California Quail

February 22, 2024

The California Quail (Callipipla californica) is a common bird resident of the Willits Bypass Mitigation Lands. It is found in oak woodlands, riparian corridors, and in wetland habitats. This bird is about the size of a pigeon, nine and a half to ten and a half inches long and stands six to seven inches tall. It is round and chicken-like with beautiful intricate markings and a topknot of curving feathers on its head. Even though it looks like a single large comma-shaped head plume that hangs forward on the male’s head, it is a cluster of six overlapping feathers. The males are the most colorful and conspicuous. The male stands sentry on the top of fence posts, shrubs, and trees, making the loud “Chi-ca-go, Chi-ca-go, Chi-ca-go” calls.

California Quail are gregarious, traveling in big groups, or coveys, of up to 200 birds in the fall and winter. They mostly remain on the ground, running rapidly to get away from danger, but will erupt into noisy flights at times, causing a person to jump with surprise. Quail roost in dense trees or shrubs at night, which I discovered during my night hikes as they are easily scared off their roost at dusk. Quail mainly nest on the ground in grass or shrubs or next to logs or large rocks, but sometimes they nest ten inches above the ground in a shrub or tree. The nest is a shallow, covered depression lined with dead leaves or grass where they lay 12 to 16 white to cream-colored eggs marked with dull brown spots. Quail and their eggs have been hunted and eaten for thousands of years by humans and wildlife and continue to be!

A question that I often get about quail is – ‘what affects the numbers of quail?’ Why are there years California Quail seem to be everywhere and other years where there are only a few? This species has adapted well to the increasing human population and their overall population is stable, but drought is a factor in the rise and fall of their numbers. This is due to their food sources increasing in years of high rainfall, like this one, and decreasing in low rainfall years. They feed on a wide variety of plants, especially annual weeds, seeds, leaves, and fresh shoots. In fall and winter, they eat acorns, berries, bulbs, and insects. The amount of rainfall also affects the quality of the food sources quail depend on. Plentiful rain influences the chemistry of edible plants, especially legumes. Subterranean clover studies have shown that in drought conditions, clovers produce elevated levels of chemical compounds that are similar to the hormones involved in regulating reproduction in mammals and birds. These studies have shown that stunted plants in drought years have higher amounts of this regulating hormone compared to plants during high rainfall years. This phenomenon potentially regulates quail breeding. Plants produce these hormones during periods of drought as a possible protection against grazing pressure.

If you feed wild birds at home, throwing grain on the ground will probably attract California Quail and other game birds such as Mourning Doves to your yard. It is a wonderful way to observe these lively and interesting birds.