Wildlife Watch by Mark Krepps: Idaho’s introduced quail are plentiful, but its native quail are rare

Four different species are found in the state.

September 19, 2013 

Quail

Mountain quail are Idaho’s only native quail, but sadly, chances are good you’ve never seen one. They’re rare to the point of being “critically imperiled.”

Mountain quail are found in western Idaho, including the lower Salmon River Canyon and Hells Canyon. On occasion, they have been spotted in the Boise National Forest.

There is no hunting season for mountain quail, so people heading into the field need to make sure they know their target and know what a mountain quail looks like.

You can see what they look like and where they might be found on Idaho Fish and Game’s website in the upland game rule book or in the printed version.

Mountain quail look similar to California quail, which were introduced to Idaho and flourish everywhere from farms and ranches to river bottoms and Boise neighborhoods.

Mountain quail are about the same size and have similar colors as their California cousins. But male mountain quail have a distinct sword-shaped feather shooting straight up from their foreheads, unlike the comma-shaped feathers that adorn the heads of male California quail.

Mountain quail have been struggling for years and continue to struggle.

Findings from a 1999 study showed habitat loss and degradation from forest succession, reservoir construction, fire, weed invasion and human developments as major factors in some areas.

Competition with California quail and chukar (introduced to Idaho around 1950) also could be a factor.

Mountain quail are known for seasonal movements between breeding and wintering areas.

Typically they breed at high elevations during spring and summer and avoid snow cover by migrating to lower elevations in groups called coveys.

Elevations can range from 2,300 feet to 9,800 feet. Mountain quail are monogamous, and both parents assist in incubation and raising of their young.

Nests are often highly concealed by an overhead cover of shrubs, inside bunchgrasses, under downed logs, and even under rocks.

Females lay large clutches of 10 to 12 eggs.

While native quail struggle, there are two introduced quail species among the mountains and plains.

Gambel’s quail are native to southwestern desert terrain such as Arizona, and they are found in the Salmon region near Lemhi and Custer counties.

Introduced in 1921, these colorful birds that look similar to the California quail, are found near the Lemhi Backroad Subloop.

One distinguishing feature of this bird is the male’s red headcrest, as opposed to the black top of a California quail.

There is no hunting season for Gambel’s quail.

Idaho Fish and Game wildlife Biologist Bill Bosworth says California quail are plentiful and occupy large portions of western and south-central Idaho. California quail and bobwhite are the two species hunters can legally shoot.

California quail prefer lower elevations. These quail begin to form breeding pairs during the spring. Females lay relatively large numbers of eggs, often as many as 10 or more.

Occasionally they have been known to lay up to two dozen in a single nest.

Interestingly, eggs are laid at a rate of about one per day in a shallow, well-hidden ground nest.

Chicks can leave the nest soon after hatching but cannot regulate their own body temperature for the first two weeks or so.

They rely mainly on their mother for warmth, especially during nights, when hypothermia would be fatal to them.

Quail diets generally consist of seeds, grains, green vegetation, some fruit and insects.

Mark Krepps is a freelance writer, author and blogger. He has lived in Idaho for 16 years.

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