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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wildlife Thursday: Mountain Quail

              Among the most elusive and intriguing birds we have on Tejon Ranch is the mountain quail (Oreortyx pictus). This denizen of western mountains is well-known for its secretive nature and beautiful plumage. The largest quail in the United States, these birds are easily identified by the feathers sticking straight up from their head. These factors combine to make mountain quail a common “nemesis bird” among birders- a bird that despite how much effort you put into seeing one, it still eludes you. I myself had never seen mountain quail until I started hiking around Tejon Ranch. Soon afterwards, I came to learn that this species can be a somewhat reliable feeder bird at certain times of the year in Pine Mountain Club, where I live. I still get a little giddy every time I encounter one and relish springtime for the chorus of “kwe-aarp” calls coming from the hillsides. 

Mountain quail with chicks in Pine Mountain Club. Photo courtesy of Lisa Butler
                So, besides being pretty and sometimes difficult to see, what else is interesting about mountain quail? A quick trip to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America site reveals that despite their large range, relatively little is known about this magnificent creature. If you are lucky, it is possible to see mountain quail from as far south as Baja California all the way up to Washington and east to Idaho and Nevada. Due to this wide distribution, microevolution has occurred in the species and generally five subspecies are recognized (Gutierrez and Delehanty 1999). Here in our neck of the woods, we are most likely to see Oreortyx pictus eremophilus, which is characterized by its overall lighter coloring and slate gray on the upper back and neck (Gutierrez and Delehanty 1999).
                Throughout its range, mountain quail is notorious for inhabiting rugged country. These animals can thrive in a variety of habitats ranging from coniferous forest to dense chaparral. In all habitats, they prefer to be close to dense cover and often haunt steep hillsides. It is here that they seek out their somewhat unique diet: plants. Unlike most other new world quail, mountain quail are primarily vegetarian, choosing to dine on fruit, seeds, and green vegetation. Juveniles and females consume animal protein such as insects more often, but it still only constitutes 20% or less of their overall diet (Gutierrez and Delehanty 1999).  
Mountain quail  in Pine Mountain Club. Photo courtesy of Lisa Butler
                This unusual diet, which relies heavily on foods that are seasonally available may be one reason why mountain quail are extremely migratory. This isn’t the kind of migration that takes them from continent to continent, or even from state to state. Instead, mountain quail tend to seasonally migrate up or downslope on a particular mountain. There is some evidence of these birds travelling as far as 25km over a period of weeks to months (Gutierrez and Delehanty 1999).  
                So, if you’re hiking around the mountains of west and you encounter this strange, beautiful bird, take note. It may even be a sighting worth reporting to ebird, where researchers can access your data to learn more about this and other elusive species. 

For more information about mountain quail, check out these websites:

Birds of North America Online: Only the introduction is available to nonmembers, but there’s still some great info to be found on this site.
Cornell All About Birds:
eBird: Search the ebird database for all recorded occurrences of mountain quail and other species in your area.

xeno-canto: Hear field recordings of mountain quail and other species.

Gutiérrez, R. J. and David J. Delehanty. 1999. Mountain Quail (Oreortyx pictus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: