California quail

Callipepla californica (Shaw, 1798)

Order: Galliformes

Family: Phasianidae

New Zealand status: Introduced

Conservation status: Introduced and Naturalised

Other names: plumed quail, McPherson quail

California quail. Adult male. Lake Tarawera, January 2010. Image © p by Phil Battley Adult male.

California quail. Adult male. Lake Tarawera, January 2010. Image © p by Phil Battley Adult male.

California quail are small, plump introduced game birds. They are common in open shrublands throughout most of the country. The male has a striking black face bordered with white, and a conspicuous top-knot or plume. The female is duller in colour with a less obvious plume. The young are numerous and able to fly at a young age, but have a low survival rate. In autumn, quail gather in large coveys to feed and roost together. The male call, often represented as ‘Chi-ca-go’, is distinctive and diagnostic.

Identification

California quail are stocky, predominantly grey and brown, with a diagnostic forward-curling black plume rising erect from the top of their heads. Males have a black chin and cheeks edged with white, and separate white ‘eyebrows’ join on the forehead. The breast is blue-grey and the lower belly cream to rust brown with distinctive black scalloping, which merges into strong, pale streaks on the dark brown flanks. The female is slightly smaller, duller and browner, with some streaking on the neck and a more subdued scalloping on the belly, but with equally bold streaking on the flanks. Immature birds are similar to the female but a lighter brown. The female’s crest plume is much smaller than the male’s. Both sexes have fine speckling on the nape, which is bolder in the male. There is no seasonal change in plumage. California quail have short, rounded wings and a relatively long tail. Their legs and bill are black and sturdy, with the bill being slightly hooked.

Foraging quail pace sedately, but when disturbed they run at speed, their feet a blur of movement, or burst into flight with noisy, rapid wingbeats.

Calls: the distinctive 3-note male crow is described in a variety of entertaining ways (‘Tobacco’, ‘McPherson’, ‘Chi-ca-go’ etc.). It is more accurately rendered as ‘qua-quergo’. The first note may be given by itself. The calling bird is usually perched slightly above the surrounding area, e.g on a log or post. Other calls include foraging grunts, sharp urgent tut-tut warnings and soft tup-tup sounds, possibly location guides. Chicks make a high whistle, alerting parents to their location

Similar species: the brown quail is smaller and browner, with intricate patterning on the back, and lacks a head plume..

Distribution and habitat

California quail are native to western USA from Oregon to the Baja Peninsula. They have been introduced to most continents as game birds. The first release in New Zealand was at Papakura in 1862 with later releases in Nelson, Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago. They spread rapidly, and are now most numerous from Northland to the Waikato, inland Bay of Plenty, coastal Wairarapa, Nelson/Marlborough, North Canterbury and Banks Peninsula. They are uncommon or absent in the Manawatu, Southland, the Southern Alps, the West Coast and the Chatham Islands.

The preferred habitat for California quail is uncultivated open shrubland. They frequent the rough scrubby edges of rivers, inlets, forests, roads and rural gardens. Examples of good quail habitat include bracken, tussock grass, matagouri, gorse, blackberry, tutu and lupin

Population

California quail are abundant throughout their range, though they have apparently declined compared to e.g. 1920s Canterbury, when coveys in excess of 100 birds were frequently recorded. It is now unusual to see more than 20 quail in a single covey.

Ecological and economic aspects

California quail are not considered to have any conservation or economic impacts, but are hunted on a limited scale.

Breeding

Males are aggressive when courting, and often fight each other. Courtship displays include head dips, puffing up of contour feathers, and spreading of the tail feathers. Nests are a flattened grassy area well concealed among dense vegetation. The nest is often placed against a log or rock. The eggs hatch synchronously, partly achieved by the chicks calling to each other while still in the egg. The walnut-sized striped chicks leave the nest as soon as they are dry, and are extremely active, if somewhat uncoordinated as a group. Older chicks keep together in more coherent groups, attended by the parents. The chicks can fly at a surprisingly young age, when about a quarter of the size of the female..

Behaviour and ecology

In autumn, family groups gather into large coveys, roosting in low branches and separating into smaller groups to feed during the day. When disturbed at a distance, female California quail will crouch motionless, relying on their camouflaged colouration, while the more conspicuous male is more likely to alarm call and flee to a prominent perch. At closer range the covey will run off at speed, or explode into flight en masse, flying a short distance into dense cover.

Food

California quail consume seeds of many kinds, some fruit and leaves. They feed mainly early in the morning and late in the afternoon, spending more time foraging when food is scarce. The young are insectivorous initially.

Websites

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Quail

http://hunting.fishandgame.org.nz/californian-quail

References

Fitter, J.; Merton, D. 2011. A field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Princeton University Press.

Heather, B.D.; Robertson, H.A. 2000. The field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Viking, Auckland.

Marchant, S.; Higgins, P.J. (eds) 2006. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 2. raptors to lapwings. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Recommended citation

Leary, S. 2013. California quail. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz

California quail

Social structure
monogamous
Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Nest type
scrape
Nest height (mean)
0 m
Nest height (min)
0 m
Nest height (max)
0 m
Maximum number of successful broods
Unknown
Clutch size (mean)
13
Clutch size (min)
8
Clutch size (max)
24
Mean egg dimensions (length)
31 mm
Mean egg dimensions (width)
24 mm
Egg colour
Pale dried-grass beige with darker splotches
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Interval between eggs in a clutch
1 day days
Incubation behaviour
female only
Incubation length (min)
22 days
Incubation length (max)
23 days
Nestling type
precocial
Nestling period (mean)
Almost independent immediately
Age at fledging (mean)
10 days
Age at independence (mean)
Unknown
Age at first breeding (typical)
1 year
Maximum longevity
11 years
Maximum dispersal
Unknown

California quail

Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun