Bird Lore: California Quail

Male California Quail. (Photo by Carol Riddell)

The handsome California Quail inhabits a mostly coastal range from Baja California in Mexico to southern British Columbia. It is an introduced species in the Pacific Northwest. There are inland populations in Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon, and the panhandle of Idaho through the southwest part of that state. It adapts well to coastal scrub, parks, woodland edges, and farms.

A permanent resident within its range, the California Quail was more abundant in Edmonds in decades past. My impression is that our remnant population has retreated into Woodway, where it can find greater protection, and comes into areas around the Edmonds Marsh, including the Willow Creek Fish Hatchery, occasionally. They used to be regular in some Edmonds neighborhoods, but as larger yards and woodlots have given way to development, it’s tougher to find this quail.

The California Quail mainly eats seeds. You usually see it walking or running. It scratches at the ground in leaf litter in its search for food. It will also come to feeder stations that offer grains on the ground.

In fall and spring, the California Quail forms coveys of 50 or more birds. Then in the spring it forms breeding pairs that are monogamous just for the season. The male calls loudly to advertise his territory. His courtship displays include drooping his wings and spreading his tail. He also bobs his head and will rush at the female. The nest is usually on the ground. It can be under a shrub or brush pile, or near a log or other cover. It is a shallow depression lined with grasses and stems.

Female California Quail. (Photo by LeRoy VanHee)

The female usually lays 10-16 eggs and incubates them for about three weeks. The young leave the nest a day after hatching. Although the young feed themselves, both parents tend them. The female broods them when they are small and the male will perch high, acting as a sentinel. The young can fly short distances by the time they are 10 days of age.

California Quail are not long-lived. Mortality rate of the young is high. There is typically one brood per year but there may be two if food supplies are abundant. As an adult, it is also short-lived. The oldest known bird was six years eleven months of age. It is the state bird of California. Its head plume may look like a single feather, but it is made up of six overlapping feathers.

Conservation status of the California Quail is that of least concern over its range. It has a population estimated as 3.8 million. It is considered a game bird. In California alone, it is estimated that 1.2 million are shot each year without harming the overall breeding population.

This is the California Quail’s song: This is its agitated call:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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