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Sandgrouse or Quail?: Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study II

August 21, 2016

This Week’s Lesson – Sandgrouse or Quail?

This week’s topic comes from Exodus and Numbers, books two and four of the Pentateuch, when the Israelites, fearing starvation in the barren Sinai desert wastes, pine for the “fleshpots of Egypt,” and Yahweh promises to bring them manna and flesh to eat. [I’ll use Yahweh**, the commonly accepted name for the deity, as it’s the closest transliteration of the Hebrew YHVH, spelled without vowels, written in these passages.]

Climb Mt. Sinai (Rough Guides)

Climbing Mt. Sinai (Rough Guides)

The Lord [יְהוָ֖ה – Yahweh] spoke to Moses and said: “I have heard the complaints of the Israelites. Say to them, “Between dusk and dark you will have flesh to eat and in the morning bread in plenty.”.…That evening a flock of quails (שְׂלָו – selav) flew in and settled all over the camp…
Exod. 16.11-13
New English Bible

Then a wind from the Lord sprang up; it drove quails (שְׂלָו – selav) in from the west, and they were flying all round the camp for the distance of a day’s journey, three feet above the ground. The people were busy gathering quails all that day, all night, and all next day, and even the man who got least gathered ten homers. [10 homers = 890 gallons!] They spread them out to dry all about the camp. But the meat was scarcely between their teeth, and they had not so much as bitten it, when the Lord’s anger broke out against the people and he struck them with a deadly plague.        Num. 11.31-33 New English Bible



Cartoon by Jeff Larson

The careful reader of these two passages, with their surrounding passages, will notice that in Exodus the quail and manna are simply sustenance as promised by Yahweh, whereas in Numbers, the quail are a punishment for the Israelite’s complaints about having only manna to eat; many of the people sicken and die from eating the quail. I’ll set aside this inconsistency and address our birder’s issues: what kind of birds are these, where did they come from, and what are they doing in the Sinai desert? Are numbers as enormous as described possible?

Sinai Peninsula satellite iew from southeast (New World Encyclopedia)

Sinai Peninsula satellite view from southeast (New World Encyclopedia)

Descriptions of birds given by non-birders are notoriously insufficient and inaccurate, as are what they think is the bird’s name. What birder has not been asked to identify a bird based on a verbal description which fits either hundreds of species (“It was dark and small…”), or no species at all? (“…with long legs and a green crest.”) One learns to be skeptical and to closely question in order to gather useful information. When I first read the above passages, the sandgrouse came immediately to mind. It’s not a quail, but an inexperienced, unconcerned or naked-eye observer might think it a quail, and binoculars were certainly lacking in the ancient Middle East.

Crowned Sandgrouse wetting their breast feathers (

Crowned Sandgrouse soaking their breast feathers

Sandgrouse are an interesting family of sixteen species, grouped into two genera. [Video] They are currently classified in their own order, Pterocliformes (notable wing), but they were previously placed in the order of Pigeons (Columbiformes) to whom they are remarkably similar. Sandgrouse habitats are typically described as “inhospitable,” “barren,” or “sere,” and includes wastes, plains, savanna and thorn scrub from western and southern Africa to India and Manchuria. [In a hot and unbelievably barren waste in South Africa, I once nearly stepped on a beautifully camouflaged sandgrouse, whom I did not see until it flushed from its nest and eggs, a foot from my feet.] Because they typically nest far from any water, they must swiftly fly (60 mph is common) long distances for water and carry it back to their nestlings. A unique adaptation enables them to do this: breast feathers which absorb water like a sponge and retain it well enough to allow their returning it to their young, who lap the moisture from their breast.

Birders know the most certain way to spot sandgrouse is to hide by a desert waterhole. Sandgrouse, usually in groups, visit waterholes in the morning and especially in the evening, first drinking, then wading into water to saturate their breast feathers, then flying back home. It seems that sandgrouse might be the answer to our question:  they resemble a grouse (or quail), they live only in desert-like habitats, and they invariably come to waterholes in the evening.

Crowned Sandgrouse flock at pool in Israel (Eyal Bartov)

Crowned Sandgrouse flock at pool in Israel (Eyal Bartov)

There are three species currently living in the Sinai desert and adjacent regions: Spotted (Pterocles senegallus), Black-bellied (P. orientalis), and Crowned (P. coronatus); the  Pin-tailed (P. alchata) Sandgrouse lives nearby in Arabia and Mesopotamia.

However, one problem remains. Because they are non-migratory permanent residents in their respective ranges (except for altitudinal migration of the Tibetan Sandgrouse), sandgrouse don’t congregate in large flocks as do many birds during migration, and their arid, barren homes can not support large resident concentrations of them. Perhaps sandgrouse is not the bird after all.

The Common Quail, Coturnix coturnix, (also called European or Eurasian Quail) has been very well-known for a very long time in the old world. Egyptian hieroglyphics from 5000 BC picture them. Their northern breeding range runs from western Morocco, throughout Europe to the Baltic States, across Russia and the Middle East to Lake Baikal and India. The western Eurasian breeders winter in Egypt and down the Nile River to Sub-Saharan Africa, while central Asian breeders winter in India. Some far-western birds migrate past Gibraltar, but most avoid that enormous barrier to European avian migration, the Mediterranean Sea, by flying around the east end: through Egypt, the Sinai, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and onward to Europe and western Asia. Northbound flocks can be in the hundreds; southbound groups are usually much smaller.

Common or European Quail (Jan Svetik)

Common or European Quail (Ján Svetlík)

All other quail species are non-migratory residents and are poor flyers: fast and noisy on take-off but not adapted for sustained flight, and typically fly short and low. The Common Quail, adapted to migration, is longer-winged than other quail, and while able to fly swiftly, they also fly quite low, often nearly hugging the ground. Even today, many thousands of them are netted annually during migration in Sinai and other parts of Egypt; such annual netting used to number into the millions, but the population became dangerously reduced during 1970-1990.

Sinai net-hunting is like that elsewhere in Europe; nets are strung along valleys and mountain ridges where birds fly very close to the ground to conserve energy. It’s near-certain that for as long as humans have lived in this area, migrating Common Quail have provided a tasty and bountiful springtime repast. Flying, for quail, is thirsty work, and they try to find water before night falls, when they either go to roost or continue their migration in the dark. The mirror-like shine of desert water pools, visible for miles during daylight, become invisible ink blots at night, so stopping near sundown is best. Common Quail can and do migrate during the day and/or at night, but they also need to periodically stop, rest, drink and eat.

Common Quail netted in Gaza

Common Quail netted in Gaza (Middle East Eye) [1]

We can safely conclude that the Common Quail is almost certainly the bird that reportedly helped sustain Israelites in the desert, just as they could help sustain anyone in this region during the quail’s migration, even today[1]. Their primary migration route does traverse the Sinai, they typically come to water pools in the evening, and the Bible even got the name right. This could occur only during migrations: northward from mid-February to mid-April, and, to a lesser extent, southward in September-October, when flocks are far smaller and more scattered. For all practical purposes, outside of migration, quail are absent. They don’t breed south of Palestine, nearly the entire population (previously millions, now hundreds of thousands) of birds migrate between Europe and Africa, and are present in Sinai only during migration.  The numbers described – 890 gallons of quail per gatherer – seem greatly exaggerated; sources I reviewed described flocks in the hundreds, certainly not thousands or larger. Only one question remains.

Sinai Exodus routes and mountains (

The solid red line (on this map) denotes their route from Egypt to Mount Sinai as presented in the Torah. According to the Torah, Mount Sinai can only be located at Jebel Musa, its traditionally accepted location. (All

The passage in Numbers 11.31-33 says that large numbers of people died almost immediately after eating the quail as a punishment for their greed. I can think of four possibilities to explain this. First, people who have not eaten meat for a long time can have a bad reaction to it. Second, sun-dried quail flesh may not be free of contamination. Third, birds, like people, can build up high levels of metabolites in their muscles during periods of sustained exertion. (Lactic acid buildup during anaerobic exercise creates that “burn” in your muscles.) Perhaps such metabolites could poison hungry, involuntary vegetarians who greedily gobble down their food (possibly sun-dried or insufficiently cooked). Fourth, many people today believe that quail migrating around the east end of the Mediterranean can accumulate toxins by eating hemlock or other poisonous plants. The term coternism (from Coturnix for “quail”) describes those who have been poisoned from eating quail. Aristotle, Philo, Galen and other ancients commented on such quail poisoning.

It has been reported that Common Quail are poisonous only during migration, and only those that fly around the eastern end of the Mediterranean; not those following other routes or while on their breeding or wintering grounds. Various food plants have been blamed: hellbore, henbane, hemlock, woundwart. Whatever the toxin, it appears to be stable, as cases have been reported of people poisoned by four-month-old pickled quail, and by potatoes fried in quail fat. Some quail eaters practicing such “dietary roulette” needed to have their stomachs pumped.

Probable Midian territories during Exodus era (New World Encyclopedia)

Probable Midian territories during Exodus era
(New World Encyclopedia)

In Exodus 2-4, Moses is described as fleeing Egypt to live for years in the “land of Midian,”, where he married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, a Midian priest, and spent time minding Jethro’s flocks of sheep, a task which took him into the wilderness, including the vicinity of Mt. Horeb. Such an occupation would quickly teach anyone how to find water and food both for himself and his sheep, and Moses would have become quite familiar with local water holes and the periodic passage of flocks of quail, knowledge that would come in handy if one found themselves leading a crowd of foreigners through this region. As usual, biblical scholars cannot agree on the location of “Midian,” “Mt. Horeb,” “Mt. Sinai,” whether Mt. Horeb is also Mt. Sinai or not, or if the mountain has two peaks – one called Sinai, the other Horeb – the route of the Exodus, the number of people, the length of time, and just about every other detail in this entire story.

But whether these events in Exodus and Numbers actually occurred as described is, frankly, irrelevant for the purposes of this essay. We’re simply looking at what birds are mentioned, and what was written about them. The facts pertaining to Common Quail behavior as described in these passages (exaggerations excepted), actually did, and still do, occur. The events could have happened to anyone traveling through the Sinai Peninsula during quail migration season(s), and the mere fact that the description was written down in Exodus (whenever and by whomever it was written), means that they had previously occurred to some people, and were probably common knowledge. Such local knowledge concerning water and food would be essential to merchants, caravan leaders, shepherds, and anyone traveling through such a difficult and barren region.

** Bible Factoid #2: YHVH [יְהוָ֖ה] [Yahweh]: When Moses asks – in Exodus 3:13-14 – the deity for his name so he can tell the Israelites who is sending him, YHVH (letters = yod-he-waw-he) is the answer. This is usually translated as “I AM.” The longer passage is “YHVH [I AM]; that is who I am. Tell them that I AM has sent you to them.” The Hebrew form YHVH is actually third person – “He is” – but as the deity is depicted as explaining his own name in the first person, the explanation becomes “I am.” [New English Bible, footnote Ex. 3:12] This explanation is expanded in Ex. 3:14-15 to “I will be what I will be.” Since this was written, scholars and theologians have argued about this name, its meaning(s) and implications. It should be noted that “I AM” – in numerous languages – is widely used in Hindu and Buddhist religions as a mantra and an object of meditation; many consider it to be the briefest, truest expression of the mystical presence of the deity – or nirvana – within each human consciousness. As such, it is also being examined in the recently developing field of Neurotheology.

Note: The link to an article on Grouse netting in Gaza is placed below, rather than embedded in the text, because I decided to not leave our website permanently linked to that site.
[1] middleeasteye . net/in-depth/features/common-quail-feeds-poor-gaza-594657522

Part I – What About That Dove? & The Flood of the Gilgamesh
Part III – Junglefowl in Judea! & New Testament Koine Greek
Part IV – Birds that Sow, Reap and Store & Whence Jesus (Ἰησοῦς)
Part V – The Friendly Raven & The Bar-Abbas Mystery
Part VI – The Humble Hoopoe & Catching “Forty” Winks
Part VII – The Wise Hoopoe & On “On”
Part VIII –Don’t Eat That Bird! Part 1 & Of “Of”
Part IX – Don’t Eat that Bird! Part 2 & Seeing “Red”
Part X – Don’t Eat that Bird! The Last Bite & The Problems of Translation
[Chuck Almdale]

Additional Sources:
1. Handbook of Birds of the World (HBW), Vol. 4. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. eds. (1997) Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Pg 55.
2. HBW Vol. 2. (1994) Pg. 509
3. New English Bible with the Apocrypha, Oxford Study Edition (NEB), Sandmel, Samuel General Editor, (1976) Oxford University Press, New York.
4. Birds of Europe. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterström, D., Grant, P.J. (1999) Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.

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