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Scaled Quail

As the name hints, these birds look like they have scales.

A distinctive looking game bird of the arid southwest, the Scaled Quail forms large flocks during the nonbreeding season. Its main means of travel is walking, though it is quite capable of flight. The Scaled Quail’s nesting season is long, although it typically only raises one brood.

Scaled Quail lay large clutches of eggs, which is necessary because over eighty percent of birds die each year. Scaled Quail appear to be declining, and overgrazing is thought to be one cause due to the habitat changes it brings.

Length: 10 inches
Wing span: 14 inches


Description of the Scaled Quail


The Scaled Quail has plain gray upperparts and wings, and a dramatic scaled pattern to the nape, breast, and belly.  The breast is gray, while the belly is buffy. They also have a crest with a white tuft on the tip.

The sexes are similar, though the male’s crest is larger.

Scaled Quail


The sexes are similar, though the female’s crest is smaller.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles resemble females, though the scaling is less well defined and the upperparts are mottled.


Scaled Quail inhabit arid grasslands and brushy areas.


Scaled Quail eat seeds and insects.


Scaled Quail forage on the ground.

Scaled Quail

Female. Photograph © Greg Lavaty


Scaled Quail are resident in the southern shortgrass prairies of the U.S. and Mexico. The population has declined in recent decades.

Fun Facts

During winter, Scaled Quail form large coveys of 100 or more birds.

Scaled Quail prefer to run from danger than fly.

The white-tipped crest of the Scaled Quail led to the nickname “Cottontop”.


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


Similar Species

  • The extensive pattern of scaling and the crest make Scaled Quail easy to identify.


The Scaled Quail’s nest consists of a grass-lined depression on the ground, often concealed by an arch of vegetation.

Number: Usually lay 12 eggs.
Color: Whitish with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 22-23 days, and leave the nest shortly after hatching, though associating with the adults for some time


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



[Current A.O.U. = Scaled Quail]


The Mexican plateau, with its elevated and arid, or semiarid, plains, extends northward into southern Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas. Much of this region is dry and barren, except for a scattered growth of creosote bushes, dwarf sagebush, stunted mesquite, catclaw, mimosa, various cactuses, and a few yuccas. In the mesas between the mountain ranges and at the mouths of canyons, where underground streams suppiy some scanty moisture, there are grassy plains, with a scattered row of sycamores or cottonwoods marking the course of an unseen stream. Such are the haunts of the scaled quail, blue quail, or white topknot, as it is appropriately called in Arizona. Here, as one drives along over the winding desert trails, dodging the thorny shrubs or still more forbidding clumps of cactus, he may surprise a pair or perhaps a little bevy of these birds, invisible at first in their somber gray dress, which matches their surroundings so well. They do not attempt to escape by flight, but scatter in different directions, running with remarkable speed, with their necks upstretched and their white crests erected, dodging in and out among the desert vegetation, like so many rabbits scurrying off to the nearest brier patch. They are soon lost to sight, for they can run faster than we can and will not flush.

George Finlay Simmons (1925) says that, in Texas, it “shuns timbered country,” but is “characteristic of the barren plateaus in the mountainous districts of western Texas, usually where the soil is fine, loose, and sandy; broad, dry, arid washes, gulches, and semibarren plateaus of the hills where hard ground is covered with a few thorny hushes, scattered scrub oak, chaparral, mesquite, sagebrush, and different species of cactus; chaparral and mesquite country, generally in the vicinity of water, but sometimes miles from any stream or pond.”

Mrs. Florence Merriam Bailey (1928) says that in parts of New Mexico scaled quail collect about the ranches and huts of the settlers, picking up grain left from feeding the horses, or feeding with the chickens.

Frank C. Willard says in his notes:

Of the three species of quail found In Cochise County, ArIz., the scaled quail is the one most commonly met with on the dry, brush-covered mesas and valleys. Here it frequents the dry washes, or arroyos, with their fringe of mesquites, small desert willows, and an occasional flat area covered with bear grass. The near proximity of living water does not seem to be at all necessary for their existence, as I have frequently found them 7 or 8 miles from any water at all. Such of these quail as do live in the vicinity of water make regular daily trips to it and they congregate more tiilckly around ranches and water holes than they do away from them.

