the breeding season when moisture and high humidity are essential for nesting and chick survival. These are rainy-season breeders.
Harlequin Quail Threats and Conservation Status
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has Coturnix delegorguei (Harlequin quail) listed as LC– least concern.
Still, there has been a growing concern for their population, mostly because there is little to no enforced legal protection for these birds.
Many rural and small-scale African farmers illegally hunt wild Harlequin quail. The quail are infringing on agricultural land because their wildlands are disappearing.
Most farmers are not hunting the quail out of necessity for food but rather for the protection of their own crops. This has made the quails’ overall population drop.
While we know that this is ongoing, we don’t see any current control measures or actions being taken to accurately monitor their population, study the birds, or stop the poaching from happening.
One of the most significant threats to Harlequin Quails is habitat loss due to agricultural expansion, urbanization, and land development.
As grasslands and open woodlands are converted into farmland and urban areas, the suitable habitats for these quails diminish.
Agricultural activities can impact Harlequin Quail populations by removing or altering their natural habitats.
The use of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture can also reduce the availability of food resources and impact the birds directly or indirectly.
Changes in climate patterns can affect the availability of water and food resources for Harlequin Quails.
Prolonged droughts or shifts in temperature and rainfall patterns can disrupt their breeding and foraging behaviors.
If the rain season is altered or the air isn’t humid enough to support a healthy incubation period, the quail hatch rate may suffer or fail altogether.
It only takes a few failed breeding seasons to dramatically cut down the Harlequin quail population.
Hunting, Trapping, and Illegal Gathering
In some regions, Harlequin Quails are hunted or trapped for sport or the pet trade.
Overharvesting can negatively impact local populations, particularly when not managed sustainably.
Harlequin Quail Breed’s Breeding Habits and Reproduction
In the wild, Harlequins breed during the rainy season, October to April.
During this time, the typically quiet birds briefly sing to find one another to breed.
The males will offer treats, usually insects or grains they find, to their females as an act of courting. This is called tidbitting.
He will also pursue the female with his wings raised up to show his interest. They are monogamous, especially in the wild.
Their pair bond is strong, and the male is usually active in the chick-raising process.
If you choose to keep Harlequins, they should be kept as pairs. This improves their overall happiness and will lead to more eggs and healthier hatching offspring.
Males get very aggressive with one another during the breeding season, which is a risk that you should avoid if at all possible.
Some breeders have had success keeping them with other quail, such as Coturnix, but it’s generally advised to keep them separated.
This keeps the breed pure, and it prevents unnecessary spats between the males.
You can experiment with colony-style settings, but be prepared to separate the couples to keep the peace.
By separating the couples, I mean to move each bonded pair together as one unit to a different hutch.
Do not separate the male from the female, as it will cause high cortisol spikes, leading to health problems or even stress-related deaths.
How to Raise Harlequin Quail
Keeping Harlequin quail is a bit of a challenge, but they are well worth your time and effort.
Once you understand how to help them be happy in captivity, you’ll have the unique privilege of being one of the few breeders in North America.
Keep a Warm and Humid Hutch
Since Harlequins are native to sub-Saharan Africa, they are accustomed to hot and humid weather, and this is a necessity for breeding time.
They mate during the rainy season, so you must replicate that in their environment for successful breeding and incubation.
These birds are not cold-hardy at all, so provide them with a warm, draft-free area. A heated garage is good; inside your home and near a humidifier is even better.
Harlequin quails are notorious for laying so few eggs a year.
They may have a clutch of eggs one to three times a year, with three to nine eggs per clutch.
Their incubation period is short, though, which is a nice benefit. It only takes fifteen days for them to hatch.
They start to scratch for their own food just before their second week of life and may take their first dust bath when they are close to fifteen days old.
The female typically rears them, but a few doting fathers may play an active role in raising them, too.
ALSO READ: How to Incubate and Hatch a Quail Egg
Feed them Well
Harlequins need 30% protein feed, and they prefer to eat a variety of weed and grass seeds, with a few insects such as mealworms or maggots.
Mixed millets, maw, microgreens, plant shoots, white worms, maggots, mealworms, and various insect larvae are their preferred food sources.
Where to Buy Harlequin Quail?
The acquisition of Harlequin Quails, like many other bird species, should be approached with care and responsibility.
Before seeking to buy or obtain Harlequin Quails, it’s essential to consider several important factors.
- Be sure that it is legal to keep Harlequin Quails as pets or in captivity in your region. Laws and regulations regarding the ownership and trade of birds can vary significantly from one location to another, and some species may be protected or require permits.
- It’s important to obtain Harlequin Quails from ethical and reputable sources. Avoid purchasing birds that have been captured from the wild, as this can contribute to the decline of wild populations and may be illegal in many places.
- Contact local aviculture associations or bird clubs, as they may be able to connect you with responsible breeders or enthusiasts who can provide guidance on acquiring Harlequin Quails from reputable sources.
- If you decide to purchase Harlequin Quails from a breeder, ensure that the breeder is reputable and registered with relevant authorities. Reputable breeders should prioritize the health and well-being of their birds and follow ethical breeding practices. Always choose reputable sources that adhere to legal and ethical standards for bird ownership and trade.
How Much Are Harlequin Quail And Where to Find Them
These quail have sold for $50 a pair (2022), and I expect these prices to climb every year.
Stellar Game Birds is currently offering pairs for $75.
Purely Poultry offers hatching Harlequin quail eggs for $3.97 each, with a purchase minimum of 12 (for a total of $47.64 per dozen fertilized eggs).
Harlequin quail, as bonded pairs and hatching eggs, are not easy to find, so you’ll likely have to search for a while before success.
Be sure to check Craigslist, Facebook groups (quail groups are a great place to start), and eBay.
Your local newspaper or feed store bulletin board may be other good places to start your hunt.
Are Harlequin Quail Suitable for Quail Farming?
Harlequin quails are not ideal for quail farming, though quail farming may benefit the breed.
These birds rarely lay eggs and are difficult to keep happy in captivity, though it is possible to do so.
If you are patient and willing to learn about these birds and adjust your methods to better tailor their needs, you will succeed—eventually.
Once you’ve got a firm grasp on how to raise Harlequin quail well, you can sell your birds for a premium, especially as adult pairs.
If you choose to raise and sell this breed, please educate your buyers on the quails’ wants and needs to ensure health and happiness at their new homes.
Harlequin Quail Breed: Final Thoughts
In conclusion, with their distinctive black and white plumage, Harlequin Quails play essential roles in African ecosystems as seed dispersers, insect controllers, and prey for various predators.
Despite their relatively elusive nature, they face habitat loss and climate change threats.
Conservation efforts, including habitat protection and restoration, are essential to ensure the continued presence of these unique birds in the wild.
Responsible practices in obtaining and caring for Harlequin Quails in captivity also promote their well-being and contribute to their conservation.
If you are interested in other quail breeds, you might want to check the articles below!