Lesson: Learn the Anatomy of a Quail
Page 1: A View of the External Anatomy of a Quail
Above: A screenshot of the main page from the Quail Anatomy lesson, which highlights some of the important external features on a male northern bobwhite quail. Interactive elements are labeled, and the content from each element is included below.
Items on this page:
• Beak: A quail’s beak is small and slightly curved, making it ideal for a diet of seeds, insects and fruits. The beak is not powerful enough to shell most seeds, so these are consumed whole. Quail also eat green vegetation when other foods are scarce in the fall and winter months.
• Eye: The position of an animal’s eyes indicates whether it is a predator or prey: “eyes on the front, they hunt; eyes on the side, they hide.” A quail’s eyes are on the sides of its head, allowing it to see predators from any direction and confirming its primary role as a prey animal.
• Head: In northern bobwhites, the head coloration is different for males and females—we call this sexual dimorphism. Males have white chin and eyebrow patches, while females have brown coloration there instead.
The bird in the first photo is a male. Compare his face coloration with that of a female, pictured below:
Above: This image shows the head coloration of a female bobwhite, which is brown and contrasts sharply with the white head coloration of the male, shown in the “External Anatomy” image.
• Wings: A quail’s wings are short and round. These are not the kind of wings that would be used to soar long distances over the prairie, but they are perfect for getting off the ground quickly and flying short distances. This behavior, known as a flush, is one way quail evade predators.
• Oil Gland: The oil gland, also called the "uropygial gland," is a fleshy bump at the base of the tail. It produces oil that the bird applies to its feathers as it preens, which waterproofs the feathers and keeps them in good condition.
Above: A close-up showing the oil gland, or uropygial gland, at the base of a quail’s tail.
• Feet: Quail are closely related to chickens, and nowhere is this connection more evident than in the feet. Like chickens, they have three forward facing toes with claws that are used for scratching in the dirt for food. Birds that spend much of their time running and scratching on the ground are referred to as rasorial.
• Feathers: Feathers cover nearly all of the quail’s body and serve three main purposes: camouflage, flight, and thermoregulation. Feathers can be fluffed or flattened to maintain body temperature, their cryptic coloration helps hide quail from predators, and they streamline the body while providing lift for flight.
Take a closer look at a quail’s wings
Above: A view of a quail’s wing, showing the different types of feathers (labeled). The purpose of each feather type is explained below.
• Learn how to age a quail:
• Primaries: These are the longest flight feathers and are located on the "hand" portion of the wing, farthest from the body. They are the most crucial for flight.
• Primary Coverts: The primary coverts are a series of short feathers located just above the primaries (hence the name). These have minimal utility in flight, but they are useful for distinguishing juveniles from adults in quail. Adults will have coverts that are solid brown, while juvenile coverts will have white or buff spots at their tips.
Take a look at the images below. On the left is a close-up of the juvenile bird pictured outside this box, with the white spots on the primary coverts circled in red. On the right is an adult bird with solid brown coverts.
Above: Two images comparing a juvenile quail’s primary covert wing feathers (left) with an adult’s primary covert wing feathers (right). The juvenile has small white spots at the ends of these feathers, while the adult’s feathers are solid brown.
Below: Another example of the juvenile primary covert wing feathers, with white spots at the tips.
• Alula: The alula is a feathered protrusion located where the thumb would be on the "hand" portion of the wing. Its orientation can be adjusted in flight to provide additional control and maneuverability.
Above: A close up showing the alula, the thumb-like feathered protrusion on a quail’s wing.
• Secondaries: These feathers run along the "arm" portion of the wing and provide additional lift for flight.
What do a quail’s muscles look like?
Above: A look at the breast and leg muscles of a quail. The leg muscle is darker in color.
• Look at the breast muscle: A quail's breast muscle is "white meat" due to the lack of a protein called myoglobin, which helps supply muscles with oxygen. The longer a muscle is used, the more oxygen it requires and the more myoglobin it needs. Higher myoglobin concentrations make the muscle appear darker in coloration. A quail's breast muscles have little myoglobin because they are not designed for periods extended use; they are instead intended for short bursts of intense activity.
