Improve your hunting chances by learning how and why to use a quail call.
Silence. I could hear my breath and heart pounding. I stood, trying not to move a muscle, and listened…
The hills erupted. “CHI-KAW-GO! CHIIIII-KAW-GOOO! CHI-KAW-GOOO!”
I was surrounded.
It was the quail opener and I had just busted up a covey. Scattered all around me were about forty California quail. One little quail hen was already in the back of my vest as I scanned all around the valley and hills, trying to catch a hint of movement from the quail that had just dispersed in all directions. Already they were calling to each other, desperate to regroup.
If you’ve spent any time in quail habitat, you have probably heard California quail calls. It is the familiar “Chicago” call. If you ever watched any old cowboy movies from the 1930s to 1960s, chances are you have heard the infamous call of the California quail (also known as valley quail) in the background as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, or Randolph Scott rode their horses across a Joshua Tree-filled landscape into the sunset. The call of a California quail is one of the most iconic sounds of the west.
That one was close. Really close. I pulled out a wooden call from my shirt pocket and pressed it up against my lips.
“CHIK-CHI-KAW-GOOO!!!” I responded.
I wait a few moments, but all I get is complete silence. Then I start hearing calls from off in the distance. Dang it. The birds must have moved off or perhaps they are hidden nearby in the thick brush and they’ve gone call-shy. I blow through the call again and I wait again. Listening…
The quail assembly call
California quail and Gambel’s quail not only resemble one another in appearance, but their vocalizations are similar as well. Both species of quail have an assembly call and they nearly sound the same. The purpose of the assembly call is to help covey members regroup after getting separated. The birds may have simply gotten lost, or perhaps they were scattered by a predator. To confuse the predator (or upland hunter) and escape, the quail flush in a thunderous flurry in all directions, glide to the ground, and run quickly for cover. Their next instinct after flushing, however, is to regroup.
All quail species form groups, called coveys, and the valley and Gambel’s quail are no exception. There is safety in numbers and, since a lot of things like eating plump little California quail, the more eyes out there keeping watch for those would-be quail hunters, the better! As soon as the group splits up, California quail are trying their hardest to get coveyed up again. That’s where the assembly call comes in.
Some people call it the “Chiquita Call” or “Shakeeta Call.” I have always known it as the “Chicago” or assembly call. It sounds like “CHI-KAW-GO” and is typically repeated in sets of three. This assembly call is what we try to imitate when hunting for California or Gambel’s quail.
The purpose of imitating this call is to make the birds think that you are just another quail strolling down the block looking for your covey. This call is intended to have quail reveal their location by responding with their own call, or even to make them come running in to you! Calling quail is extremely useful—plus it’s a pretty cool art to master. It is also a great skill to have for California or Gambel’s quail hunters who hunt quail without a dog!
Types of quail calls
There have been several takes on the valley/Gambel’s quail call. Some of the most well-known were the old Lohman Topknot Quail Calls or the Faulk’s Western Quail Call. Today, there are many manufacturers of quail calls. Some are made of wood and some of plastic. Both mass-produced and custom, one-of-a-kind calls are available, but they all follow the same basic design. Typically, these calls are a two-piece “stick” design comprised of two 3.5” by 1” flat pieces with a small grooved opening. Sandwiched between these two pieces is a rubber band that acts as a reed in the call. When you blow through the opening, the passing air vibrates the rubber band, creating the call sound.
There are tidbits of info about Native Americans using a blade of grass stuffed in between their fingers to call quail, although my research has not found many great examples of how and why they did it. I am not sure if they were considered a source of food to Native Americans, but I can only imagine how awesome it would have been to hear early Native Americans talk to quail in this manner. I tried this method on my own with a thick piece of grass and a leaf and all I could succeed in doing was blowing out a blood vessel in my eye.
There are several manufacturers of California (Valley)/Gambel’s quail calls on the market. You can grab a plastic Primos call for about eight bucks on Amazon. It doesn’t sound all that great, but it can get the job done nonetheless! Or you can buy a one-of-a-kind quail call that was carved from exotic wood by the hands of an ancient artisan. His blood, sweat, and tears are soaked into the wood which gives you upland-superpowers and wisdom from a thousand generations every time you use it. All for just under two bills.
