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What's Up with Upland Bird Hybrids, Anyway?

In rare cases, upland birds interbreed and produce hybrids that are unique for the bird bag.

What's Up with Upland Bird Hybrids, Anyway?

Hybrid, potential backcross with Prairie Chicken (i.e. 75% prairie chicken, 25% sharptail. Note: white breast feathers with dark tips—giving a somewhat of a barred impression, but not as barred as a pure prairie chicken). Photo courtesy of North Dakota Game & Fish.

It was the late 1980s, and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation was in the middle of a concerted effort to buy more lands to open up to public hunting. The announcement that the Department had purchased a ranch in premier quail country in the southwest part of the state had bird hunters like me chomping at the bit to load up the dogs and partake in what was expected to be great bird hunting. When Sandy Sanders Wildlife Management Area opened the next fall, I was one of the many who made the trip, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Not only did portions of the area hold good numbers of bobwhite quail, but it also had an outstanding population of scaled, or blue, quail. And some of the blue quail coveys we found that first year numbered 40 to 50 birds!

On a subsequent trip to the area, I heard that a hunter had killed a bird that couldn’t be identified either as a bobwhite or a blue quail. While I didn’t get the chance to see the bird, it was confirmed by a biologist to be a hybrid between the two species, nowadays colloquially called a “blob” by many. While I never managed to kill one of the hybrid quail at that location myself, I heard of a few more being taken. Fast forward nearly 40 years, and I began wondering about that bird and if other such hybrids exist in the game bird world. As it turns out, they do, and that realization led me to talk to a few wildlife experts who have experience with such crosses.

Greater Prairie Chicken/Sharp-Tailed Grouse Hybrids

Pure prairie chicken. Note: 50/50 white/dark pattern on breast giving darker overall impression. Dark tips on breast feathers are consistent and give a classic barred appearance. Photo courtesy of North Dakota Game & Fish

This rare hybrid exists in isolated areas of North Dakota and Minnesota, and likely in a few other places like Wisconsin and possibly Kansas where greater prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse populations overlap. Susan Ellis-Felege, a professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of North Dakota, knows as much about this game bird hybrid as anyone else.

“They are fairly closely related when you look at it,” Ellis-Felege said when asked what could cause such a phenomenon. “They’re from the same genus and they overlap in their ranges in some places. And while there are some behavioral differences, it seems like in the reproductive season if there’s not enough of one of the species, they’ll go ahead and mate with the other one.”

On these prairie grouse, according to Ellis-Felege, hybridization seems to happen where there are not many of one or possibly both of the species. “I’m in a really strange zone here in eastern North Dakota where we don’t have many prairie chickens and we’ve had sort of an increasing number of sharptails as we got a little more woody vegetation here. This has created a perfect storm of transition where there are mixed leks (display/breeding grounds) where both species are breeding really close to one another or actually sharing the same lek.”

Ellis-Felege said the two species exhibit different mating dance rituals that the males use to attract females. But if there are no males of the same species available to breed with, females sometimes settle for what males are present.

“Prairie chickens are quite different in sound and appearance in terms of how they go about things, compared to sharptails, which are stomping their feet and have their wings out,” she said. “I think when it comes down to females coming in, if there are actually no males of their species, the males that are there aren’t really picky.”

Typically, when species interbreed and produce a hybrid, that hybrid is not able to reproduce. So, this next piece of information is likely to surprise many readers.

Hybrid with more sharptail appearance, although this is how confirmed 1st generation hybrids typically appear. Biggest clues are the dark rounded tail (prairie chicken like) interrupted by two intermediate length (sharptail-like) central tail feathers. The breast and belly are light and have a sharptail pattern, but the neck has more of the broken barring typical of hybrids. Photo courtesy of North Dakota Game & Fish

“One of the interesting things is it appears when they do breed, these hybrids are viable, which is unusual among hybrids,” Ellis-Felege said. “But again, they’re super closely related and they share a genus. We’re trying to do some genetic work to understand a little more about what might be happening. But it does appear from some of the work that’s been done that when those two species cross, it does produce a viable offspring in many cases.”

Interestingly, the ability for the first-generation hybrid to reproduce seems to be limited to the female—although likely for mostly social, not biological, reasons.

“The male hybrids are not one bit good at getting mates,” Ellis-Felege said. “They don’t boom right, they don’t dance right, so odds are it’s female hybrids that are getting bred by one or the other that results in some of that reproduction.”

Ellis-Felege believes the hybridization is occurring in her area because of a drastically reduced prairie chicken population and an increased population of sharptails. Still, hybrid numbers are low compared to the overall combined population of the two.

“In our county, we’ll get 300 to 400 sharptails on our survey run, and we have two huge blocks that we monitor,” she said. “In the past few years, we’ve had less than 10 male prairie chickens in our survey area. We’ve gotten somewhere between 10 and 16 hybrids that we clearly can identify, and I would guess there’s more because the females are really, really hard to determine unless you’re sitting in a blind and can get pictures of them.”

Due to what she’s seeing, Ellis-Felege says that it is important to study hybridization of game birds because such occurrences could point to ecological factors that might need addressing.