Along the San Pedro River and the Ilarbacomari River (a branch of the former), there is a mingling of the scaled quail and Gambel’s quail. These two species are also found inhabiting the foothills of the mountains, and the low ranges of hills like those around Tombstone and In the Sulphur Spring Valley. In such localities the two quails occasionally lay their eggs in the same nest.

Nesting: W bile going to and from our camp in Ramsey Canyon, in the Huachuca Mountains, Ariz., we frequently saw two or three pairs of scaled quail on a grassy flat where a few sycamores and small bushes were scattered along the course of a dry wash, the bed of an underground stream running out from the canyon. On May 25, 1922, while hunting this flat we flushed a quail from the only nest of this species that I have ever seen. The nest was well concealed under a tuft of grass surrounding a tiny mesquite; the grass was well arched over it, and the hollow in the ground was lined with dry grass and a few feathers. It held 14 fresh eggs.

Nests found by others have been similarly located under the shelter of some low bush, sagebush, creosote bush, mesquite, catclaw, cactus, or yucca, rarely in an open situation among rocks or under a fallen bush. Simmons (1925) says that in Texas the nest is rarely placed in a meadow or grainfield. The hollow is lined with what.ever kind of dry grass is available. Willard says in his notes:

Most of the nesting occurs during the months of June and July. I am Inclined to believe that this is because the rainy season in Arizona commences, under normal conditions, early in June. Thereafter there are more or less heavy showers nearly every day. This assures a supply of drinking water within easy reach of the newly hatched young. The nests are usually placed under some tussock of mixed dry and green grass. In the vicinity of gardens, they sometimes build under tomato vines. Where a haystack is available, they are quite likely to work out a hollow near the bottom and lay their eggs there much after the manner of the domestic hen. It is not at all unusual for two scaled quail to lay their eggs in the same nest, if the presence of two distinct types of eggs in the same nest can be considered as evidence. In several instances I have had nests under observation (which did not yet hold complete clutches) and in three of these instances eggs were deposited at the rate of two per day, quite positive proof that two birds were using the same nest.

Eggs: The scaled quail lays from 9 to 16 eggs, rarely more, and usually from 12 to 14. They are ovate or short ovate in shape and usually quite pointed. The shell is thick and smooth, with little if any gloss. The ground color varies from dull white to creamy white. Some few eggs are thickly, or even heavily speckled with very small spots or minute dots of dull, light browns, “sayal brown” to pale “cinnamon-buff.” Most of the eggs are sparingly marked with similar spots. Some are nearly or quite immaculate. Major Bendire (1892) says that “occasionally a set is marked with somewhat more irregular, as well as larger, spots or blotches, resembling certain types of eggs of Callipepla gambeli, but these markings are always paler colored and not so pronounced.” The measurements of 57 eggs average 32.6 by 25.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 35.8 by 26, 34 by 27, 30 by 24.5, and 31.5 by 23.5 millimeters.

Young: Major Bendire (1892) believed that “two and even three broods are occasionally raised in a season, the male assisting in the care of the young, but not in incubation. This lasts about 21 days.” Mrs. Bailey (1928) writes:

That the downy young are also obliteratively colored is well Illustrated by an experience of Major Goldman when climbing the Florida Mountains. At 5,300 feet, among the oaks and Junipers, he reports, “I came suddenly on an adult bird and a brood of recently hatched young. The old bird disappeared after giving several sharp cries of alarm, and the young also disappeared in an open patch of short grass. On reaching the place I began looking about carefully and soon saw one young bird flattened down, with not only its little body but its head and neck also pressed close against the ground, its downy plumage blending in well with the color of the ground and the dead grass stems.” There it lay, pressed close to the ground until approached within three feet when, “it suddenly started up with sharp peeping cries, and the entire brood which had scattered and hidden In an area about fifteen feet across, half ran, half flew Into some thick bushes where they were more securely hidden.”

Plumages: In the downy young scaled quail the forehead, the front half of the crown, in front of a little gray topknot, and the sides of the head are “cinnamon-buff” or “pinkish buff”; there is a broad band of “chestnut” from the middle of the crown, back of the topknot, down to the hind neck, bordered narrowly with black and with broad stripes of huffy white; the auricular spots are dark “chestnut”; the chin and throat are huffy white and the rest of the underparts are pale grayish buff; the back is mottled with pale buff and “russet.”

