A small, plump-bodied bird, about 18 cm (7 in.) in length, that spends most of its time on the ground. Its flesh is very edible, and it is reported that by 1920 Egypt was exporting some three million quail annually to foreign markets, though this exportation has since decreased.
The birds described in the Bible are evidently the common migratory quail (Coturnix coturnix), which move northward from within Africa in the spring, arrive in Egypt about March, thereafter pass through Arabia and Palestine, and return at the approach of winter. They travel in large flocks, making their migration in stages and often flying during the night. Their wings allow for speedy flight but not for very long distances. Because of the heaviness of their bodies in relation to their wing strength, they sometimes arrive at their destination in a state of exhaustion. Quail, therefore, fly with the wind and customarily fly at rather low altitudes. Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen relates that in Port Said, Egypt, men at times use butterfly nets to catch quail as the birds fly down the streets at dawn.—Birds of Arabia, Edinburgh, 1954, p. 569.
The first reference to quail in the Biblical account (Ex 16:13) is with reference to events in the spring (Ex 16:1), and so the birds would have been flying north. The Israelites were in the Wilderness of Sin on the Sinai Peninsula, complaining about their food supplies. In response, Jehovah assured Moses that “between the two evenings” they would eat meat and in the morning would be satisfied with bread. (Ex 16:12) That evening “the quails began to come up and cover the camp,” while in the morning the manna appeared on the earth. (Ex 16:13-15; Ps 105:40) Again, evidently in the spring (Nu 10:11, 33), about one year later, the grumblings of the Israelites over their limited diet of manna caused Jehovah to foretell that they would eat meat “up to a month of days” until it became revolting to them. (Nu 11:4, 18-23) God then caused a wind, likely from the E or SE, to drive quail from the sea and caused them to “fall above the camp,” abundant “like the sand grains” over a wide area for several miles around the camp’s perimeter.—Nu 11:31; Ps 78:25-28.
The expression “about two cubits [c. 1 m; 3 ft] above the surface of the earth” has been explained in different ways. (Nu 11:31) Some consider that the quail actually fell to the ground and that in some places they were piled up to that height. Others, objecting that such action would undoubtedly result in a large portion of them dying and hence becoming unfit for eating by the Israelites, understand the text to mean that the quail flew at that low altitude over the ground, thereby making it quite easy for the Israelites to knock them to the ground and capture them. Expressing a similar idea, the Greek Septuagint reads: “all around the camp, about two cubits from the earth”; and the Latin Vulgate says: “all around the camp, and they were flying in the air at an altitude of two cubits above the earth.”
The Israelites spent a day and a half gathering the quail; “the one collecting least gathered ten homers [2,200 L; 62 bu].” (Nu 11:32) In view of the “six hundred thousand men on foot,” mentioned by Moses (Nu 11:21), the number of quail collected must have been many millions; hence it was no simple catch resulting from ordinary migration but, rather, a powerful demonstration of divine power. The quantity collected was too great for eating then; hence the greedy Israelites “kept spreading them extensively all around the camp for themselves.” (Nu 11:32) This may have been for the purpose of drying out the meat of the slaughtered quail in order to preserve as many of them as possible for future consumption. Such action would be similar to the ancient Egyptian practice, described by Herodotus (II, 77), of putting fish in the sun to dry out.