Nature conservation

Threatened species

Red-backed Button-quail - profile

Indicative distribution

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The areas shown in pink and/purple are the sub-regions where the species or community is known or predicted to occur. They may not occur thoughout the sub-region but may be restricted to certain areas. ( click here to see geographic restrictions). The information presented in this map is only indicative and may contain errors and omissions.
Scientific name: Turnix maculosus
Conservation status in NSW: Vulnerable
Commonwealth status: Not listed
Gazetted date: 21 Oct 2005
Profile last updated: 12 Feb 2018


The Red-backed Button-quail is a small, cryptic ground-dwelling bird, similar in size to the King Quail (Coturnix chinensis); it is some 12-16 cm in overall length and weighs 35-45 g, with females larger than males. On the ground, Red-backed Button-quail appear dark grey above, densely barred and blotched with rufous and with buff to cream streaking on the back, a broad buff panel on the wings spotted with black, and a buff stripe across the top of the head and a rufous collar. The sides of the head and most of the underbody are buff boldly patterned with black spots and bars on the sides of the breast and flanks. Females are more brightly coloured than the males, with a much brighter and broader rufous collar and brighter yellow bill. Red-backed Button-quails can be distinguished from other button-quail, and quail (Phasianidae), by their finer, more pointed and yellow bill, rufous collar and black spotting and barring on the side of the underbody. Red-backed Button-quail are not easily flushed, usually freezing, although birds will sometimes fly for short distances before dropping back to cover. They are more readily detected by their subdued booming call, which may be heard often where the bird is common. They are often observed singly, but also in pairs or small parties. The relationships of the button-quails (Turnicidae) have long been unclear, having been placed variously in their own order, or with the Galliformes or Gruiformes. Recent studies have shown that the button-quails are actually related to the gulls and terns and their relatives (Charadriiformes). There are 16 species of button-quail, in two genera, recognised worldwide, ranging through Africa, southern and south-eastern Asia and Australasia.


In Australia, the Red-backed Button-quail extends discontinuously from the Kimberley region of Western Australia, through the Top End of the Northern Territory and the southern Gulf of Carpentaria, to Cape York Peninsula and eastern Queensland and central-eastern and north-eastern NSW. It is mainly a species of coastal and subcoastal regions. Beyond Australia, the species is distributed from the Philippines, south to the islands of eastern Indonesia and east through south-eastern and eastern New Guinea to the Bismarck and Louisiade Archipelagos and the Solomon Islands (Guadalcanal). The Red-backed Button-quail is recorded only infrequently in NSW, with most records from the North Coast Bioregion; there are historical records south as far as Sydney and three outlying records from western NSW (a breeding record from Finley in 1954; the Macquarie Marshes in 1955; and Coolabah in 2000). The population around Sydney was last recorded in 1912. Between 1980 and 1995 the average reporting rate for this species in NSW was 2 birds per year; from 1996 to 2005, there were only six additional observations in NSW (0.75 records per year). There have been few recent records of this species within reserves: between 1977 and 1994, there were 17 records of the species from four north coast reserves in NSW: Bundjalung, Crowdy Bay, Nymboida and Yuraygir National Parks. There have been no further records within reserves in NSW since August 1994.

Habitat and ecology

  • Over their Australian range, Red-backed Button-quail inhabit grasslands, open and savannah woodlands with grassy ground layer, pastures and crops of warm temperate areas, typically only in regions subject to annual summer rainfall greater than 400 mm. In NSW, said to occur in grasslands, heath and crops. Said to prefer sites close to water, especially when breeding. The species has been observed associated with the following grasses (in various vegetation formations): speargrass Heteropogon, Blady Grass Imperata cylindrica, Triodia, Sorghum, and Buffel Grass Cenchrus ciliaris.
  • Observations of populations in other parts of its range suggest the species prefers sites near water, including grasslands and sedgelands near creeks, swamps and springs, and wetlands.
  • Red-backed Button-quail usually breed in dense grass near water, and nests are made in a shallow depression sparsely lined with grass and ground litter.
  • The timing of breeding is not well known. In NSW, clutches recorded October to mid-February, but elsewhere in Australia, clutches recorded from late November to as late as May-June.
  • It appears only the male incubates the clutch and tends the young, which are precocial.
  • Red-backed Button-quail are nocturnal and crepuscular in their activity, and forage on the ground. They eat seeds and insects, but little is known of their diet.

Regional distribution and habitat

Click on a region below to view detailed distribution, habitat and vegetation information.


Recovery strategies

Activities to assist this species

Information sources

IBRA Bioregion IBRA Subregion Known or predicted Geographic restrictions region
Cobar PeneplainCanbelego Downs Predicted None
Darling Riverine PlainsBogan-Macquarie Predicted None
NSW North CoastDalmorton Known None
NSW North CoastKaruah Manning Known None
NSW North CoastMacleay Hastings Predicted None
NSW North CoastUpper Hunter Known None
NSW North CoastYuraygir Known None
Other StateQLD Known None
South Eastern HighlandsKanangra Known None
South Eastern QueenslandClarence Lowlands Known None
South Eastern QueenslandClarence Sandstones Known None
South Eastern QueenslandScenic Rim Known None
Sydney BasinPittwater Known None
Sydney BasinWyong Known None