The juvenile plumage starts to grow at an early age, beginning with the wings; on a small downy chick, less than 2 inches long, the wings are well sprouted; the wings grow so fast that the young can fly long before they are half grown. The sexes are alike in the juvenal plumage. In this the crown is “huffy brown” to “wood brown” and the crest is “vinaceous-buff”; the rest of the head, neck, and shoulders shades off gradually to shades of drab; the feathers of the back, scapulars, and wing coverts are from drab to “sayal brown” or “tawny-olive,” barred with “sepia” or brownish black, finely sprinkled or peppered with brownish black, with conspicuous median stripes of buffy white and with huffy edgings on the scapulars; the tail is mainly dark drab, but more huffy near the tip, barred and peppered with brownish black; the underparts are buffy white or grayish white, spotted or barred with dusky, most distinctly on the breast, where many feathers are tipped with white arrowheads.

The molt into the first winter plumage takes place during September and October. This is a complete molt, except for the two outer primaries on each wing, which are retained all through the first year. The molt begins on the back, breast, and flanks. Young birds are practically indistinguishable from adults during the first winter and spring except for the retained outer primaries. Both first year and adult birds have a partial prenuptial molt early in spring, restricted mainly to the head and throat, and a complete postnuptial molt in August and September. Albinism occurs occasionally, and this species has been known to hybridize with Gambel’s quail and with the bobwhite.

Food: Mrs. Bailey (1928) sums up the food of this species very well, as follows:

The Scaled Quail apparently eats more insect food than any of the other quails, or more than 29 per cent, as against 70 per cent of vegetable matter. Of this vegetable matter over 50 per cent is weed seeds, among which are thistle, pigweed, and bindweed, a troublesome weed that often throttles other plants. Dasylirion seeds almost entirely filled six stomachs examined. Wild fruit, such as prickly pear and the succulent parts of desert plants, together with Its larger per cent of insect food, doubtless help it to live with a minimum amount of water. Its Insect food Includes grasshoppers, ants, and beetles: among them leaf chafers and cucumber beetles: weevils, such as the clover pest and scale insects (several hundred In one stomach) that feed on the roots of plants.

Sylvester D. Judd (1905) says of its vegetable food:

The species resembles the ruffed grouse in its habit of feeding on green leaves and tender shoots. It feeds upon budded twigs, but more often limits Its choice to chlorophyll-bearing tissue, often picking green seed pods of various plants. Like domestic fowls, it eats grass blades. Fruit was eaten by only 6 of the 47 birds, and none was taken from cultivated varieties. As might be expected from inhabitants of arid plains, these birds like the fruit of cacti, and have been found feeding on the prickly pear (Opuntia lindheimeri). The frait of Iberviflea lindhcimeri also is eaten. The blue berries of Adelia augttstifolia, which furnish many desert birds and mammals with food, are often eaten by the scaled quail. Different kinds of Rubus fruits are relished, and the berries of Koeberlinia spin osa and Moni~sia paUida also are eaten. The fruit and succulent parts of plants no doubt serve in part in the parched desert as a substitute for water.

Behavior: –The scaled quail is a. decidedly terrestrial bird with very powerful legs, which it uses to advantage in the rather open desert growth in which it lives and where it can run very fast in the smooth open spaces among the desert plants. It prefers to escape by running rather than flying; but, if come upon suddenly and surprised, it rises with a whir of wings, flies a short distance, and scales down into cover again, much after the manner of the bobwhite; it then starts running and can not be easily flushed again. If in a flock, they sometimes follow a leader in Indian file, but more often they scatter in several directions and are soon lost to sight. Major Bendire (1892) quotes Dr. E. W. Nelson, as follows:

In many instances I have found them far from water, but they make regular visits to the watering places. On the Jornada del Muerto and on Santa F~ Creek I found them frequenting the open plains, away from the water in the middle of the day, and in the vicinity of the water late in the afternoon. At this time they are often seen in company with Gambel’s Quail amongst the bushes and coarse grass or weeds bordering the water courses.

Bendire (1892) quotes William Lloyd as saying:

The Blue Quail loves a sandy table land, where they spend considerable time in takin.~ sand baths. I have often watched them doing so, pecking and chasing each other like a. brood of young chickens. Good clear water is a pecessity to them. They are local, but travel at least 3 miles for water. In the evenings they retire to the smaller ridges or hillocks and their calls are heard on all sides as the scattered covey collects. Several times I have seen packs numbering sixty to eighty, but coveys from twenty-five to thirty are much oftener noticed. During the middle of the day they frequently alight In trees, usually large oaks, but they roost on the ground at night.

