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Black-breasted button-quail

Black-breasted button-quail male feeding chick. Photo: Luke Hogan

Black-breasted button-quail male feeding chick. Photo: Luke Hogan

Common name: black-breasted button-quail

Scientific name: Turnix melanogaster

Family: Turnicidae (button-quails)

Conservation status: The black-breasted button-quail is listed as Vulnerable in Queensland (Nature Conservation Act 1992) and nationally (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999). It is ranked as a critical priority under the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection Back on Track species prioritisation framework. In New South Wales, the species is listed as Endangered (NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995).

Description: The black-breasted button-quail is a large, plump, pale-eyed button-quail up to 19 cm in length. The species is a ground dwelling bird that is distinguished from true quails by having three forward-facing toes and no hind toe. The black-breasted button-quail has a grey bill and pale yellow legs. The plumage is mottled with brown, black, grey and white and the chest is black with numerous white half-moon markings. The face and throat are white on male birds and black on females. Juvenile birds resemble males but are duller in colouration.

Habitat and distribution

Historical records (1800s) suggest that the former distribution of the black-breasted button-quails extended from Rockhampton in Queensland to Grafton, New South Wales. Today, their distribution encompasses eastern Queensland (generally east of the Great Dividing Range) and New South Wales. In Queensland, they are distributed from the Byfield region in the north to at least the Border Ranges rainforests in the south. In north-eastern New South Wales, black-breasted button-quails appear to be restricted to the Northern Rivers and Tableland regions.

Black-breasted button-quails inhabit a range of vegetation communities but are more commonly associated with coastal scrubs and fragments of vine forest and thickets that are periodically water-stressed. The birds may also be found in low thickets or woodlands, acacia thickets, lantana patches (in association with these vegetation types) and wetter subtropical rainforest in New South Wales. They have also been regularly observed within hoop pine plantations.

Life history and behaviour

Black-breasted button-quails are territorial birds, commonly seen in pairs or occasionally in small groups. They are elusive well camouflaged birds and rely on stealth to avoid danger. Although they may appear to be transient in non-core habitats (staying for only a short time), they are generally considered to be sedentary (non-migratory).

Black-breasted button-quails nest on the ground and the breeding season occurs mainly from October to December. Females are believed to be territorial during the breeding season and will breed with several males. Multiple clutches (3-4) are produced in one season and are incubated and cared for solely by males.

The diet of black-breasted button-quails consists mostly of small, ground-dwelling invertebrates (spiders, ants, beetles and land snails) and seeds. When foraging, the species creates distinctive shallow circular depressions (termed platelets) in leaf litter and loose soil.

Threatening processes

Since the 1900s, numbers of black-breasted button-quail have declined. Currently the main threat is habitat degradation due to domestic stock and feral pigs. Other processes that continue to threaten remaining populations include:

  • Habitat loss and fragmentation through agriculture, infrastructure construction and urban development.
  • Inappropriate grazing regimes.
  • Habitat loss due to inappropriate fire regimes.
  • Predation by feral animals such as cats and foxes.

Recovery actions

national recovery plan for the black-breasted button-quail has been developed. The recovery plan makes management recommendations for the conservation of the species. The Actions for Biodiversity documents for the Burnett Mary, Fitzroy, Condamine and South East Queensland NRM regions also identify actions for the species recovery. Management actions from these documents include the following:

  • Increase extent, quality and connectivity of black-breasted button-quail habitat and encourage land managers and private landholders to adopt habitat protection measures.
  • Rehabilitate degraded habitats where black-breasted button-quail occur.
  • Control feral animals in black-breasted button-quail habitats.
  • Reduce the impact of domestic stock on black-breasted button-quail populations and habitat by implementing appropriate grazing regimes.
  • Implement appropriate fire regimes. Fire regime will depend on the type of habitat (e.g. no fire for moist vine scrub). Minimise the risk of fire incursions into preferred habitat (dry or moist vine scrub remnants, low thickets or woodlands, acacia thickets, and hoop pine plantations). The bird prefers low ground cover so small or mosaic burns are required to maintain ground cover in habitat that can tolerate fire and should be done outside the breeding period (October - December).
  • Clarify the current distribution of the black-breasted button-quail by conducting surveys in mapped habitat to locate new populations.

What can you do to help?

Substantial areas of black-breasted button-quail habitat exist on private land. To protect such habitat, voluntary conservation agreements could be negotiated through schemes such as the Nature Refuge Program, which provides a range of incentives and land management support to landholders.

The impact of introduced predators and competitors on black-breasted button-quail populations can be addressed by implementing feral animal control programs in and around black-breasted button-quail habitat. In addition, installing fencing to exclude grazing stock from black-breasted button-quail habitat and implementing appropriate fire and grazing regimes could minimise further damage to these areas.

Further information

Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. 2012. Turnix melanogaster Black-breasted button-quail: Species Profile and Threats Database. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra.

Garnett ST, Szabo JK and Duntson G. 2011. The action plan for Australian birds 2010. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria.

Marchant, S and Higgins, PJ (eds). 1993, Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Vol. 2. Raptors to Lapwings. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Mathieson MT and Smith GC 2009. National recovery plan for the black-breasted button-quail Turnix melanogaster. Report to Department of the Environment, Water Heritage and the Arts, Canberra. Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Brisbane. 

Last updated
1 May 2013