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California Quail: Game Bird Profile

Another interesting member of the quail family that gun dog owners love to chase in western states.

California Quail: Game Bird Profile

A popular pursuit amongst western upland bird hunters, the California (or valley) quail presents a great opportunity for challenging wingshooting and good dog work. (Photo By: Glenn Price/Shutterstock.com)

While most upland bird hunters may gravitate toward a more recognizable quail species like the bobwhite, the California quail—also called the valley quail—is lesser known and somewhat more limited in distribution. As you might expect, the bird mainly inhabits California and other far western states but appeals to bird hunters from around the country.

A member of the Odontophoridae family like the bobwhite and scaled quail, Callipepla californica is a fast-running, hard-flying quail of the brushlands, that is pursued for not only the sport, but for its meat, which some hunters believe to be second to none.


California Quail Range

Native to the patchy low vegetation areas along America’s western coast, the California quail is found in good numbers along the entire western course of the Golden State, as well as across all of the northern and east-central portions of the state. The birds are also found throughout most of Oregon, with an exception of the very northwest edge and down the mid-central section of the state. 

Washington State also boasts good California quail numbers, mostly in the eastern part of the state, although populations exist in some parts of the northwest portion. The western half of Idaho also plays home to the valley quail, as does western and northern Nevada, along with some small pockets in the eastern portion of the Silver State. Additionally, Colorado, Utah, and even Arizona harbor at least some populations of the California quail.

South of the border, California quail are found throughout nearly the entire Mexican state of Mexicali, but no further east.

California Quail Biology & Habitat 

One of the most attractive of the quail species, the California quail is a plump, short-legged bird with a forward-facing crest shaped like a comma. Distinctive markings include a black and white scaled belly, a chestnut patch on the belly, and fine black and white markings on the neck. Females lack the strong head markings of the males, but do have a crest. 

[male and female valley quail photo]

hen california or valley quail
Hen California quail. (Photo By: JoshuaDaniel/Shutterstock.com)

California quail are about the size of the bobwhite, with a length of 9 to 10 inches and weighing 5 to 8 ounces. Their average wingspan is about 13 inches, and both sexes are about the same in size. Like other quail species, these birds spend most of their time in large groups on the ground, where they walk and scratch in search of food—typically various kinds of seeds. Their vocalization is a distinctive “Chi-ca-go” whistle that many love to hear when in California quail country. 

In spring, females construct their nests on the ground, sometimes at the base of shrubs or trees. However, they have been known to build them in trees and brush as high as ten feet off the ground. After breeding, the hens lay 12 to 16 eggs between 1 and 1.5 inches long that are creamy to white in color with brown markings. Chicks hatch in 22 to 23 days covered with brownish down and are already capable of following adult birds to feed soon after hatching.

Hunting the California Quail

Like bobwhites, California quail are typically found in coveys, although the coveys are often larger than those of the bobwhite, sometimes numbering up to 75 birds. Within their range, hunters should look for chaparral and other brush areas to find birds. They feed mainly in the morning and evening in open areas near good escape cover, so those are good places to begin a hunt. Because of the expanse of public lands in western states, hunting these birds without having to acquire permission from private landowners is 100 percent doable.

california quail habitat
California (valley) quail habitat. (Photo By: Dogora Sun/Shutterstock.com)

Season dates vary somewhat throughout the California quail range. In California, opening dates vary by hunting zone and range from September 24 to October 15, with the season closing on January 29. In western Oregon, the lengthy quail season runs from September 1 to January 31, giving hunters five months to hunt this fun little game bird. Dates also vary in Washington, with the western portion of the state opening September 24 and the western part opening October 1. In Idaho, California quail can be hunted August 30 to March 31—a full seven months!

Like other quail, California quail are typically hunted over pointing dogs of a variety of breeds, although some hunters take flushers to the field with success. Be aware that these birds are prone to running instead of flying when trying to escape, so your dog that is accustomed to hunting bobwhites might have a bit of a learning curve when making the transition.

german shorthaired pointer dogs with quail hunters
Pointing dogs are the preferred dog breeds by western quail hunters. (Photo By: CSNafzger/Shutterstock.com)

Using a dedicated wooden or plastic mouth call to mimic the sounds of the valley quail is an often overlooked tactic, especially for those hunters without dogs. Replicating the assembly “Chi-ca-go” whistle can help to locate weary coveys or dispersed single birds.

As with other quail species, the California quail is a small, not all that tough a bird to kill. Just about any gauge shotgun can be used to hunt them, so pick your favorite scattergun and grab some good walking boots. Small shot will typically do the job, with most hunters preferring number #7.5 or #8 shot, along with fairly open chokes to ensure a nice, even pattern at quail-shooting distances.

A success story as far as populations are concerned, this species has increased its number by about 1 percent a year between 1966 and 2019—a vastly different trend than exhibited by some of the other quail species. The estimated global breeding population is about 5.8 million, and about a million of the birds are taken annually in California alone.

As with any species of game bird, always check the regulations in the area you intend to hunt before heading afield on a valley quail hunt. This will ensure you do your part in proper management of the species.

quail hunter holding california quail in hand
California quail present a unique and challenging wingshooting opportunity in the American west. (Photo By: Kali Parmley)


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