Voice: Major Bendire (1892) says:

According to Mr. Lloyd their call note sounds something like a lengthened c7~ip-cAurr, c1i.ip-ch~urr; the same, only more rapidly repeated, Is also given when alarmed, and a guttural oom-oom-oom Is uttered when worried or chased by a Hawk. The young utter a plaintive peep-peep, very much like young chickens. Like the rest of the partridge tribe they are able to run about as soon as hatched.

Mr. Simmons (1925) refers to their notes as: “A single low, longdrawn whistle; a nasal, musical, friendly pe-cos’, pe-cos’.”

Enemies: Mrs. Bailey (1928) writes:

Although protective coloration and attitudes partly serve their purposes, protective cover Is still vitally important, for as Mr. Ligon has found, “Prairie Falcons, Cooper Hawks, Roadrunners, snakes; skunks, wildcats, and coyotes all take their tofl of these birds or their eggs”; in the northern part of their range, Magpies destroy both eggs and young; and over much of their range hail, cold rains, and winter storms deplete their numbers.

Mr. Willard says in his notes:

The Gus monster, rattlesnake, and skunk are natural enemies which take a large toll from the nests of the scaled quail. I once observed a female quail fluttering excite(lly over a clump of grass and making dashes down at it. On investigating I fonud a rattlesnake and nine quail eggs in the nest. I dispatched the snake and on opening it found three whole eggs inside. A Gun monster, which I caught and caged, evidently disgorged two scaled quail eggs, as there were two eggs in the box a short time later, and I am sure no one had been near it but myself. In passing, it may be of interest to say that this great lizard will devour a hen’s egg by gradually working it far enough into its mouth to be able to clamp down on it with its powerful jaws, crushing it, and then sucking out the contents. They are large enough to swallow easily a quail’s egg whole. We occasionally found a mass of loose feathers of this quail scattered on the ground and clinging to near-by bushes. The presence of cat tracks told what was responsible for the tragedy the feathers betrayed. On at least four ~ I have surprised a long-legged Mexican lynx stalking the same game I was after, and was able to collect a cat as well as a quail.

Fall: Mrs. Bailey (1928) says further:

The entire life of the Scaled Quail is spent in the environment to which It is so well adapted, but in the fall it is sometimes found a few hundred feet higher than In the nesting season. When the young are raised these delightful little Cotton-tops go about in small flocks, visiting water holes and river bottoms. Picking up insects, seeds, and berries as they go, they wander through brushy arroyas, over juniper-clad foothills, cactus flats, and sagebrush or mesquite plains, calling to each other with a nasal pey-cos, pay-eel, which by long associatIon comes to take on the charm attaching both to the gentle-eyed birds themselves and to the fascinating arid land in which they make their homes.

Game: Hunting the blue quail will never figure as one of the major sports, although it is a gamy bird and makes a delicious and plump morsel for the table. The birds are widely scattered over a vast expanse of rough country, on desert plains covered with thorny underbrush, or on stony or rocky foothills where walking is difficult and slow. The hunter must be prepared to do some long, hard tramping, for he is more likely to count the number of miles to a bird than the number of birds to a mile. A dog is useless, for these quail have not yet acquired the habit of lying to a dog. Eastern quail have learned to lie close, a good way to hide from human enemies but a very poor way to escape from the many predatory animals in the West. Scaled quail are shier than Gambel’s quail and are generally first seen in the distance running rapidly and dodging around among the bushes. They run faster than a man can walk, and the hunter must make fast progress over the rough ground to catch up with them. By the time he gets within range he will be nearly out of breath and will have to take a quick snap shot at a fleeting glimpse of a small gray bird dodging between bushes. This is far more difficult, under the ciremustances, than wing shooting and can not be considered pot shooting. Sometimes, when a large covey has been scattered and rattled, the hunter may surprise single birds and get an occasional wing shot; but they are apt to jump from most unexpected places, ahead of or behind the hunter, and give him a difficult shot. Late in the season they are often found in large packs of 100 or 200 birds, when the chances for good sport are better. Even then the hunter may well feel proud of a hard-earned bag.

Range: The Southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Nonmigratory.

