What’s not to love about the California quail, our official state bird?
Its scientific name, Callipepla californica, means beautiful woven robe. And with good reason. The male boasts a rich, blue-gray body, with an exquisite brown and white belly. The black tips of these under feathers create a scaled pattern. An elegant plume atop the head is composed of not one, but six individual feathers. It’s no surprise, then, that native Californians coveted quail feathers as adornment for their baskets and clothing. In size, quail stand somewhere between a robin and a crow.
For millennia, California quail (aka California partridge, valley quail) have been hunted by hawks, coyotes, and other predators, including humans. Its delicious flesh makes quail a prize game bird. Quail eggs, also, are subject to active predation, from California ground squirrels, western scrub jays, and snakes.
No wonder quail are so skittish. When startled, they skitter quickly across the ground in search of cover; in extreme cases they explode noisily into the air seeking shelter in nearby tree canopy. Their most lethal predator is the Cooper’s hawk, who will deliberately crash into the brush where quail seek cover, trying to flush its prey into the open. A spooked quail most likely will end up in the talons of the hawk.
Quail are family loving, social birds. A female lays an average of 14 eggs. If the eggs are touching, pre-hatched chicks can actually communicate with each other, and coordinate their break out to occur almost simultaneously. If a chick becomes separated from its parents, it is not unusual for another set of parents to adopt it into its fold. Families combine into groups, or coveys, which can number up to 75 or more birds.
Because of predation, quail have developed unique behavior for survival of the group. From the earliest hours of the day until nighttime, you may hear their distinct call, chi-CA-go, chi-CA-go resounding through the valley. This vocalization seems to say: “Here I am, where are you, don’t stray away” as a means of keeping the family together.
When the birds are feeding, or perhaps taking a dirt bath, a male will act as a sentinel. Standing guard on the ground or on a perch, and fully exposed to danger, it steadfastly maintains a watchful eye for predators.
The male with chicks just learning to fly in the gallery photos has a heavy responsibility this season, as the female is no longer with the group.
June is the time when quail have paired up, and start brooding, chicks begin hatching, and coveys form. Keep your eyes on the lookout for this wonderful spectacle. But, don’t move … you’ll spoil the show.