Skip to Content

Mountain Quail

These birds are known for their interesting appearance and limited range.

The Mountain Quail inhabits exceptionally dense habitats and is secretive in behavior, making it a difficult species to study. Though generally considered to be a year-round resident as far as range maps are concerned, the Mountain Quail does make regular, biannual altitudinal migrations over relatively short distances.

Mountain Quail prefer to run from danger rather than fly, if possible, and they can run at about 12 miles per hour. Like other quail they form coveys usually made up of family groups and numbering about 18 birds. These coveys break up in late winter prior to the breeding season.

Length: 11 inches
Wing span: 16 inches


Description of the Mountain Quail


The Mountain Quail has plain, grayish-brown upperparts, a gray crown, nape, and breast, a chestnut throat bordered by white, reddish undertail coverts, and a chestnut belly boldly marked with parallel white stripes. It has a very long, double head plume.

The sexes are similar, though the male’s upperparts are grayer.

Mountain Quail

Photograph © Greg Lavaty


The sexes are similar, though the female’s upperparts are browner.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles are heavily mottled above and below with white.


Mountain Quail inhabit brushy foothill areas and mountains.


Mountain Quail eat seeds, insects, berries, bulbs, and leaves.


Mountain Quail forage on the ground, sometimes digging for bulbs with their feet. They also climb shrubs to reach berries.


Mountain Quail are resident in mountainous areas of the western and northwestern U.S. The population appears to be stable.

Fun Facts

Some Mountain Quail make short migrations, on foot, to lower elevations.

Mountain Quail form winter coveys made up of family groups.


The song consists of a loud two-syllable screech. A variety of covey calls are given also.


Similar Species

  • The bold white belly stripes and the long head plume make Mountain Quail easy to identify.


The Mountain Quail’s nest consists of a depression on the ground lined with grass and pine needles.

Number: Usually lay 9-10 eggs.
Color: Whitish with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 24 days, and leave the nest shortly after hatching, though associating with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Mountain Quail

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Mountain Quail – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



The common name, which is fortunately more stable than the scientific name, of this quail remains as we have always known it. But Dr. H. C. Oberholser (1923) has discovered that the bird which Douglas described as Ortyx picta was really the lighter-colored bird of the interior, rather than the darker bird of the humid coastal strip, to which we have always heretofore applied the name picta. Therefore, the paler bird of the interior must take the name Oreortyx picta picta, plumed quail. This relegates the name plumif era to synonymy and leaves the bird of the humid coast belt without a name, for which Doctor Oberholser has proposed the name Oreortya~ picta palmeri, in honor of Dr. T. S. Palmer, who had reached the same conclusion some years ago. The range of this race is restricted to the humid Transition Zone of the Pacific coast, from southwestern Washington south to Monterey County, Calif.

J. H. Bowles (Dawson and Bowles, 1~O9) says of the status of this quail in the State of Washington:

The Mountain Quail, as It is generally called, and its close relative, the Plumed Quail, are neither of them native to Washington, several crates of living birds having been imported from California between the years 1880 and 1890. So kindly did they take to the conditions they found here, that, at the end of a long season of protection imposed by law, they fairly swarmed In suitable localities. But what a change a few years of persecution have wrought! Where formerly a dozen large coveys could be found within a small area, only an occasional solitary bird, rarely a pair, is now left of this gem among our upland birds. The entire blame cannot he laid at the door of the sportsman, altho modern rapid-fire guns have played their part. By far the worst havoc has been wrought by the treacherous nets, snares, and traps of all descriptions, which unscrupulous persons set in defiance of law. Too lazy to hunt, these human vermin catch the poor birds alive and wring their necks. Before close association with mankind had proved g0 fatal a mistake, these partridges were among the tamest and most confiding of birds. Utterly unsuspicious of danger, they would run into the yard and eat with the farmer’s hens, paying little attention to any passing human being. When flushed from their haunts In the woods, the whole covey would merely fly Into the nearest bushes and trees. Now all is changed, for the “fittest” survivors have inherited the knowledge that mankind is tbeil, deadliest enemy.