The scaled quail is found north to southern Arizona (Picacho, Rice, and Clifton); northern New Mexico (Haynes and the Taos Mountains); east-central Colorado (Mattison and Holly); and northeastern Texas (Lipscomb). East to Texas (Lipscomb, Mobeetie, Colorado, San Angelo, Fredericksburg, San Diego, Fulfurrias, and Brownsville); Tamaulipas (San Fernando); and San Luis Potosi (Ahualulco). South to San Luis Potosi (Ahualulco and Ramos); Durango (Rancho Baillon); Chihuahua (San Diego); and Sonora (San Pedro and Sesabe). West to Sonora (Sesabe); and southern Arizona (Arrivaca, Sierrieta Mountains, and Picacho). It has been detected casually in eastern Texas (Gainesville and Bonham). On August 19, 1926, three specimens were collected at Elkhart, Morton County, Kans. It is a common species across the State line in southeastern Colorado.

The range above outlined is for the entire species. By recognition of the Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado bird (C. s. pallida), the typical subspecies (C. 8. 8quamata) is restricted to northwestern Mexico. Another race, the chestnut-bellied scaled quail (C. a. east anog~t~~),inhabits the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas and adjacent regions in northeastern Mexico.

Attempts to transplant the scaled quail to other regions have generally resulted in failure. Among these may be mentioned introductions in Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, and Washington. So far as is known, the only successful transplantation was made in Colorado at Colorado Springs and probably also at Canyon City. From these points the birds have spread and increased until they are now cornmon in the Arkansas Valley from Pueblo east to the State line, and it appears that the introduced stock has met and blended with the native birds working northward along the Las Animas River.

Egg dates: Texas (pallida): 11 records, May 7 to June 22. Arizona and New Mexico: 37 records, April 16 to September 22; 19 records, June 11 to July 7. Texas and Mexico (ca~stanog’astris) : 44 records, March 7 to June 28; 22 records, May 3 to June 2.



The scaled quail of the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas and eastern Mexico is more richly and darker colored than the quail found farther west, and, as its name implies, it has a well-marked patch of dark chestnut in the center of its belly, which is more prominent in the male than in the female. George B. Sennett (1879) thus describes its habitat:

The foothills of the Rio Grande, about 100 miles back from the coast, are the eastern limits of this bird, as well as of the Cactus Wren and the Yellow-headed Titmouse. The first rise of ground in going up the river occurs at Lomita Ranch, and here we often saw these beautiful birds running about; but although we frequently collected a mile or two below the hill, there we never saw them, and not even in the fertile and heavily wooded lowlands in the vicinity of this hill did we observe them. A few miles up from Lomita and back from the river, near the water-holes, rises are numerous, covered with thin, poor soil, where cactuses and scrubby, thorny bushes grow, and here the blue quail abounds.

Nesting: Sennett evidently found only one nest, of which he says:

On the 22d of May, near the buildings of the ranch at San Jose Lake, Mr. Sanford shot a fine male, which was on the brush fence forming the enclosure. In searching among the weeds where the bird fell, we found a nest and 16 fresh eggs. The nest was under the edge of the fence, and was simplj a saucer-like depression in the ground, with leaves for lining.

Three sets of eggs in my collection were taken from hollows in the ground, under cactus plants or bushes, lined with grass, weeds, or trash. Major Bendire (1892) says that ” their nests are always placed on the ground; a slight hollow in the sand is scratched out by the bird, usually under a clump of weeds or grass, or a prickly-pear bush. They are very slightly lined with dry grasses.”

Eggs: The eggs of the chestnut-bellied scaled quail are practically indistinguishable from those of the Arizona form, though they may average a little more richly colored or more heavily spotted and a trifle smaller. Major Bendire (1892) says:

Full sets of eggs have been taken near Rio Grande City, and at Camargo on the Mexican side of the river opposite, as early as March 11, and from that time up to July 10. Two broods are unquestionably raised in a season. Mr. Thomas H. Jackson, of West Chester, Pennsylvania, gives the average number of eggs laid by this species as fifteen, based on data taken from twenty-seven sets. The largest number found in one nest was twenty-three.

The measurements of ’17 eggs in the United States National Museum average 31 by 24 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 34 by 24.5, 33 by 25.5, 28.5 by 23.5, and 30 by 22 millimeters.

Behavior: Th it~s general habits this quail does not differ materially from its western relative. Its plumage changes, its food, voice, and behavior are all similar. Both forms are resident in their respective ranges, moving about only as the food supply demands.

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.

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