The Quail

Wood's Bible Animals, 1875

In one or two parts of the Old Testament is found a word which has been translated in the Authorized Version of the Bible as Quail.

The word is selâv, and in every case where it is mentioned it is used with reference to the same occurrence; namely, the providing of flesh-meat in the wilderness, where the people could find no food. As the passages remarkably bear upon each other it will be advisable to quote them in the order in which they come.

The first mention of the Selâv occurs in Exod. xvi. Only a few days after the Israelites had passed the Red Sea, they began to complain of the desert land into which Moses had led them, and openly said that they wished they had never left the land of their slavery, where they had plenty to eat. According to His custom, pitying their narrow-minded and short-sighted folly, the natural result of the long servitude to which they had been subject, the Lord promised to send both bread and flesh-meat.

"And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,

"I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel speak unto them, saying, At even ye shall eat flesh, and in the morning ye shall be filled with bread; and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God.

"And it came to pass, that at even the quails came up, and covered the camp" (ver. 11-13).

The next passage records a similar circumstance, which occurred about a year afterwards, when the Israelites were tired of eating nothing but the manna, and again wished themselves back in Egypt. "And there went forth a wind from the Lord, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, as it were a day's journey on this side, and as it were a day's journey on the other side, round about the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth.

"And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails: he that gathered least gathered ten homers; and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp" (Numb. xi. 31, 32).

The last passage in which Quails are mentioned occurs in the Psalms. In Ps. cv. are enumerated the various wonders done on behalf of the Israelites, and among them is specially mentioned this gift of the Quails and manna. "The people asked, and He brought quails, and satisfied them with the bread of heaven" (ver. 40).

We now have to ask ourselves what the word selâv really means. Some commentators have thought that it signified a species of locust, insects which travel in vast multitudes, and are always carried with the wind, thus agreeing with the statement that the Selavim were brought by the wind. Others have imagined that the Selavim were flying-fish, blown on shore as they rose from the sea after their fashion. Putting aside other reasons against these interpretations, the Psalms contain a passage which effectually contradicts them, and proves that the Selâv was a bird of some kind.

"He had commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of heaven,

"And had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven.

"Man did eat angels' food: He sent them meat to the full.

"He caused an east wind to blow in the heaven; and by His power He brought in the south wind.

"He rained flesh also upon them as dust, and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea" (Ps. lxxviii. 23-27).

From this passage it is evident that the Selavim which were sent together with the manna were birds of some kind— "fowls of wing," according to the literal sense of the Hebrew; so that the theory that they were insects or fish must he dismissed as untenable. The question now remains, with what species of bird are we to identify the Selâv?

Respecting this question, there has been great discussion, chiefly arising from the fact that the various commentators endeavoured to show that the Selâv was not the Quail, but some other bird. Some, for example, take it to be the white stork, which is very plentiful in Palestine, and sometimes flies in such numbers that the sky is darkened as the winged host passes by. They base this supposition on the stature of the bird, which is so tall that it stands about "two cubits high upon the face of the earth." So it does, but this is a very insufficient reason for translating the word selâv as "stork."

In the first place, the words "as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth" certainly do not refer to the stature of the individual birds. They are popularly taken to signify that the earth was covered with the bodies of the Selavim to the depth of three feet.

This, however, can hardly have been the fact, as in that case they would have utterly overwhelmed the whole camp, and crushed the tents by their weight. Moreover, there would have been no need of gathering them up, as they would have lain so thickly on the ground that the only trouble would have been to make a passage through them. It is not very easy to force a passage through snow a yard in depth, while to do so through the same depth of birds would have been almost impossible.

Neither could the Israelites have "spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp." If the Selavim lay to the depth of a yard "as it were a day's journey on this side, and a day's journey on the other side of the camp," i.e. some eight or ten miles all round it, there would have been no space whereon the birds could have been spread. The sentence in question has a totally different signification, and refers to the height from the ground at which the birds fly. Taken in this sense, the whole passage falls into harmony, whereas in any other it involves a difficulty.

If the ordinary interpretation of selâv by "Quail" be accepted, the description is exactly correct. The Quails fly in vast flocks, and, being weak-winged birds, never fly against the direction of the wind. They will wait for days until the wind blows in the required direction, and will then take wing in countless multitudes; so that in an hour or two a spot on which not a Quail could be seen is covered with them.

On account of their short wings, they never rise to any great height, even when crossing the sea, while on land they fly at a very low elevation, merely skimming over the ground, barely a yard or "two cubits high upon the face of the earth." We may now see how needless it is to attribute the two cubits to the stature of the bird, or to the depth at which they lay on the ground.

There are other reasons why the Selâv could not be any species of stork. In the first place, all the stork tribe are included among the list of unclean birds, and it is not likely that the Almighty would have neutralized His own edicts by providing food which the Israelites were forbidden to eat. In the next place, even had the flesh of the stork been lawful, it is of so unpleasant a nature that the people could not have eaten it. For similar reasons we may dismiss the theories which consider the Selâv to be a goose or water-fowl of any kind.

Some persons have thought that the sand-grouse is the Selâv. In the first place, the flesh of this bird is hard, tasteless, and dis­liked by those who have tried it; so that the Israelites would not have been tempted to eat it. In the next, it is a strong-winged and swift-footed bird, and would not have satisfied the required conditions. It flies high in the air, instead of merely skimming over the ground, and when it alights is fresh and active, and cannot easily be caught. The Quail, on the contrary, after it has flown for any distance, is so completely tired out that when it alights it crouches to the earth, and will allow itself to be picked up by hand. It has even been trodden to death under a horse's feet.

Moreover, the flesh of the Quail is peculiarly excellent, and would be a great temptation to men who had passed so long a time without eating animal food. Another corroboration of the identity of the Quail and the Selâv is to be found in the mode in which the flesh is prepared at the present day. As soon as the birds have arrived, they are captured in vast multitudes, on account of their weariness. Many are consumed at once, but great numbers are preserved for future use by being split and laid out to dry in the sun, precisely as the Israelites are said to have spread out the Selavim "all abroad for themselves round about the camp."

It is rather remarkable that the Arabs of the present day use a word almost exactly resembling selâv to represent the Quail. The word is salwa, given by one of the older writers on the subject as selaw.

Accepting, therefore, the Selâv and Quail to be identical, we may proceed to the description of the bird.

It is small, plump, and round-bodied, with the head set closely on the shoulders. Owing to this peculiarity of form, it has its Arab name, which signifies plumpness or fatness. The wings are pressed closely to the body, and the tail is pointed, very short, and directed downwards, so that it almost appears to be absent, and the bird seems to be even more plump than really is the case.

Several modes of capturing these birds are still practised in the East, and were probably employed, not only on the two occasions mentioned in Exodus and Numbers, but on many others of which the Scriptural narrative takes no notice. One very simple plan is, for the hunters to select a spot on which the birds are assembled, and to ride or walk round them in a large circle, or rather in a constantly diminishing spiral. The birds are by this process driven closer and closer together, until at the last they are packed in such masses that a net can be thrown over them, and a great number captured in it.

Sometimes a party of hunters unite to take the Quails, and employ a similar manoeuvre, except that, instead of merely walking round the Quails, they approach simultaneously from opposite points, and then circle round them until the birds are supposed to be sufficiently packed. At a given signal they all converge upon the terrified birds, and take them by thousands at a time.

In Northern Africa these birds are captured in a very similar fashion. As soon as notice is given that a flight of Quails has settled, all the men of the village turn out with their great burnouses or cloaks. Making choice of some spot as a centre, where a quantity of brushwood grows or is laid down, the men surround it on all sides, and move slowly towards it, spreading their cloaks in their outstretched hands, and flapping them like the wings of huge birds. Indeed, when a man is seen from a little distance performing this act, he looks more like a huge bat than a human being.

As the men gradually converge upon the brushwood, the Quails naturally run towards it for shelter, and at last they all creep under the treacherous shade. Still holding their out­spread cloaks in their extended hands, the hunters suddenly run to the brushwood, fling their cloaks over it, and so enclose the birds in a trap from which they cannot escape. Much care is required in this method of hunting, lest the birds should take to flight, and so escape. The circle is therefore made of very great size, and the men who compose it advance so slowly that the Quails prefer to use their legs rather than their wings, and do not think of flight until their enemies are so close upon them that their safest course appears to be to take refuge in the brush wood.

Boys catch the Quails in various traps and springes, the most ingenious of which is a kind of trap, the door of which over­balances itself by the weight of the bird.

By reason of the colour of the Quail, and its inveterate habit of keeping close to the ground, it easily escapes observation, and even the most practised eye can scarcely distinguish a single bird, though there may be hundreds within a very small compass. Fortunately for the hunters, and unfortunately for itself, it betrays itself by its shrill whistling note, which it frequently emits, and which is so peculiar that it will at once direct the hunter to his prey.

This note is at the same time the call of the male to the female and a challenge to its own sex. Like all the birds of its group, the Quail is very combative, and generally fights a battle for the possession of each of its many mates. It is not gifted with such weapons of offence as some of its kinsfolk, but it is none the less quarrelsome, and fights in its own way as desperately as the game-cock of our own country.

Indeed, in the East, it is used for exactly the same purpose as the game-cock. Battles between birds and beasts, not to say men, are the common amusement with Oriental potentates, and, when they are tired of watching the combats of the larger animals, they have Quail-fights in their own chambers. The birds are selected for this purpose, and are intentionally fur­nished with stimulating food, so as to render them even more quarrelsome than they would be by nature. Partridges are employed for the same cruel purpose; and as both these birds are easily obtained, and are very pugnacious, they are especially suited for the sport.

Two passages occur in the Scriptures which exactly explain the mode in which the Quails were sent to the Israelites. The first is in Ps. lxxviii. 26. The Psalmist mentions that the Lord "caused an east wind to blow in the heaven, and by His power He brought in the south wind." Here, on examining the geographical position of the Israelites, we see exactly how the south-east wind would bring the Quails.

The Israelites had just passed the Red Sea, and had begun to experience a foretaste of the privations which they were to expect in the desert through which they had to pass. Passing north­wards in their usual migrations, the birds would come to the coast of the Red Sea, and there would wait until a favourable wind enabled then to cross the water. The south-east wind afforded them just the very assistance which they needed, and they would naturally take advantage of it.

It is remarkable how closely the Scriptural narrative agrees with the habits of the Quail, the various passages, when coinpared together, precisely coinciding with the character of the bird. In Exod. xvi. 13 it is mentioned that "at even the quails came up and covered the camp." Nocturnal flight is one of the characteristics of the Quail. When possible, they invariably fly by night, and in this manner escape many of the foes which would make great havoc among their helpless columns if they were to fly by day.

The identity of the Selâv with the common Quail is now seen to be established. In the first place, we have the name still surviving in the Arabic language. Next, the various details of the Scriptural narrative point so conclusively to the bird, that even if we were to put aside the etymological corroboration, we could have but little doubt on the subject. There is not a detail which is not correct. The gregarious instinct of the bird, which induces it to congregate in vast numbers; its habit of migration its inability to fly against the wind, and the necessity for it to await a favourable breeze; its practice of flying by night, and its custom of merely skimming over the surface of the ground; the ease with which it is captured; the mode of preserving by drying in the sun, and the proverbial delicacy of its flesh, are characteristics which all unite in the Quail.


Before closing our account of the Quail, it will be as well to devote a short space to the nature of the mode by which the Israelites were twice fed. Commentators who were unacquainted with the natural history of the bird have represented the whole occurrence as a miraculous one, and have classed it with the division of the Red Sea and of the Jordan, with the various plagues by which Pharaoh was induced to release the Israelites, and with many other events which we are accustomed to call miracles.

In reality, there is scarcely anything of a miraculous character about the event, and none seems to have been claimed for it. The Quails were not created at the moment expressly for the purpose of supplying the people with food, nor were they even brought from any great distance. They were merely assisted in the business on which they were engaged, namely, their migration or customary travel from south to north, and waiting on the opposite side of the narrow sea for a south-east wind. That such a wind should blow was no miracle. The Quails expected it to blow, and without it they could not have crossed the sea. That it was made to blow earlier than might have been the case is likely enough, but that is the extent of the miraculous character of the event. Taking the word in its ordinary sense, no miracle was wrought, simply because none was wanted. Granting to the fullest extent that He who arranged the course of the world can alter His arrangements as easily as He made them, we cannot but see that in this case no alteration was needed, and that, in consequence, none was made.