The remote mountain bird that makes you work for it
The Mountain quail (Oreortyx pictus) is true to its name. While the California quail is often called the “valley quail,” the mountain quail prefers living in more remote mountainous areas along the West Coast. They can be very vocal, but are often tough birds to see. Holding motionless in dense shrubby cover, they can confound hunters without canine companions. Mountain quail can easily be identified by the two long plumes sticking up above their heads. If you’ve never heard of or hunted mountain quail, here’s a little more information about them.
Description and life history of the mountain quail
The mountain quail is the largest quail species in the U.S., weighing in at about a half a pound and measuring 10 to 12 inches (NatureServe 2019). It has a round body, short tail, and a small head, which is decorated with two long black plumes. Males and females look basically the same, which is different from other quail species (ODFW 2019). They have gray-colored head, neck, and breast feathers, and their throat patch is chestnut brown with a creamy white stripe (All About Birds 2019). Their back, upper tail, and upper wings are light brown, while their sides are chestnut brown with creamy white and black vertical bars.
Because of their secretive nature and remote habitats, some of their breeding biology has not yet been fully studied (All About Birds 2019). However, it’s believed that males defend territories in spring and perform a variety of courtship rituals for females. The nesting season is usually from April to mid-July, with lower elevations having earlier nesting periods or even two broods in a season. Males may help females make nest sites, which are constructed on the ground near dense vegetation (with overhead cover) and lined with grasses or pine needles (National Audubon Society 2019). Females may lay 7-10 creamy white eggs and incubate them for 24-25 days; the male may occasionally help with incubation (NatureServe 2019). After hatching, the precocial chicks are tended by the male and female, and the brood will usually stay together through the winter.
While some quail species form huge coveys throughout the fall and winter, the mountain quail generally forms small ones of family groups, often with only 5 to 10 individuals (NatureServe 2019). During harsh winter weather, mountain quail are known to vertically migrate to the foothills and lower elevations, as far as 20 to 40 miles (NatureServe 2019). While mountain quail may occasionally pick berries and leaves in shrubs or trees, they more often feed on the ground by scratching among leaf litter or digging for plant bulbs. Their spring and summer diets consist mostly of herbaceous vegetation (e.g., leaves, buds, flowers, etc.) but they also eat some insects (e.g., grasshoppers, ants, beetles, etc.) (NatureServe 2019). In fall, they instead consume seeds (e.g., grasses, chickweed, tarweed, clover, lupine, etc.), acorns, pine nuts, bulbs, and fruits (e.g., manzanita, poison ivy, etc.) (All About Birds 2019).
Mountain quail rely on their small groups and camouflage to hide from predators wherever possible. However, parents are very active to defend their chicks, and will often try to lure predators away by performing distraction displays (National Audubon Society 2019). Common predators of mountain quail include numerous hawks (e.g., Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, northern goshawk, etc.), owls, coyotes, bobcats, gray fox, weasels, and rattlesnakes (USFWS 2019).
Range and habitat of the mountain quail
The mountain quail occurs in mountainous regions along the West Coast, including parts of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Idaho (NatureServe 2019). As mentioned previously, the California quail normally occurs at lower elevations (valleys), and so it is usually isolated from mountain quail for the spring, summer, and fall months. But their ranges can overlap in the winter at lower elevations or midway up slopes where both species could find important habitat elements.
The mountain quail uses a variety of habitats throughout the year and throughout the country. At higher elevations during the summer, they utilize brushy openings and habitat edges within mixed woodlands or coniferous forests. They will also use early successional young forest after logging or wildfires (All About Birds 2019). In arid environments, they prefer habitats with sagebrush, pinyon, and juniper; however, they usually stay somewhat close to a water source (NatureServe 2019). Oak savannas and chaparral are important in parts of their range. Other brushy habitats they frequently use include willow, manzanita, chamise (greasewood), blue elderberry, California lilac (soapbush), big sagebrush, bitterbrush, and buckthorn species (All About Birds 2019).
Conservation issues for the mountain quail
The mountain quail is listed as globally secure across its range (NatureServe 2019). However, the global breeding population of mountain quail is estimated to be only about 260,000 birds. Additionally, the population decreased by about 35 percent across its range from 2005-2015 alone (All About Birds 2019). Loss, alteration, and fragmentation of riparian habitats in arid regions (east of the Cascade Mountains) have likely negatively impacted mountain quail populations, whereas the humid coastal forests of Oregon, Washington, and California still provide abundant and continuous habitat (NatureServe 2019). Severe winter weather can impact populations, even when they migrate to lower elevations. Other potential conservation threats include livestock grazing, exclusion of fire, or competition with other quail (USFWS 2019; NatureServe 2019).
Hunting opportunities for the mountain quail
While mountain quail occur in a few Western states, some areas are restricted to hunting due to concerns about their population. California offers good huntable numbers of them, and you have the chance to take mountain, California, and Gambel’s quail. Here are the few states where you can hunt them, as well as their season dates and possession limits. As mentioned above, some states below have different zones, some of which are closed to mountain quail hunting.
|California*||September 14-January 26||30 quail|
|Oregon*||September 1-January 31||30 quail|
|Washington||September 28-November 30||4 quail|
* Maximum season or limit—different zones have different dates/limits
These dates/limits are subject to change. Always check with local game laws for the most up-to-date laws before hunting.
Mountain quail will definitely require you to hike to higher elevations than other quail species. Mountain quail in California, for example, typically inhabit areas from 1,500 to 10,000 feet in elevation (NatureServe 2019). Because these quail are so secretive and hold so well, a hunting dog would offer a major advantage over solo hunting. Specifically, a pointer with a good nose or a close-working flusher should be able to wade through the thickets and find some birds for you. When they sense danger, mountain quail tend to run upslope for a period of time before they take flight downslope. You can use that tendency to your advantage if you hunt with multiple people. Spread out vertically up and down the slope and walk parallel to the hill. That way, if someone flushes a bird, they may run uphill or fly downhill to someone else.
Mountain quail are an adventurous bird to chase. They require a fair amount of effort from you (maybe not compared to chukar hunting), but the scenic views and flush of a small covey is a worthwhile reward.
All About Birds. 2019. Mountain Quail. Accessed at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mountain_Quail/lifehistory
National Audubon Society. 2019. Guide to North American Birds. Accessed at: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/mountain-quail
NatureServe. 2019. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life. Accessed at http://explorer.natureserve.org
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). 2019. Mountain Quail. Accessed at: https://myodfw.com/game-bird-hunting/species/mountain-quail
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). 2019. Mountain Quail. Accessed at: https://www.fws.gov/oregonFWO/articles.cfm?id=149489447
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.