If you are the thrifty kind (also known as a “Cheap Bastard”), you can make your own quail call at home with some everyday household items. Pick up some of those wooden clothespins, rubber bands, and maybe some masking tape. Google it. There are a few tutorials on how to make a call out there!
It’s also a fun project if you just like tinkering or if you like doing crafts with your kids. Fair warning, however: you could be creating a monster if you give one of these to your kids. Endless shrill blasts of noise (that resemble nothing like quail calls) indoors after hours is bound to make even the most composed parent descend into madness. Proceed with caution.
I personally use a custom, carved wood call made by Jim Matthews (a SoCal local legend) who specializes in creating beautiful and functional pieces of art. I have owned several variations of quail calls and I wanted something that was personal and one-of-a-kind. The Jim Matthews call is something that I could pass down as an heirloom. I also prefer the warm sound that the wood produces, which is noticeably more realistic-sounding when compared to the plastic versions. The particular call I own is a combination call which contains a regular quail call, a chamber call (this one has a little bass and can be used to imitate Gambel’s or mature California quail), and has a whistle for mountain quail. It’s the perfect call for California, where these three quail species coexist.
How to use a quail call
Like anything, the more you practice, the better you get at it. Be sure to practice and practice often! I like to go hiking on the trails behind my house and there happen to be a ton of California quail on this property. I take my call with me every time I go out. I can’t help it! I’ll just hike and listen for quail and start talking to them using the call. It’s fun and it’s great for keeping my calling skills sharp. If you live in an area where there are California quail around, give it a try! There are lots of hiking areas and parks that have quail and it’s a great opportunity to hone your calling skills.
Before you start using the call, practice exhaling and sharply say “CHI-KAW-GO,” emphasizing each syllable. Try that a couple times and build up to a set of three “Chicagos.” When you’re ready, go ahead and give it a try on your quail call. Play around with combinations and variations of the assembly call. Take it out when you hit the hiking trails during the off-season.
When you’re in the presence of California quail, take the time to listen to them call and try to mimic what you hear. I find that switching up how you call can sometimes get a wary bird moving, especially if you know different variations of the assembly call. Listening to the quail call out in the hills really improves your calling and helps you sound like a natural bird. If you can’t make it out to their habitat, there are a ton of sources online of recorded quail calls on YouTube and other sites.
Care and maintenance of a California quail call
Most variations of the California quail call utilize a rubber band as a “reed” to emit the desired sound and pitch. Sometimes you have to yank on the rubber band a little to loosen it up to get that desired pitch. The rubber band will eventually get loose, become brittle, and start coming apart. You’ll have to replace the rubber band frequently, so be sure to pick up a bag of the correct size. They’re dirt cheap.
For wooden calls, you may have to take them apart to let them air out after heavy use. I’ll take a slightly damp cloth to mine to clean out any dirt and dry spit marks. I’ll then lightly hit it with butcher’s block oil to keep the wood looking nice.
Using a call for hunting California quail
There are a couple of really important reasons why a California quail hunter would use a quail call. The biggest reason is that we can use a call to help us locate California quail when we are scouting for birds and new spots to hunt. By getting the birds to announce themselves, we can determine pretty quickly if there are birds in the area, thus deciding if an area is worth hunting.
I like to drive down dirt forest roads and stop from time to time if an area looks “birdy.” I’ll hop out and use my call, then wait to see if I hear something back from any coveys in the area. If I do, I will make sure to add a new waypoint to my OnX app.
I also use the assembly call when I am out hunting California quail. As soon as my feet hit the ground on a hunt, the quail call is in my hand. I’ll call out a couple of times to help determine which direction to hunt. If I get return calls, that’s the direction I start hunting. Otherwise, I just head out and am sure to call from time to time to help locate birds. Without a dog to locate and point birds, this skill is a very beneficial tool in my vest.