• Look at the keel:
Above: A diagram of a quail’s skeletal structure, with the keel highlighted.
• Large breast muscles need a large surface for attachment, which is the purpose of the keel. This wide, flat extension of the sternum (breastbone) provides plenty of surface area to accommodate them.
• Look at the leg muscle: The quail's leg muscle is a deeper shade of red ("dark meat") than the breast because it contains higher concentrations of myoglobin (check out the breast muscle to learn more about myoglobin). Because quail spend the majority of their time on the ground and rely on their legs for extended periods of time, their leg muscles require more oxygen, which myoglobin helps supply.
Page 2: A View of the Internal Anatomy of a Quail
Above: A screenshot of the Internal Anatomy page from the lesson, showing some of the major organs involved in digestion for a quail. An explanation of the function of each organ is included below.
Items on this page:
• Esophagus: The esophagus is a flexible tube that transports food from the beak to the crop and from the crop to the first part of the stomach. It is located right next to the trachea, a stiff tube with ridges that transports air to and from the lungs.
The image below highlights the esophagus (E) and trachea (T).
Above: A dissection image with arrows indicating the esophagus (“E”) and trachea (“T”).
• Crop: Food passes from the esophagus into the crop, a pouch at the base of the throat that serves as temporary food storage for quail. No digestion occurs here; its purpose is to minimize time spent foraging (and exposure to predators) by allowing quail to gather food quickly and digest later.
• Proventriculus: From the crop, food passes back into the esophagus and then progresses into the proventriculus, one of a quail’s two stomachs. This first stomach is where most chemical digestion takes place, as acid and enzymes produced here begin to break down food.
• Gizzard: A quail's second stomach is called the ventriculus—more commonly known as the gizzard. This is where mechanical digestion takes place, as this organ has thick muscular walls for crushing and grinding food. If you cut it in half, you'll find a pulverized version of the food from the crop, along with small bits of gravel to further assist digestion. The gizzard is the quail equivalent of molar teeth.
• Liver: The liver and gallbladder also play important roles in digestion. In addition to other functions, the liver processes nutrients absorbed from the small intestine and produces bile which aids in the digestion of fats. Bile is stored in the gallbladder.
• Small Intestine: The small intestine is where nutrients are absorbed. The first loop of the small intestine is called the duodenum and it envelops the pancreas, a gland which produces important hormones and digestive enzymes.
Below: A dissection image showing the duodenum and pancreas.
• Ceca: At the junction of the small and large intestine there is a pair of long, branching sacs called ceca. These sacs contain microbes to assist in the digestion of vegetation. Ceca can be difficult to distinguish from other parts of the intestine, but they are often darker in color and striped.
Above: A dissection image showing the ceca, part of the intestines.
• Large Intestine: In the large intestine, water is recovered from digested material, which is then compacted into feces. Efficient water reabsorption is one adaptation that allows quail to survive in water-scarce environments. Feces are excreted from the body through the cloaca, an opening which is also used for mating and egg-laying.
Click on the seed to learn about quail food
• Seeds are a major part of a quail's diet, but not all seeds are equal in a quail's eyes. Imagine you have to feed yourself without using your hands or teeth--would you rather eat foods that are fluffy like a cotton ball or smooth like a corn kernel? For the same reasons, quail prefer hard, slick seeds (like the western ragweed seed pictured here) over fuzzy ones.
Learn about quail reproductive organs
• The reproductive organs, or gonads, are found behind the intestines and close to the backbone in a quail. The testes in a rooster look like a pair of beans, while the single functioning ovary in a hen--which is typically on the left side of the body cavity--resembles a cluster of grapes. In both cases, gonad size is greatly reduced in the fall and winter, but they become enlarged and fully functional during the breeding season.
Below: Dissection images showing examples of partially enlarged testes in a rooster (first) and the ovary and oviduct, containing eggs in various stages of production, in the hen (second). Testes and ovary are indicated by yellow arrows.
When you’re ready, take the quiz!
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