He described its haunts as follows:

Somewhat inclined to high altitudes, as their name implies, the favorite localities for these birds are the large areas in our forests that have been cleared of standing timber. In the course of a year or two these “burns,” as they are called, become over-grown with huckle-berry, salal, and occasionally a dense growth of the wild sweet pea. Here is food in abundance at all seasons; for In summer the decayed mold of the fallen trees contains grubs and insects galore as change from fall and winter diet of berries and seeds. Tailtale hollows In the soft dry earth, sprinkled with a feather or two, speak of luxurious dust-baths, and a net-work of three-toed tracks In a neighboring woodroad shows where the band has taken its morning constitutional.

Nesting: Major Bendire (1892) gives the following account of the nesting habits of this subspecies:

Nidification commences about the middle of May, and ordinarily hut one brood Is raised. The nest is placed on the ground, alongside or under an old log, or on side hills under thick bushes and clumps of ferns, occasionally along the edges of clearings, grain fields, or meadows. A nest found May 27, 1877, near Coquille, Oregon, containing six fresh eggs, was well concealed under a bunch of tall ferns, in a tract of timber killed by a forest fire. Another, taken In Ukiah Valley, Mendocino County, California, June 2, 1883, by Mr. C. Purdy, contained twelve fresh eggs. This nest was found under a bush of poison oak among a lot of dry leaves on a steep hillside. The average number of eggs laid by this Partridge is about ten, most of the sets containing from eight to twelve. An occasional nest contains as many as sixteen, but such large sets are rare.

Eggs: The eggs of the mountain quail are indistinguishable from those of the plumed quail. The measurements of 61 eggs average 34.1 by 26.7 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 35.6 by 27.7, 33.5 by 27.9, 30.7 by 25.2, and 34 by 25 millimeters.

The plumages, food, and general habits of this quail are so much like those of the plumed quail that I shall not repeat them here. Louise Kellogg (1916) relates the following incident, which illustrates the sagacity of the weasel rather than that of the quail:

On July 8, on north fork of Coffee Creek, the writer caught sight of a weasel in pursuit of a mountain quail. The bird was clucking in a distressed manner and evidently leading the enemy away from where her chicks were. When the weasel got her to a safe distance he ran back, jumped over a log, and was seen to make off with a small victim in his mouth. The whole episode did not occupy two minutes and occurred in a clearing in broad daylight.

Range: The Western United States and Lower California; successfully introduced at points in Washington, British Columbia, Montana, and Idaho.

The range of the mountain quail extends north to northwestern Oregon (Astoria); southern Washington (Kalama.); and northeastern Oregon (Ironside). East to northeastern Oregon (Ironside and Vale); western Nevada (Big Creek, Granite Creek, Truckee, Carson City, and Mount Magruder) ; southeastern California (Willow Creek, Coso, Little Owens Lake, and Thomas Mountain) and Lower California (Laguna Hanson and Mision San Pedro Martir). South to Lower California (Mision San Pedro Martir and Valladares). West to Lower California (Valladares, La Grulla, Las Cruces, and Los Pozos); western California (San Diego, Frazier Mountain, Mansfield, Big Creek, Monterey, Camp Meeker, Cahto, Stuarts Fork, and Fort Jones); and western Oregon (Port Orford, Coquille, Newport, Netarts, Tillamook, Batterson, and Astoria). The species has been reported as occurring south to Cape St. Lucas, Lower California, but the record is not considered satisfactory.

The range as outlined is for the entire species. Oreortyx picta paZmeri is conllned to the humid northwestern coast region south to the coast ranges of Monterey County, Calif. (Big Creek). Oreortyx p. picta occupies the arid and semiarid regions east of the coast ranges and south to southern San Diego County (Campo, Mountain Spring, Cuyamaca, and Volcan Mountains). A third race, 0. p. comflnd.s, has been described from the San Pedro Martir Mountains, Lower California.

Migration: A slight vertical migration down the slopes of the mountains is performed in the autumn. The journey is made almost entirely on foot, the birds following railroads,’ wagon roads, and trails, sometimes passing close to human dwellings. The start for lower altitudes is made about the first of September, and by October 1 the flocks have entirely abandoned those parts of the summer range above 5,000 feet. The movement has been known to start as early as August 28 (Webber Lake, Calif.). The return trip is made early in spring, but exact dates are not available.

These birds have been introduced with fair success at points in Washington (Whidbey Island, San Juan Island, and others); British Columbia (Vancouver Island and Fraser Valley); Idaho (Nampa, Silver City, and Shoshone); and southeastern and western Montana. Attempts to acclimatize them in the Eastern States and in New Zealand have been failures.

Egg dates: California (palmeri): 8 records, March 10 to June 20. Oregon: 24 records, May 1 to June 15; 12 records, May 29 to June 6. Washington and British Columbia: 4 records, June 10 to 21. California (picta) : 50 records, April 7 to August 15; 25 records, May 25 to June 20. Lower California (conj~nis): 5 records, March 29 to May 28.

PLUMED QUAIL [Current A.O.U. = Mountain Quail]


As explained under the preceding subspecies, the scientific names of the two California forms have been changed, but fortunately the English names have shown more stability and will probably stand as they always have. The plumed quail of the semiarid interior ranges was formerly called Oreortys~ picta plumif era, but will now stand on our new check list as given above. This is the most widely distributed and best known form in California, where it is commonly known as the mountain quail and is so named by Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918).

It is the largest and handsomest of the North American quail, is frequently called “partridge,” and has been thought by some to resemble the European partridge, although it is decidedly smaller. It is a shy, retiring species, more often heard than seen. I have hunted for it, where it was common and where it could frequently be heard calling, and been favored with only an occasional glimpse of one walking stealthily away among the underbrush. It prefers to steal away quietly rather than show itself by flying. All the earlier writers speak of it as uncommon or comparatively rare; it was doubtless often overlooked because of its secretive habits. It is even more of a mountain bird than the preceding, ranging up to 10,000 feet in summer. W. Leon Dawson (1923) says of its haunts:

Save in the extreme northwestern and southeastern portions of its range, the Mountain Quail is to be found in summertime somewhere between 2,000 or 3,000 and 9,COO feet elevation, according to local conditions of cover. It inhabits the pine chaparral of the lesser and coastal ranges, but its preference is for mixed cover, a scattering congeries of buck-brush, wild currant, service berry, Svmphoricarpua, or what not, with a few overshadowing oaks or pines. In the northwestern portion of Its range the bird comes down nearly to sea-level and accepts dense cover. In the southeastern portion, namely, on the eastern slopes of the desert ranges overlooking the Colorado Desert, the Mountain Quail, according to Mr. Frank Stephens, ventures down and nests at an altitude of only 500 feet. It is closely dependent here upon certain mountain springs, which it visits In common with L. c. vaiflcola and L. gambeti. Under certain conditions, therefore, its breeding range overlaps that of the Valley Quail. There are several instances on record of nests containing eggs of both species, and at least one hybrid has been found, conjectured to be between 0. p. cos& flats and L. c. californ4ca.

Courtship: On this subject I can find the brief statelnent from Bendire (1892) that “the mating season begins in the latter part of March and the beginning of April, according to latitude and altitude. The call note of the male is a clear whistle, like w1iu-i~-whu-i~, usually uttered from an old stump, the top of a rock, or a bush.”

Grinnell and Storer (1924) write:

With the coming of the warm days of late spring, and on into early summer, the males perch on fallen logs, open spaces on the ground, or even on branches of black oaks, and announce their amatory feelings by giving utterance to their loud calls with such force and vigor that these resound through the forests for a half-mile or more, commanding the attention of all within hearing. One type of call consists of but a single note, quee-ark, and this Is repeated at rather long and Irregular intervals. One bird timed by the watch, June 3, 1915, gave his calls at intervals of 7, 6, 8, 5, 8, 6, 7, 5, 7, 9, and 9 seconds, respectively, and continued at about the same rate for a long time afterward. This intermittent utterance lends to the call a distinctiveness and attractiveness which would be lost If it were given in quicker time.

