California Quail

California Quail © TGrey

The California Quail, Callipepla californica, is the state bird of California and the subject of A. Starker Leopold’s 1977 book, The California Quail, which combines nearly a century’s worth of published and unpublished research into a single text.

This attractive game bird inhabits broken scrubby habitat (perennial shrubs broken by spaces with annuals) where it has access to cover and to annual food species, mainly legumes (members of the pea family). Quails also like fruit and seeds from buckbrush and poison oak. They live in coveys, or flocks, that move widely throughout the Park during the non-breeding season. During the breeding season the covey breaks up and individual pairs spread across the covey range to nest and raise their young.

The California Quail is distinguished from other quail species by its unique plumage pattern and the presence of a forward facing comma-shaped black plume that makes them look like a flapper from the 1920’s. The adult male has a boldly patterned black-and-white face with a buffy-yellow forehead, gray breast, black “scaling” on the belly, and a chestnut patch at the center of the belly. The adult female is similar but duller and browner overall, with markings on the side of the neck and upper back dark brown instead of black. The head is entirely grayish, without black and white markings.

This is a highly gregarious species, moving around in coveys that average 20-25 birds. They tend to run rather than fly, but will fly short distances to avoid predators. The birds usually depart from night roosting sites (generally off ground in oaks and laurel) between first light and sunrise to forage. The covey departure is initiated by Assembly Calls. During foraging one individual (usually male) often acts as sentinel, sitting on a high perch and giving Contact and Aerial Alarm Calls when it observes danger.

Adults eat seeds, leaves, and flowers from grasses, shrubs, and trees. They also will consume berries and small amounts of insect food, especially when there is a limited amount of water in their habitat. They seem to require nearby cover from perennial plants while foraging on annual vegetation. Foraging is primarily on the ground, although they will occasionally climb trees and pull off berries and flowers. During foraging bouts, the covey stays together through Contact Calls.

Coveys break down during the breeding season as intra-sexual aggressive behavior increases. Pair bonds generally form between birds from the same covey. Approximately 2 months elapse between covey breakup in March and complete segregation of birds into pair bonds. If both individuals of a pair survive until the next year, they show a tendency to re-mate. Older birds generally mate earlier than younger birds, and adult females generally mate with adult males rather than yearling males. The primary manifestation of courtship by both sexes is courtship feeding.

Females lead in the selection of a nest site and the building of nests. The nest is on the ground and well concealed, often in dry grass, weeds, and dead brush. Hens make the nest by lining a protected depression in the ground with grass and weed stems. Egg laying generally occurs in late April or early May. Females lay 3 eggs every 4 days. Average clutch size ranges from 11 to 17 eggs. Incubation starts after the entire clutch is laid, and lasts for 22 to 23 days. The female does all of the incubating. The male acts as sentinel while his mate incubates.

Female (L), Male (R) © TGrey

Young birds hatch with eyes open, covered with down, and capable of moving around on their own. They usually leave the nest within 2 days, and trail after their parents who show them how to find food. For the first two weeks, however, the chicks are not capable of adequate temperature regulation, and the female broods them at night and in early morning to prevent chilling and overheating. A brooding female gathers chicks under her and fluffs her feathers over them.

The rate of quail reproduction is closely related to the amount of rainfall. Those years with enough rain to produce spectacular displays of wild flowers also tend to be good years for the reproduction of the quail. The rain seems to regulate the breeding of the quail by influencing the chemistry of the plants that they eat.

Food Habits
The best foraging habitat occurs in broken brush. During the first few weeks of life, chicks are vulnerable to predation and forage close to cover. Adults will forage at distances of 100 meters from cover in the absence of aerial predators. This distance will shrink to 15 meters under pressure from raptors. Cooper’s hawks, however, are known to hunt quail by their calls.

Feeding techniques include scratching for seeds, jumping for flowers and buds, pecking at ground, and shelling of acorns. During the non-breeding season, quail feed twice a day, in the morning just after dawn and again in late afternoon. During storms they feed sporadically throughout the day during breaks in the storm. If frightened by a Cooper’s hawk, they may forgo the second feeding.

Quail do not sing, but they have a wide array of calls that they use when alarmed, aggressive, advertising, maintaining contact with others, and assembling the covey. The Assembly Call is what we most often hear when walking through Edgewood. It has 3 syllables, with emphasis on the second syllable (cu-CA-cow), and is given when an individual is separated from the group or a mate, and before and during collective covey movement. The Assembly Call is usually loud and may be repeated 10 or more times.

Unmated males give the Advertisement (of courtship desires) Call early in the breeding season. This is a single syllable, (cow) , similar to the final note in the Assembly Call, but with a longer duration. It is given from a high position, where the calling male stands erect, head elevated and thrown back at each note.

Males also give Aggressive Calls during the breeding season. This call is a series of (squill) syllables given with the head thrown back for each syllable. It is usually given in encounters between males during the establishment of dominance relationships. Males have dominance hierarchies which function in mate selection, inter-covey social relationships, and the movement of broods. All adult males and some immature males participate. Only individuals in the hierarchy acquire mates. Dominant birds call more often than subordinate birds. In general, subordinate males do not call after the dominance relationship is established.

Calkins, J.D., Hagelin, J.C., and Lott, D.F. 1999. The Birds of North America. No. 473.
Ehrlich, P.R., Dobkin, D.S., and Wheye, D. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds.

Learn More…
California Quail at All About Birds.
California Quail videos, photos, and sounds at the Internet Bird Collection

By Lee R. Franks. This article was originally published in the Edgewood Explorer, September 2002.