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Latest News: California Quail
Hi there! My mother, Camilla, suggested that I write a series of posts about birds on my blog since I’ve been talking about them and learning about them. Please let me know if you have any bird books, CDs, or a website you’d recommend! Here is the part about California Quail.
California Quail are plump, short-necked game birds with a small head and bill. They fly on short, very broad wings. The tail is fairly long and square. Both sexes have a comma-shaped topknot of feathers projecting forward from the forehead, longer in males than females. Adult males are rich gray and brown, with a black face outlined with bold white stripes. Females are a plainer brown and lack the facial markings. Both genders have a pattern of white, creamy, and chestnut scales on the belly. Young birds look like females but have a shorter topknot.
California Quail spend most of their time on the ground, walking and scratching in search of food. In morning and evening they forage beneath shrubs or on open ground near cover. They usually travel in groups called coveys. Their flight is explosive but lasts just long enough to reach cover.
You’ll find California Quail in chaparral, sagebrush, oak woodlands, and foothill forests of California and the Northwest. They’re quite tolerant of people and can be common in city parks, suburban gardens, and agricultural areas. The California quail is a small, plump bird with a short black beak. The male has a gray chest and brown back and wings. It has a black throat with white stripes and a brown cap on its head. The female has a gray or brown head and back and a lighter speckled chest and belly. Both the male and the female have a curved black crown feather on their foreheads. The male’s crown feather is larger than the female’s.
The California quail is sometimes called the valley quail. The California quail eats seeds, plant parts like buds and sometimes insects. They feed in flocks in the early morning. The California quail can be found from southern Oregon to southern California and east into Nevada. The California quail lives in grasslands, foothills, woodlands, canyons and at the edge of deserts. It likes areas with lots of brush. The California quail lives in coveys of 10 to 200 birds in the winter.
They will stay in these flocks until they pair off during mating season. Male California quails will perch on a tree or post and call out to claim their territory. The California quail will roost in trees to avoid danger and to rest. Males often compete for a mate. They will mate with only one female. Females usually lay between 12-16 cream and brown speckled eggs. Their nest is a shallow hollow or scrape in the ground that is lined with grass. The female incubates the eggs for about three weeks. Both parents will care for the chicks. The chicks leave the nest shortly after birth. They make their first attempts at flight when they are about 10 days old. They will stay on the ground for about a month and then will roost in trees with the rest of the flock.
The female usually has one brood a year. This sharply-marked bird with the curving topknot is common along the California coast and in a few other areas of the west. It has adapted rather well to the increasing human population, and is often found around well-wooded suburbs and even large city parks. California Quail live in coveys at most seasons, and are often seen strutting across clearings, nodding their heads at each step. If disturbed, they may burst into fast low flight on whirring wings.
The California Quail is a gray, ground-dwelling bird, more slender than most other quail. It has a light breast with scaled patterning, white streaks along brown sides, and black and gray scaling on the nape of the neck. The female has a tan head with a small feather plume. The male has a bold black face outlined in white, with a brown crown and a pendulous feather plume hanging forward from his forehead.
The California quail, California’s state bird, is a 9-11 inch hen-like bird with a distinctive teardrop-shaped head plume called a top-knot. Their plump bodies vary from grayish to brown with scaly markings on the lower breast and abdomen. Males are particularly elegant with a black throat, chestnut patch on the belly, a bluish gray breast, white speckles on its flanks, and a white stripe on the forehead and around the neckline. Females have a smaller top-knot and lack the male’s distinctive facial markings and black throat.
Her crest is dark brown and her body is brown or gray with white speckles on the chest and belly. The marked sexual dimorphism is believed to play an important part in breeding displays. Juveniles resemble the female, but have shorter and lighter colored crests. As ground dwelling birds, their short and powerful legs are well adapted for terrestrial locomotion. They can fly rapidly, but only for short distances. When alarmed they prefer to run, flying only as a last resort.
California quail are best adapted to semiarid environments, ranging from sea level to 4000 feet and occasionally up to 8500 feet or higher (Sumner 1935). As long as there is abundant food, ground cover, and a dependable water source, quail are able to live in a variety of habitats including open woodlands, brushy foothills, desert washes, forest edge, chaparral, stream valleys, agricultural lands, and suburb areas. Cover is needed for roosting, resting, nesting, escaping from predators, and for protection from the weather (Sumner 1935, Leopold 1977).
Leopold (1977) separates California quail habitat areas into four major ecological zones arid ranges mostly in Southern California and Baja California, transitional ranges in the Sacramento Valley, humid forest ranges associated with the Coast and Cascade ranges, and interior Great Basin and Columbia Basin ranges. Of these the transitional ranges in the Sacramento Valley foothills provide the most stable quail habitat, characterized by mild winters, moderate rainfall, moderately dense ground vegetation, and generally adequate ground cover.
California quail are generalists and opportunists, so food intake varies by location and season. Their main food items are seeds produced by various species of broad-leafed annual plants, especially legumes. This includes plants such as lupine (Lupinus sp.), clover (Trifolium sp.), bur clover (Medicago sp.), and deer vetches (Lotus sp.) (Leopold 1977). Their bills are typical for seedeaters: serrated, short, stout, and slightly decurved.
Shields and Duncan (1966) studied California quail diet in the fall and winter during a dry year on the San Joaquin Experimental Range in the central Sierra Nevada foothills. They found that seeds comprised 82% of their diet, while green leafage contributed 18%. Duncan (1968) also studied quail diet in the same area and found that legume seeds were their most important food item. Quail also eat leafy materials, acorns, fruits and berries, crop residues, and some insects (Leopold 1977).
During the fall and winter, California quail are highly gregarious birds, gathering into groups, called coveys. In most situations, covey size averages about 50 birds, but under intensive management and protection, coveys can get as large as 1000 birds (Leopold 1977). In the covey, the quail tend to imitate one another and exhibit cooperative behavior. For example, when one bird finds a good supply of food it often calls the others to it. Likewise, when a member of the covey perceives danger it will warn the group with the appropriate call (Sumner 1935).
California quail communicate with 14 different calls (Leopold, 1977). This includes courtship, re-grouping, feeding, and warning calls. The most frequently heard location call has been described as “cu-ca-cow” or “chi-ca-go.” At the start of nesting season in early spring the coveys break up, as quail pairs spread themselves out into different habitat areas to nest and rear their young.
At the end of summer each new quail family rejoins the others to form a new covey where they will remain until the next breeding season. Emlen (1939) observed this seasonal movement in his study of California quail on a 760-acre farm in the vicinity of Davis, California. In the winter, four coveys, containing 21-46 birds, had home ranges of 17-45 acres, roughly one acre for each bird. The covey locations and range size depended on the amount of brush cover available. The four territories were separated by 350 yards to half a mile and contact between the coveys was infrequent.
The members of a covey tended to feed and roost together in mid-winter, but occasionally they broke up into smaller units. Winter movements were restricted with only 5 to 10 acres of an entire territory utilized by the covey on any one day. The same area would serve as a feeding ground for a few days to two or three weeks when the birds would move to another part of their territory. The California quail is common to states of the Pacific coast. They were first introduced into Utah in 1869.
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