Nesting: Of the nest Bendire (1892) says:

The nest, simply a slight depression in the ground scratched out by the bird, an(l lined perhaps with a few dry leaves, pine needles, grasses, and usually a few feathers lost by the hen while incubating, is sometimes placed alongside an old log, at other times under low hushes or tufts of weeds, ferns, and, when nesting in the vicinity of a logging camp, a favorite sito is under the fallen tops of pine trees that have been left by wood-choppers, the boughs of which afford excellent cover for the nest.

Mr. L. Belding found a deserted nest of this species In a cavity of the trunk of a standing tree near Big Trees, California, hut in this locality they nest oftener In thickets of the rock rose or the tar-weed, and according to his observations they do not desert their nests for slight cause, like the Bob White or the California Quail.

H. W. Carriger writes to me:

On June 20, 1914, I found four nests of the Mountain Quail. What struck me as unusual was how close the birds remain on the nest; one was under some brush that a camper had cut the previous year, the leaves were all off and the bunch was a mere handful and, though I stood looking down at the bird, she paid no attention to me and did not get off till I had hit the brush pile several times with a stick. The one with 19 eggs was also a very close sitting bird; I flushed a male and then began a search about, in a radius of about 15 feet from where he flew up; I used a stick and beat all the surrounding bushes and vines (mountain misery), but could not flush the female, which I figured must be in the vicinity; after covering all the near-by ground 1 sat down near a large tree and accidentally saw a bird move Its eye and there, about 6 feet away in a patch of “misery,” was a sitting bird; she allowed me to practically touch her before flying. I am sure that I passed this tree and beat this bush before, but not a movement from the bird. The third nest was located without seeing the bird and was at the base of a small tree. The fourth had but one egg and was also at the base of a very large tree.

Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) mention two cases where nests of this species have been found containing eggs of the California, or valley, quail.

Chester Barlow (1899) describes as follows some nests found in Eldorado County, at an elevation of 3,500 feet in the pine belt:

Three nests of the Plumed Quail were found by us, all built in the tar-weed or “mountain misery” (Chemaebatia folioiosa), and all near paths or roads. The one shown in the illustration was built at the foot of a large cedar tree, and was nicely concealed and shaded by the foliage of the weeds. The nesting cavity was about six Inches across and three inches deep, lined with feathers from the parent bird. It held ten eggs, In which Incubation was well advanced. Several times the bird was flushed in order that we might observe the nest, but she was persistent and always returned. Another nest containing 11 Incubated eggs was found on the same day, placed amongst the tar-weed In the shade of large cedars. This nesting cavity was about six inches In depth, and composed of dry leaves from the tar-weed and lined with feathers. From the nests observed it seems certain that the Plumed Quail makes a nest of Its own, for the one last mentioned was substantial enough to bring home.

Charles R. Keyes (1905) found six nests of the plumed quail in the heavily timbered portion of the Sierra Nevada at an altitude of 3,000 feet. One nest was “protected under the outer edge of a mass of deer brush (Cean.othu8 velutinws)”; another was “neatly tucked away along the northwest side of a small boulder and partly concealed by dwarf manzanita”; still another “was in rather an open situation under a Murray pine and five feet away from the trunk”; it was “composed entirely of pine needles” and was “partially concealed by low sprigs of manzanita.” Of the fifth nest he says:

The fifth nest was found on June 20 by tramping through deer brush near the place where a male had been heard calling for several days. It was the best concealed of any, being under quite a thick mass of ceanothus, though I hardly think I should have overlooked it, even though the female had not flushed with a great whirr of wings when I was three or four feet away from her. The nest was quite well constructed of coarse dry grass, a few small twigs, and many breast feathers from the bird. The measurements were the same as those of the last nest described and the eggs were twenty-two in number, laid in two layers, the lower of the nineteen eggs with three on top in the center.

