In the damp savannah of the Cape York Peninsula, on February 5, 1922, a man was out hunting with a local Aboriginal guide. They had just heard their game screech among the tall grass – a low “oomm, oomm, oomm” – before it burst into view with a flurry of wing flapping. A loud shotgun blast, and the bird fell to the ground.
The bird was a buff-breasted button quail and the collector was Australian field naturalist William Rae McLennan. Later that evening, he reportedly skinned and stuffed the bird, turning it into a museum specimen, before describing the encounter in his diary.
This skin was the last of the species ever collected. A century later, we still have not confirmed the sighting of this mysterious native bird.
I spent four years searching for the buff-breasted button quail, traveling hundreds of miles, and spending months traveling to virtually every locality where the species had ever been reported. All I could find was its most common cousin: the painted button quail.
Still, my ongoing research has brought us closer to solving this mystery, and I remain hopeful that the bird still exists. If so, he urgently needs our help.
In search of a lost species
McLennan’s diary of that rainy season of 1921–22 remained the only detailed descriptions of the ecology of the buff-breasted quail. Some 60 years later, in 1985, it was “rediscovered” just west of Cairns, sparking dozens of new sightings by birdwatchers and several research projects over the next few decades.
Sadly, none of these reports or research efforts have produced anything more than brief sightings of the bird, usually only split-second views as it soars beneath their feet. No photos, specimens or other verifiable evidence were produced.
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For my PhD project on the species, I joined the RARES research group at the University of Queensland in 2018. Our research team aimed to find a population, study its ecology, determine what processes threats had led to its rarity and learning how it could be preserved.
There have been a few times in the rainy season of far north Queensland – supposedly the best time of year to see the buff-breasted button quail – when I have seen birds largely matching its description. accepted: they were large, with sandy rufous (reddish-brown) backs and rumps, and contrasting dark primary feathers.
But every time I thought I saw one on the ground, it turned out to be a painted button quail. These differ by having a bright red eye and a gray chest.
Given that there had been numerous reported sightings of buff-breasted button quails from the area in previous years, finding only painted button quails was surprising, confusing, and raised serious concerns.
Indeed, my research team and I became increasingly concerned about the status of the buff-breasted button quail and began to question the characteristics used to distinguish them from the painted button quail. This prompted a thorough investigation of all historical reports and the reliability of the characteristics used to identify the two birds in the field.
Was the bird misidentified?
To determine the best way to separate these two species in the field, I examined over 100 button quail skins in museum collections around the world. I have also caught and photographed painted quail all over North Queensland. What I discovered was intriguing.
Several supposedly key characteristics of the buff-breasted button quail either did not exist or were in fact characteristics of the painted button quail.
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For example, the buff-breasted button quail has been reported to be much larger than the painted button quail. My study of museum specimens, which is not yet published, showed that the two are in fact the same size.
I also discovered a previously undocumented color variation in the plumage of the painted button quail. At the beginning of the rainy season, when they begin to reproduce, the typical gray plumage of the female is replaced by a much brighter red plumage. This brighter plumage is very similar to the sandy rufous color expected of a buff-breasted button quail.
This apparently breeding-related plumage change was completely unknown, and its seasonal timing coincided with an increase in reports of the buff-breasted button quail.
In short, with no hard evidence that the buff-breasted button quail has existed for 100 years, many of the most recent sightings of the species may in fact have been the much more common painted button quail.
This means that the buff-breasted button quail is probably much rarer than we ever thought.
What is his future ?
When McLennan collected the last skin of a buff-breasted button quail, the Tasmanian tiger was roaming the forests of Tasmania and the paradise parrot was still nesting in termite mounds in southeast Queensland.
We realized too late that these unique species were in decline. Did we make the same mistake with the buff-breasted button quail?
We already knew the bird was rare, but was our confidence in the status of the species misplaced, underpinned by misidentifications of a more common species?
Aside from a clutch of eggs collected in 1924, there is no compelling evidence that the species continues to exist. Our extensive searches of the sites where it was found failed.
We also know that Cape York’s bird communities have changed at a rapid rate, primarily due to the impact of changing fire patterns and livestock grazing. Other iconic Cape York species – such as the golden-shouldered parrot and the northern goshawk – have also declined in recent decades.
It seems likely that the buff-breasted button quail suffered the same fate. It may not be extinct, but our research suggests it may be hanging by a thread, at best.
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This 100-year anniversary is an opportunity to recognize the bird’s dire situation. Our new findings should prompt the Federal and Queensland governments to act.
First, they should invoke the precautionary principle, which is to improve conservation actions for the species given its uncertain status. They should also immediately put the species on the critically endangered species list, as at the moment it is only listed as endangered.
Second, they should urgently provide the resources to reassess the conservation needs of the species, because the status quo is not working.
We hope that these efforts will prove that the species still exists – perhaps living in an unsurveyed part of Cape York – and not one that has disappeared on our watch.