Be Your Own Birder

Weekly Bird: California Quail

The California quail is one of my very favorite birds, and I greatly enjoyed having these plump visitors in my yard regularly during the years I lived within their range. While I’m well outside their home habitat now, I’ve never lost my fondness for them, and if you learn all about these birds, you’ll love California quail just as much as I do!

California Quail - Male

California Quail – Photo by Don DeBold

California Quail Fun Facts

The California quail (Callipepla californica) is a familiar and widespread quail in its western range, easily recognizable by distinct field marks, a clear call, and its flocking behavior. But there is much more to love about this game bird than its chicken-like similarities.

  • While California quail is this bird’s most popular name, they are also known as California valley quail, valley quail, topknot quail, Catalina quail, Californian quail, and California partridges.
  • Despite its name, the California quail is found well outside the state of California. Its year-round range extends as far north as parts of southern British Columbia and Vancouver Island, east to central Idaho and Utah, and south to Cabo San Lucas on the Baja peninsula of Mexico. These birds do not migrate.
  • The distinctive bobbly headpiece of male California quail is not a fleshy knob, but is a tuft of six feathers in a tight cluster. Females have a smaller, more camouflaged head plume, and even young quail have a small crest tuft.
  • Breeding pairs of California quail intermingle, and will assist one another with raising their broods. This can lead to large flocks of these social birds, particularly in winter when several groups will band together. A flock of quail is called a drift, flush, battery, shake, covey, or rout.
  • The California quail is the only state bird to have its state’s name as its own, as it is the symbolic state bird of California. It was given that honor in 1931.
  • While these birds are naturally found only in North America, they have also been introduced as game birds in Hawaii, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand, where they are carefully hunted. Because these birds are also popular in private collections, occasional escapees may be seen nearly anywhere in the world.
  • California quail happily and hungrily eat all types of seeds, but also have other foods in their varied diet. These omnivorous birds also eat flowers, buds, grain, berries, nuts, snails, beetles, and caterpillars. About 30 percent of their diet is insects and mollusks.
  • These birds are fast runners, and will often flee from danger on foot rather than taking flight. In the air, they fly straight and low with whirring wing beats, and head for cover as quickly as possible.
  • These quail are adept at dust bathing, and frequently wallow in dry, fine dirt instead of using water to clean and preen. They will revisit the same suitable dust bathing area regularly, wearing multiple hollows in the same soil as they flap and flutter.
  • Baby quail are precocial and able to leave the nest within a day of hatching, following their parents to food, water, and shelter. They will make their first short flights when they are 9-10 days old.
  • Though these birds are generally adaptable to urban and suburban habitats, they have largely disappeared from most California cities because of a lack of native landscaping and contiguous habitat that provides secure shelter. Feral cats are another grave threat to these ground-dwelling cats.
  • California quail belong to the bird family Odontophoridae, which includes other quail, partridges, and bobwhites native to the New World. This is distinct from the family Phasianidae, where other grouse, partridges, turkeys, francolins, pheasants, junglefowl, and similar chicken-like birds are found.
Add the California Quail to Your Life List

These birds are relatively easy to spot within their range, but you will find them best in shrubby, semi-arid habitats with plenty of cover for the birds to hide and forage, such as parks with gravel and dirt paths or along the edges of rural roadways. Listen carefully for the lilting 3-note call, and look for perched birds that are serving as lookouts for their flocks in high, exposed spots, such as on fence posts, bare tree branches or rooftops. These birds will also readily come to yards where ground feeders are available, and they will clean up spilled seed under hanging feeders. Offer sunflower seeds, mixed birdseed, or cracked corn to tempt quail, and be sure to provide a ground bird bath in the driest areas. An open, dusty area will be welcome for dust bathing, and shelter such as dense shrubbery or a brush pile is essential to provide a secure retreat for these skittish birds.

Learn More About the California Quail

These great resources can help you learn even more about these fun birds…

California Quail Mother and Chicks

California Quail Mother and Chicks – Photo by Susan Jensen

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