Eggs: The plumed quail does not lay so large sets of eggs as the valley quail. Probably the average is not more than 10 or 12, but. as many as 19 or even 22 have been found in a nest, probably the product of two females. In shape they vary from ovate to subpyriform; some eggs are quite pointed; the shell is smooth and somewhaV~ glossy. The color varies from pale cream to a reddish buff, or from “pinkish buff” to “pale ochraceous-salmon.” They are entirely unspotted. Thfl measurements of 61 eggs average 34.7 by 27 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 38 by 28, 35 by 29, and 33 by 25 millimeters.

Young: Bendire (1892) says that incubation last.s about 21 days and that “in the higher mountains but a singl~ brood is raised; but in the lower foothills they rear two broods occasionally, the male caring for the first one while the female is busy hatching the second.” Probably both sexes share the duties of incubation. Mrs. Irene G. Wheelock (1904) gives the following account of the hatching process:

I stole back alone for a last peep at them, and two had pipped the shells while a third was cuddled down in the spilt halves of his erstwhile covering. The distress of the mother was pitiful, and I had not the heart to torture the beautiful creature needlessly; so going off a little way, I lay down flat along the “misery,” regardless of the discomfort, and awaited developments. Before I could focus my glasses she was on the nest, her anxious little eyes still regarding me suspiciously. In less time than it takes to tell it, the two were out and the mother cuddled them in her fluffed-out feathers. This was too interesting to be left. Even at the risk of being too late to reach my destination, I must see the outcome. Two hours later every egg had hatched and a row of tiny heads poked out from beneath the mother’s breast. I started toward her and she flew almost into my face, so closely did she pass me. Then by many wiles she tried in vain to coax me to go another way. I was curious and therefore merciless. Moreover, I had come all the way from the East for just such hours as this. But once more a surprise awaited me. There was the nest, there were the broken shells; but where were the young partridges? Only one of all that ten could I find. For so closely did they blend in coloring with the shadows on the pine needles under the leaves of the “misery” that although I knew they were there, and dared not step for fear of crushing them, I was not sharp enough to discover them.

Bendire (1892) writes:

I met with a brood of young birds, perhaps a week or ten days old, near Jacksonville, Oregon, on June 17, 1883. The male, which had them in charge, performed the usual tactics of feigning lameness, and tried his very best to draw my attention away from the young, uttering in the mean time a shrill sound resembling Quaih-quaa7L, and showed a great deal of distress, seeing I paid no attention to him. The young, already handsome and active little creatures, scattered promptly in all directions, and the majority were most effectually hidden in an instant. As nearly as I was able to judge they nuinbered eleven. I caught one, but after examining it turned it loose again. The feathers of the crest already showed very plainly.

Dawson (1923) says:

Not less uncanny nor less fascinating are the vocal accompaniments with which a scattered covey of youngsters is coached or reassembled. If the Uttle ones are of a tender age and the need is great, the parent will fling herseLf down at your feet and go through the familiar decoy motions; but if the retreat has been more orderly, the parents clamber about, instead, over the rocks and brush in wild concern. Once out of sight, the old bird says querk querk querk querk, evidently an assembly call, for the youngsters begin scrambling in that direction; while another old bird, presumably the cock, shouts quec 1,GWk, with an emphasis which is nothing less than ludicrous.

Plumages: Tn the downy young a broad band of deep “chestnut,” mixed with and bordered by black, extends the whole length of the upper parts, terminating in a point in the middle of the crown; the rest of the upper parts, including the cheeks, are buffy or buffy white, with large blotches of “chestnut” on the wings, thighs, and flanks and with a dusky line behind the eye; the underparts are grayish white or yellowish white, palest on the chin.