After busting up a covey of California quail, it’s time to work on the singles. Sure, you can chase the birds across the National Forest and up and down the hills to your heart’s content. Sometimes, however, that method will not be very effective or efficient. Calling and manipulating the singles to come to you is much more efficient and can be pretty effective as well. I find that keeping out of sight boosts the potential of birds responding to your call. I like to get down real low, below their view. If there is a small depression in the ground, I’ll sit for awhile and call.
Sometimes they come in fast, loud, and calling back to you, which will give you some time to prepare yourself for a flush. But most of time they come creeping in, not saying a peep and they will catch you off guard. I liken this method to hunting mini-turkeys. It’s wild and there is a real rush when you are able to get a quail to come in to your calls.
I’m not 100% sure if there is such a thing as over-calling when using a quail call, but I can imagine that a bird can get educated quickly if every time they came running into a call, there was some dope standing there with a shotgun. I play this game called “Mysterious Bird” where I call about two or three times. Wait. Move. Call twice. Stop. Wait. Move. Call once and wait, then I won’t call again for another 15 minutes or so. This can pique the interest of stubborn birds.
If hunting in a group, it can be useful to outfit a couple of hunters with calls and call just apart from each other. This sometimes gives California quail the illusion that there are birds grouping up. Just mix up tactics and do not be afraid to experiment.
Keep in mind that California Quail can get call-shy and may not respond to your calls. These birds get wary quickly after only a couple of weekends of hunting pressure following the opening day. They sometimes catch on dang quick and won’t say a peep when you confront them with your call. By the end of the season, it’s not uncommon to not hear a single bird call out. Don’t be discouraged and understand that although California Quail may go silent, that does not mean that they are not reacting to your call. Be patient and keep calling… and keep your eyes peeled!
Back on the quail hunt
I must have been sitting there for ten minutes. I decided that I would call one more time and wait another five minutes before getting up. My leg fell asleep. I shifted and punched the side of my leg to get some circulation back, which I immediately regretted.
Finally, the buzzing sensation in my leg subsided and I determined that it was time to go back to the truck for a papas y chorizo burrito on account of my rumbling gut.
No sooner than I stood up to dust myself off, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of movement: a little bobbing head with a big plume on it, not more than five yards away. The California quail sneaking around the base of a scrub oak tree spotted me and likely realized that it was a mistake to leave his hiding place to investigate those assembly calls!
The quail nervously jerked around and was visibly confused and started looking for an escape route. I advanced towards the quail, hoping I could get him to flush, but he ducked in between the gnarly branches and overhang from the scrub oak tree.
While I only had a second to wrestle with my disappointment over the one that got away, a second quail erupted from the very same scrub tree in front of me, now just a few feet away. I didn’t even think—it just sort of happened and it came together. The old pump gun came up to my cheek and shoulder almost instinctively. My brain calculated the range of the bird and I gave it a few more feet before swinging the barrel through the bird.
I picked up the young hen-bird in my hand and I felt her warmth slowly fade. I admired her beautifully subdued coloration and bold scales on her belly. Every downed bird deserves respect.
The hills came to life in a chorus of quail calls. Much closer again. They must have started making their way back when I hunkered down and started calling. I started to reach for my pocket to grab the call, then realized I still had the hen in my hand. I held the quail up high with my outstretched hand and gave her a little more attention before placing her in my vest. That’s enough for today. This method is not unique to valley quail it can also be used on things like calling Gambel’s quail.
The California quail continued to call as I walked away towards the truck. Their sounds echoed off the hills and reverberated through my soul. I’ll be sure to return soon. I’ll come back to these hills. I’ll hunt these uplands once more. I’ll come back to listen and talk to the quail. For I’ve been called.
Jorge Ramirez is a writer and upland hunter who was born and raised in Southern California. His passion for upland hunting led to the creation of his blog/website, UplandJitsu: The Art of Upland Hunting. His blog primarily consists of articles dedicated to the traditions of quail hunting with an emphasis on introducing new hunters to DIY public land hunts, without a dog. He currently resides in Ventura County with his beautiful wife and daughter and hunts in the nearby Los Padres National Forest for upland game.