Californians Welcome to the Pacific Northwest
Photos by Neil O'Hara
Are we experiencing a flush of California Quails? Did they migrate north? There have been increased sightings of these ground dwelling birds who prefer to hide or run from danger rather than take flight. In winter they show up in the underbrush near feeders.
A group of California Quails is known as a covey, battery, drift, shake, rout or flush. Their distinctive behaviors may help in understanding these names. Very rarely will you observe just one California Quail (CAQU). You are most likely to see a male hop up on a fence rail or rock and find other quails waiting for his signal to safely cross the path. They will scurry in a sequence of one or two birds in a mixed file of other males, females and young birds. This is a covey or battery of birds crossing. However if you slowly approach a group of CAQUs, you will observe what looks like a nervous, indecisive group trying to find an escape. This group behavior is a drift or shake of CAQUs. Finally, if you or your dog quickly approach a group in a field, they will take flight. This action is called a rout or flush of quails and is a strategy used by hunters during the late September through November season in Western Washington. Hunters refer to CAQUs as Valley Quail. Hunting is also permitted for Mountain Quail in Western Washington only.
The CAQU is the state bird of California State. It was introduced to Washington State for hunting and has adapted well to both the lowlands of the Western and Eastern sides. Their preferred habitats in Western Washington are brushy areas near fields, streams, and wetlands. They are often observed on the edges of parks and near homes where bushes and grass can provide quick cover. Their diet consists of mostly seeds and leaves. They will also eat berries and insects. CAQUs do not migrate. They are year-round residents in Washington State.
Their nests are found on the ground usually near a rock or log concealed by bushes or grass. The nest is a shallow scrape lined with vegetation. The clutch size is between 12 to 16 creamy white one inch eggs with brown smudges. The female incubates the eggs for 18 to 23 days. Once hatched, the precocial chicks are ready to follow both the male and female. They are shown food, but not fed by the adults. In good years, a female may have more than one brood. After the first brood hatches, she will leave the chicks with the associated male and lay a new clutch with a different male. These two broods may combine with others to form communal families of CAQUs. Sometimes the males associated with a covey may not be the genetic fathers. However, all adults attend to the the combined chicks. Scientist have found that birds who engage in communal brooding live longer than adults who do not.
The distinctive topknot of feathers looks like one big feather. It is actually 6 smaller feathers overlapping to appear as one plume. The female also has a smaller topknot. She is mostly brown overall with a buff scaled belly. The male has a black throat outlined in white. He has a brown crown with a white brow. His breast is gray. His belly is brown but also appears scaled or scalloped in cream like the female. Both the male and female are vocal. They emit the three syllable call which sounds like “Chi-ca-go.” This call is usually heard when a covey is preparing to move or if mates are separated from each other. The male will also make a “pit-pit” alarm call. When a covey is feeding they will often make “pip” sounds and soft clucking noises.
In cold weather, California Quails are know to sleep huddled together. They face outward in a circle to conserve heat and to enable a quick escape from predators. These unobtrusive birds are most often seen winter in Skagit County. Keep a lookout for them near bird feeders and on the margins of grassy areas in local parks. Listen for their “Chi-ca-go” call as they cross your path on a winter’s walk.