The wings begin to grow almost at once, and the juvenal plumage comes on very fast, while the chick is still small, 2 or 3 inches long. In this plumage the scapulars, which appear with the wings, are “clay color” or “cinnamon-buff,” peppered, edged, and partially barred with brownish black; the crown and upper back are “hair brown,” the crown barred with dusky and the back mottled with dusky and spotted with white; the crest is brownish black, barred with brown; the wing coverts, tertials, and tail are pale buff, conspicuously patterned with black, washed with bright browns on the wing coverts and tail, and peppered and barred with dusky on the tertials; the breast is “light Quaker drab,” with white edgings, becoming whitish on the throat and belly, and brownish on the thighs and crissum.

The juvenal plumage is worn but a short time before it is replaced by the first winter plumage, which is acquired by a complete molt, except that the outer pairs of primaries are retained for a full year. The time of this molt varies greatly with the date of hatching. I have seen birds in this transition stage at various dates from July 10 to September 27, and from less than half grown to fully grown. In first winter plumage young birds are practically indistinguishable from adults, except for the outer juvenal primaries.

Adults have a very limited prenuptial molt in spring, confined to the head and neck, and a complete postnuptial molt late in summer. This species has been known to hybridize with the valley quail, where their ranges meet in the foothills.

Food: Concerning the food of the plunmed quail, Dr. Sylvester D. Judd (1905) says:

Their feeding hours are early in the morning and just before sundown In the evening, when they go to roost In the thick tops of the scrub li”e oaks. Their feeding habits are similar to those of the domestic hen. They are vigorous scratchers, and will jump a foot or more from the ground to nip off leaves. This bird is especially fond of the leaves of clover and other leguminous plants. It feeds also oa flowers, being known to select those of Composltae and blue-eyed grass (Sis~t-inchium). Flowers, leaves, buds, and other kinds of vegetable matter form the 24.08 per cent marked miscellaneous. The birds probably eat more fruit than these stomach examinations indicate. Lyman Belding says that this quail feeds on service berries, and that during certain seasons it lives almost entirely on grass bulbs (Melica bulb oso), which it gets by scratching, for which its large, powerful feet are well adapted. The fruit in its bill of fare includes gooseberries, service berries ( alnifol4a), and grapes (Vitns oalifornica). The bird is probably fond also of manzanlta berries, for it is often seen among these shrubs. The food of the mountain quail of the arid regions has been studied in the laboratory of the Biological Survey. The stomachs examined, 23 in number, were collected in California. Five were collected in January, 2 in May, 6 in June, 3 in July, 3 In August, and 6 In November. The food consisted of animal matter, 3 per cent, and vegetable matter, 97 per cent. The animal food was made up of grasshoppers, 0.05 per cent; beetles, 0.23 per cent; miscellaneous insects, including ants and lepidopterous pupae, 1.90 per cent; and centipedes and harvest spiders (Phalnngldae), 0.82 per cent. The vegetable food consisted of graIn, 18.20 per cent; seeds, practically all of weeds or other worthless plants, 46.61 per cent; fruit, 8.11 per cent; and miscellaneous vegetable matter, 24.08 per cent. The grain included wheat, corn, barley, and Oats. The legume seeds include seeds of alfalfa, cassla, bush clover, vetch, and lupine. The miscellaneous seeds come from wild carrot (Daucus carota), tar-weed (Media sativa), Collomi4 sp., Arnsiackia ep., labiate plants, dwarf oak, snowbush (Ceanot hus cord ul at us), and thistle.

Behavior: H. W. Henshaw (1874) writes:

It seems nowhere to be an abundant species. * * * The bevies are very small, and I do not remember to have ever seen more than fifteen together, oftener less. It is a wild, timid bird, haunting the thick chaparral-thickets, and rarely coming into the opening. When a bend is surprised they are not easily forced on the wing, but will endeavor to find safety by running and taking refuge in the thickness and impenetrability of their favorite thickets. If forced, however, they rise vigorously and fly swiftly and well, and sometimes to a considerable distance, and then make good their escape by running. During the heat of midday, they will be found reposing under the thick shade of the chaparral, and there they remain till the cooler hours invite them to continue their quest for food.

