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Photo by (c) Dave Appleton.
More often heard than seen, Mountain Quail prefer areas of dense cover in the wooded foothills and mountains along the West Coast of the United States. These birds are unique among members of their family in undertaking seasonal migrations up and down the slopes of mountains. Although Mountain Quail's secretive nature makes it difficult to accurately census, it has clearly experienced a great decline in the past 50 years in parts of its range.
Mountain Quail are large, distinctive quail with a long, straight head plume. Both sexes are similar, with gray heads and breasts, maroon throats, chestnut bellies marked with bold white bars, rufous undertail coverts, and brownish-gray upperparts. Mountain Quail can be quite difficult to see, but in the spring and summer, males' loud, frequently-given "queark" calls announce the presence of this species in an area.
Mountain Quail are found year-round in the major mountain ranges of the West Coast of North America--the Sierra Nevada, Cascade, and Coast Ranges. Their range stretches continuously from southern Washington to southern California, and the species also has separate, disjunct populations in central Washington and Baja California. California's Sierra Meadows (Northern) Important Bird Area (IBA) is just one of a number of Audubon IBAs that host Mountain Quail.
Mountain Quail declined greatly in eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and Nevada during the last half of the 1900s, and the species has nearly been extirpated from Idaho, where it was once common. Analysis of Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data from 1960 to 1980, however, did not produce any significant population trend for this species.
The ecology of this species is not especially well known, but it seems to differ from other North American quail in a number of ways. Unlike other quail species, Mountain Quail are able to utilize high-elevation habitats, occurring during the breeding season at elevations of 700 to 3,000 meters in the Cascades, Sierra Nevada, and Coastal Range. Birds then undergo an altitudinal migration in the fall, supposedly walking (rather than flying) downslope to lower elevations, perhaps in response to the presence of snow. During this downslope migration, birds travel in coveys, while in the springtime, migrants travel back upslope alone or in pairs.
Mountain Quail have a varied diet, employing a number of foraging strategies to utilize different seasonally abundant food sources. Plant matter is the main type of food eaten by these quail, with invertebrates making up only a small component (0 to 5%) of adults' diets (although young birds consume up to 20% animal matter). In the summer, birds in central California dig in the ground for bulblets and also climb trees and shrubs for fruits and seeds. Birds in this same area feed heavily on acorns in the fall, and consume mushrooms in the winter.
During breeding season, Mountain Quail are found in shrub-dominated areas with dense vegetative cover. They are most common in pine-oak woodland, coniferous forest, and chaparral. Nests consist of shallow depressions on the ground, and appear to typically contain 10 to 12 eggs. Incubation lasts about 24 days, and the downy young leave the nest a few hours after hatching. Young birds feed themselves, but are directed to food by, and receive care from, either one or two adults.
The greatest threat facing Mountain Quail appears to be habitat destruction, especially from human development. Urbanization in the mountain ranges of southern California has resulted in the loss of habitat there, and increased development in the Sierra Nevada may decrease the amount of wintering habitat available to this species.
In areas in which Mountain Quail are declining, such as Idaho and eastern Oregon, hunting of this species has been banned. However, the bird's decline in Idaho has continued since the hunting ban there was established, suggesting that habitat loss, rather than excessive hunting, is to blame for the species' disappearance there. State agencies in Oregon and Nevada have attempted to restore Mountain Quail to parts of their historic range by translocating birds; the success of such efforts is unknown at this time.
What Can You Do?
Audubon's Important Bird Area program is a vital tool for the conservation of Mountain Quail as well as other species. To learn more about the Important Bird Areas program and how you can help, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/iba/.
Volunteers are crucial to the success of programs that monitor the status of populations of Mountain Quail and other bird species. Audubon's Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of the longest-running citizen-science monitoring programs in the world and has helped to follow changes in the numbers and distribution of Mountain Quail. To learn more about the CBC and how you can participate, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc.
Gutierrez, R. J. and D. J. Delehanty. 1999. Mountain Quail (Oreortyx pictus). In The Birds of North America, No. 457 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
Sibley, David A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.