Blue-headed quail-dove (Starnoenas cyanocephala)

GenusStarnoenas (1)
SizeLength: 29 - 34 cm (2)
Weightc. 242 g (2)

The blue-headed quail-dove is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The large and distinctive blue-headed quail-dove (Starnoenas cyanocephala) is stunningly marked, taking its name from the brilliant cobalt blue crown and forehead (2) (3) (4) (5). A contrasting black eye stripe and a characteristic white facial stripe run from the beak to the back of the neck (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). The face and throat are black, with slight bluish or purple mottling around the sides of the head, and there is a bib-like patch of black, bordered narrowly with white, just below the throat (2) (3) (4) (5). 

The blue-headed quail-dove has a pinkish-purple breast, which becomes olive-brown tinged with purple on the sides and the back of the neck. The rest of the plumage is generally buff-brown to dark brown, except for the darker primaries and the slate-grey outer tail feathers (2) (3). The legs and feet are reddish (2) (3), with distinct hexagonal scales down the front (4) (5) (6). The short, rather slender bill (6) is bright red at the base, becoming blue at the tip (2) (3).

Both the male and female blue-headed quail-doves are similar in appearance, but the juvenile is usually duller, with rufous edges to the feathers (2). Juvenile blue-headed quail-doves also lack the black eye stripe of the adults (4).

The blue-headed quail-dove has a distinctive, two phrase call, ‘uuu-up, uuu-up’, with the last note of each phrase rising and ending abruptly (3) (5). 

The blue-headed quail-dove is endemic to Cuba (2) (3). Once a common and widespread species, the blue-headed quail-dove is now restricted to relatively few sites across the island, including the Zapata Swamp, the surrounding lowlands, the mountains at La Güira in Pinar del Río province, and on the Guanahacabibes Peninsular. Small numbers may also exist in several other locations (3).

This species is presumed to be virtually extinct on the Isla de la Juventud and Isla de Pinos (3).

The blue-headed quail-dove occurs primarily in the undergrowth of deciduous lowland forest, often next to swampy areas. It may also be patchily distributed in some highland forests (2) (3) (5).

This species is typically found in dry areas with thick overhead cover and an open forest floor, which usually has stony substrate and substantial leaf litter (2).

Often found in pairs (3), the blue-headed quail-dove is a predominantly ground-dwelling species which spends much of its time foraging in the leaf litter (4) (5). It feeds mostly on seeds, berries, snails and other small arthropods, and has also been known to take peas and other crop seeds from plantations (2) (3) (4) (5). The blue-headed quail-dove rarely flies, except for short distances to flee from predators (2) (4). It will occasionally be found on low perches (4).  

Breeding takes place mainly between April and July (2), although some individuals may begin breeding as early as March (5). Two eggs are laid in a nest which is usually placed on or close to the ground, often among shrubbery and low bushes, on tree trunks, or in tree cavities and dead stumps (2) (3) (4) (5). The simple nests are typically made of loose twigs and are lined with fresh leaves (4) (5).

The eggs are incubated by both adult blue-headed quail-doves, with the male generally carrying out most of the incubation duties during the day and the female providing care during the night (5). The blue-headed quail-dove is territorial during the breeding season, and will vigorously defend the area around the nest against intruders (4) (5).

Excessive hunting and habitat destruction are the biggest threats to the blue-headed quail-dove (2) (3) (5). Less than 20 percent of Cuba’s natural forests remain and the continued alteration and loss of this habitat is threatening much of Cuba’s endemic wildlife (4) (5).

Introduced predators may have also played a part in the decline of the blue-headed quail-dove (5), while hurricanes and other extreme natural events may also affect this species and its habitat (3) (5). Climate change is also likely to affect the blue-headed quail-dove in future, especially given its small, fragmented distribution (7). Because this species is primarily ground-dwelling and prefers to run rather than fly (2), it may have a limited ability to disperse to more suitable habitat (8).

The blue-headed quail-dove is protected under Cuban national law in the Zapata Swamp. However, the law is not currently enforced and hunting there continues to contribute significantly to this species’ decline. The only known highland population of the blue-headed quail-dove is protected within the La Güira National Park (3).

Proposed conservation measures for this species include enforcing the protection afforded by existing protected areas, and carrying out surveys of areas outside the currently known sites. It is also important that any populations discovered during such surveys are given immediate protection. Public awareness and education campaigns would be beneficial in promoting the conservation of the blue-headed quail-dove (3).

Further efforts to conserve the blue-headed quail-dove include Proyecto Paiz, a national project of Cuba which aims to initiate in-situ conservation measures and implement conservation activities for Cuba’s globally threatened endemic Columbiformes. Part of this project includes establishing a captive breeding population of the blue-headed quail-dove (9). 

Find out more about the blue-headed quail-dove:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2011)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1997) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 4: Sandgrouse to Cuckoos. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. BirdLife International - Blue-headed quail-dove (June, 2011)
  4. Schulenbeg, T.S. (2010) Blue-headed Quail-Dove (Starnoenas cyanocephala). Neotropical Birds Online, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  5. Leavelle, K.M. (2008) Occupancy and associated habitat characteristics, fruit preferences and nesting behaviours of the blue-headed quail-dove (Starnoenas cyanocephala) of Cuba. MSc Thesis, The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska, United States. 
  6. The National Audubon Society - Blue-headed quail-dove (June, 2011)
  7. IUCN - Climate change and species (June, 2011)
  8. IUCN and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (2008) Species susceptibility to climate change impacts. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. Available at:
  9. Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation - Blue-headed quail-dove (June, 2011)