Griimell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) say:

When alarmed the Mountain Quail carries its crest featheis erect, bowing backwards towards the tip but not tilted forward as in the case of the Valley QuaiL This action gives the bird an alert attitude: consistent with its evident anxiety in case there are young about. Although habitually occupying brushy and forested areas, this quail but seldom perches in trees, and as far as we know the adults never roost in one at night. They stick close to the ground and usually seek safety by running beneath cover rather than by flight. For this reason the Mountain Quail is considered an unsatisfactory bird to hunt. When hunted in the brush they generally run some distance before flying, scattering and finally taking wing like as not behind a bush so as to preclude the probability of a successful shot.

Voice: Dawson (1923) describes the varied notes of this quail very well, as follows:

The Mountain Quail’s is the authentic voice of the foothills, as well as the dominant note of Sierran valleys and of bush-covered ridges. Spring and summer alike, and sometimes in early autumn, one may hear that brooding, mellow, slightly melancholy too’ wook, sounding forth at intervals of five or six seconds. Now and then it is repeated from a distant hillside where a rival is sounding. This note is easily whistled, and a little practice will enable the bird-student to join in, or else to start a rivalry where all has been silent before. And quite as frequently, in springtime, a sharper note Is sounded, although this, I believe, is strictly a mating or a questing call, queelk or queelp. This has alike a liquid and a penetrating quality which defies traitstion, so that the unfeathered suitor is not likely to get very far in milady’s affections. Thus, also, I have “witnessed~~ the progress of courtship and its impending climax In the depths of a bed of ceanothus where not a feather was visible. The quilk of the preceding days had evidently taken effect. The lady was there, somewhere. The mate was still quilking, hut his efforts were hurried, breathless. Between the major utterances, ecstatic took notes xvere interjected. As the argument progressed I heard a low-pitched musical series, rapidly uttered, look look look look look. (But there was no use in looking.) This series, employed six or eight times, was suddenly terminated by half a dozen qutiks In swift succession, indicative of an indescribable degree of excitement

Leslie L. Haskin writes to me:

Their call when quietly feeding is not greatly unlike that of young turkey poults when following their mother. Another call often given is a simple, rapid, chirring thrill, t-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r, often long continued. Their alarm note when startled but not badly frightened is an exact reproduction in accent, though not In tone, of a hen’s cackle. In the partridge the cut-cut-ca-do of the barnyard fowl is charmingly altered into a shrill t-t-t-t-t-tr-r-r-r-r-r-t or tut-tut-tut-tr-r-r-r-r-tat all very rapidly delivered, and In sharp crescendo. Because of the difference In tone, and the rapidity of the partridges’ delivery, few have noticed this resemblance, but once the ear has grasped the accent the similarity can never be forgotten.

Game: Although the mountain partridge is a fine, large, plump bird and makes a delicious morsel on the table, it is not highly regarded as a game bird and not fully appreciated by sportsmen. It is a difficult bird to hunt in the dense mountain thickets it frequents.

Edwyn Sandys (1904) says:

This comparatively large and exceedingly handsome species is not highly esteemed by sportsmen in general, owing to its true value not being well understood. In certain portions of California, and notably in the Willamette Valley, Oregon, when abundant it affords capital sport, while upon the table It is a delicacy not to be forgotten. As a rule, one, or at most two, broods are found on a favorite ground, the birds seldom, if ever, flocking like some of their relatIves. 0. piotus prefers moist districts and a generous raInfalL It Is a runner, and in comparison withï Bob-white, by no means so satisfactory a bird for dogs to work on. After the first flush the covey is apt to scatter widely and the beating up of single birds is a slow and frequently a wearying task. On the wing, its size and moderate speed render it a rather easy mark.

Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) say:

Its flesh is excellent, being declared juicier and more finely flavored than that of the Valley Quail. But its comparatively small numbers, even under normal conditions, the difficulty attendant upon reaching its habitat, and the fact that it does not lie well to dogs, deter many sportsmen from hunting the species. Except when the birds may be out of their natural habitat, as during their fall migration, it takes stiff, hard climbing and a deal of patience to get a limit of ten. In former years Mountain Quail were commonly sold on the markets of San Francisco. In some instances they were trapped along the western flanks of the Sierras and sent to the markets alive. Mr. A. E. Skelton, of El Portal, has reported to us that while shooting for the market near Raymond, Madera County, many years ago he averaged about a dozen and a half Mountain Quail a day. The birds then brought from $2.50 to $4.00 a dozen. At the present time it is illegal to sell quail of any sort, except for propagation and then under permit only.

Enemies: Predatory animals and birds help to account for the high rate of mortality among the young birds, so that, in spite of the large broods hatched, only a few ever reach maturity. Wildcats and gray foxes seem to be their greatest enemies. These animals are also sufficiently agile to capture the old birds as well, for bunches of their feathers are often found.

Fall: From the nature of its summer haunts in the mountains, which must be abandoned when the winter snow comes, the plumed quail has developed an interesting migratory habit. Barlow and Price (1901) say:

By the first of September the quail are restless and are beginning their peculiar vertical migration to the west slope of the mountains. Sometimes four to six adults with their young will form a covey of ten to thirty individuals and pursue their way, almost wholly on foot along the ridges to a more congenial winter climate. By October 1 the quail have almost abandoned the elevations above 5,000 feet. In the fall the woodland is full of the disconsolate peeps and whistling call notes of the young who have strayed from their coveys.

Lyman Belding (1903) adds:

The fall migration of the mountain quail (Oreortyx pictus plumiferus) appears to be influenced but little by the food supply or temperature in its summer habitat in the Sierras, which it appears to leave because the proper time has arrived for its annual tramp down the west slope. The first flocks start about the first of September, or sometimes two or three days sooner. At Webber Lake after three cold cloudy days, they began to move westward August 28, 1900. When they are migrating their whistle is frequently heard, and they do not seek cover for protection but follow a wagon road, railroad, travel in snow sheds, pass near dwelling, and seem to care but Uttle for self preservation.

Winter: Belding says further (1892):

The mountain quail (Oreortyw pLota~ plumiferus), which are so plentiful in the high mountains in summer, are only summer residents there. They usually spend the winter below the snow line, but as it is not possible to tell just where that is, or rather where it is going to be, they are sometimes caught in snow storms, but I have been astonished at the correctness of their apparent forecast of different winters. A few birds winter high in the mountains, but I think they are parts of flocks which were nearly annihilated, or young birds which got scattered and lost, and a few that were wounded and survived.

SAN PEDRO QUAIL [Current A.O.U. = Mountain Quail]


In the mountain ranges of southern California and northern Lower California a grayer race of the mountain quail occurs. This race was discovered and named by A. W. Anthony (1889) from specimens collected in the San Pedro Martir Mountains in Lower California, which he describes as “differing from Oreortya~ picta ~lumif era in grayer upper parts and thicker bill.”

He says of its haunts and habits:

From an elevation of 6,000 to 10,000 feet above the sea, In the San Pedro Mountains, I found this quail abundant, occurring wherever water and timber afforded it drink and shelter, and only leaving the higher elevations when the frosts of winter make life in the lower valleys desirable. A few pairs bred about my camp at Valladores, 6 miles from the base of the range and 2,500 feet above the sea; but nearly all of the flocks that wintered along the creek at this point were gone in March, leaving only an occasional pair, which sought the shelter of the manzanitas high up on the hill-sides, from whence their clear, mellow notes were heard morning and evening, so suggestive of cool brooks and rustling pines, but so out of place in the hot, barren hills of that region.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

Let others know your thoughts or ask an expert

Would you like to get new articles of birds (Once a month?)

No SPAM! We might only send you fresh updates once a month

Thank you for subscribing!

No thanks! I prefer to follow BirdZilla on Facebook