“To me, one of the things that is a concern is when you see it happening in larger numbers,” she said. “Where there’s more than just one here and there, it might be a sign that you’ve got a problem with one of those two species, or maybe both. For us, I think that’s where we are as we’ve watched prairie chickens dropped in numbers.”  

Bobwhite/Blue Quail Hybrids

Pure sharptail (note breast feathers with their ‘hollow’ chevron pattern of dark V-shaped feather edges with white centers and the central dark rachis). Photo courtesy of North Dakota Game & Fish.

Now, let’s go back to the scaled/bobwhite quail hybrids mentioned earlier. Nearly 40 years after hearing of these crosses in southwest Oklahoma, I talked to Dwayne Elmore, a wildlife extension specialist and associate professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Oklahoma State University. Elmore had some good insight to share on the so-called “blobs.” Elmore says the odds are stacked against any kind of hybrid, including quail hybrids, just by the very nature of the different species.

“Birds are kind of notorious for being able to hybridize, especially ones that are very closely related,” he said. “In some cases, like quail and waterfowl, it seems like most of the reason they don’t interbreed is just because behaviorally they’re cued in to look for their own species’ special characteristics in a mate. Bobs and scaled quail, for example, co-occur in a lot of places. Probably their behavioral differences are not conducive to attracting each other, but they can, and they sometimes do.”

While these hybrids do occur, it is very rare. In fact, Elmore has conducted in-depth research studies on three areas in three different high-quality quail states that hold both bobwhites and blue quail without turning up a single hybrid.

“Apparently, they seldom breed with each other,” he said. “The chance of hybrids seems to be really low. Different studies have reported different rates, but most show that less than one percent of quail in areas where they occur together are hybrids.”

“In our research in western Oklahoma—we’ve caught hundreds of quail on Beaver WMA—we’ve never had a known hybrid. We’ve caught 700 or 800 or more quail, and we’ve never detected a single hybrid. So even though some studies have shown maybe half a percent or one percent of birds are hybrids, we did not see that rate.”

Interestingly, unlike the hybrid prairie grouse discussed earlier, it appears that most hybrid quail are sterile and not able to reproduce.

“Generally, they are not able to breed and produce a second-generation hybrid,” Elmore said. “Reproducing in the next generation seems to not be impossible, but highly unlikely.”

One thing that likely keeps bobs and blues from breeding is the fact that even when they exist on the same parcels of land, they tend to prefer completely different habitat types. In most places where the two species occur together, scaled quail are nearly always in areas with a lot more bare ground, whereas bobwhites prefer more ground cover.

“So, they overlap, but it’s not a perfect overlap,” Elmore said. “They spend quite a bit of time in areas that the other might not frequent.”  

Even though Elmore has done extensive research in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas, and has never found a single hybrid, he knows they’re out there.


“It happens,” he said. “And it seems to happen more in some places. On the rolling plains of Texas, they seem to shoot them with fair regularity. I don’t know why they’re getting hybrids more often.”

Elmore said that some hunters have reported harvesting hybrids at the Beaver River WMA in northwest Oklahoma. But when they’ve sent pictures to biologists, the hunters have been mistaken.

“We had signs up asking hunters to call us if they shot a banded bird or a bird with a transmitter,” he said. “We had a couple of people call us and say they thought they had shot a hybrid. They sent us pictures, and it wasn’t. It was a juvenile bird, usually a juvenile scaled quail, that just didn’t look like a scaled quail. Early in the season, someone can shoot one that’s a late hatch and can think it’s a hybrid.”

Elmore thinks that harvesting a hybrid in states where bobwhites and scaled quail overlap is kind of a novelty. But for hunters who do, it’s likely local biologists would like to know about it.

“I would tell hunters who take a bird they believe to be a hybrid to take a lot of good pictures, especially the plumage on different parts of the body,” he said. “The main things are they want to take a picture of the head, the breast and the wings, with the wings pulled out away from the body so the researcher can see all the feathered parts and can see if there’s a molt going on with the primary feathers.

“Send it to local biologists so they can document where it was. They would be interested to know that. And it gives the hunter a unique story and an interesting mount,” Elmore concluded.

Wrapping It Up

Of course, bobwhite/blue quail and prairie chicken/sharptail hybrids aren’t the only hybrid game birds out there in our country’s farms and fields. Limited numbers of others have been documented, including Gambel’s quail/scaled quail hybrids where the two co-occur and Gambel’s/California quail hybrids where those ranges overlap. Ellis-Felege said there have even been a couple of documented sharptail/sage grouse hybrids in North Dakota in the past five years as well.

How Can Hunters Help? What role can hunters play in the mystery of hybrid game birds? To Ellis-Felege, hunter input on if, when, and where they have killed a hybrid game bird can be valuable for those in her line of work.

“Hunters are such an important part of the way we manage and conserve populations,” she said. “We learn a lot from hunters. They’re the extra eyes and ears out there on the landscape. So, without them, many of these agencies can’t keep up. I think hunters should work with their local natural resources agency or even universities because I think we’re trying to understand more about hybrids. We don’t really know that much about what’s going on.”

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