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Montezuma (Mearns) Quail: Game Bird Profile

Although limited in range within the United States, the Montezuma (Mearns) quail is a popular desert-dwelling game bird pursued by wingshooters.

Montezuma (Mearns) Quail: Game Bird Profile

The Montezuma quail is a striking game bird that looks quite different from the other quail species. (Photo By: plains-wanderer-Shutterstock.com)

A member of the family Odontophoridae like the other quail species, the Montezuma quail is also commonly referred to as the Mearns quail, so named after American naturalist Edgar Alexander Mearns. Incidentally, it also has other nicknames like fool’s quail and harlequin quail. Like several of our other quail species, Cyrtonyx montezumae is native to the southwestern United States and central Mexico from north to south.

close up feather detail of a male montezuma quail
The Montezuma quail is argued to be the most attractive of the quail species in North America. (Photo By: Danita Delimont/Shutterstock.com)

Montezuma Quail Habitat and Range

Native to the areas of bunchgrass that often grow in pine-oak forests of steep mountains, Montezuma quail are often associated with oak trees. At lower elevations they are known to hang out in stream corridors with sycamore and maple trees.

These quail typically don’t form the large coveys often seen in other quail species during the nonbreeding seasons. Instead, they often remain in small family groups throughout much of the year.


Distribution wise, Montezuma quail in the United States are found mainly in New Mexico in areas with adequate habitat in both the south central and southwest portions of the state. Their range spills over into the eastern portion of Arizona, mainly in the far southeast part of the state with good Montezuma quail habitat. Some populations of the birds can also be found in far southwest and west Texas.

The Montezuma quail’s range south of the border is much larger than in the U.S. The birds are found in a large swath of Mexico, including about the middle one-third of the country from northern Chihuahua and Sonora, all the way down to Oaxaca.

Montezuma Quail Biology 

Montezuma quail are a smallish quail with rounded bodies and short tails. The males have a striking harlequin face pattern and white spots on the side of the body. The narrow head has a crest on the back and the bill is short and thick. Underparts are striped, and the belly is a vibrant cinnamon color. Females are a rich brown and have only a faint amount of the head and back pattern of the males.

Female Montezuma (Mearns) quail
Female Montezuma (Mearns) quail. (Photo By: Kristen Oliver/Shutterstock.com)

Montezuma quail are slightly smaller than a scaled quail. They typically measure about eight to nine inches in length, with a wingspan of 16 to 17 inches. An adult Montezuma quail generally weighs between four and eight ounces.

The Montezuma diet consists mostly of tubers, acorns, and insects. They utilize their long, sickle-shaped claws to dig for buried food, leaving tell-tale marks that many hunters have come to recognize as a good place to start their quest. When acorns are sparse in the springtime, the birds often dig up acorns that have been buried by Mexican Jays. In the summer, they feed heavily on insects, including beetles, ants, and grasshoppers.

While mostly monogamous, females sometimes partner with two different males. According to biologists, the female mates with both males, lays eggs in separate nests and then leaves the males to incubate the eggs. Nests are made mostly of grass and leaves, generally about 5.5 inches wide and 4.5 inches tall. Females can lay up to 15 eggs, and chicks usually remain with the parent birds for several months.


Hunting the Montezuma Quail

Along with mountainous habitat with bunchgrass species present, Montezuma quail will also frequent desert habitats with yucca, mesquite, prickly pear, saltbush, and creosote bush, particularly in areas where native bunchgrass species thrive. Coveys generally roost on southeastward-facing slopes, so in areas with known Montezuma quail populations, those types of locations are good starting points for a hunt.

Typical Montezuma (Mearns) quail habitat in the desert southwest.
Typical Montezuma (Mearns) quail habitat in the desert southwest. (Photo By: Danica Chang/Shutterstock.com)

A challenging bird to hunt, Montezuma quail can fly up to 45 miles per hour. Fortunately, their habit of holding tight makes scoring on the species a little easier. In fact, after a covey flush singles will often hold tight again when pursued and located.

As with other quail species, season dates vary somewhat throughout the Montezuma quail’s range. Like the other three quail species found in New Mexico—bobwhite, scaled and Gambel’s—Montezuma quail can be hunted there from November 15 to February 15. In Arizona, hunters can pursue them from December 2 through February 12. 

Due to small numbers of Montezuma quail in the Lone Star State, Texas does not have an open season for this species. Before heading to Mexico to hunt Mearns quail, check with the game managers of the state where you intend to hunt for open season dates and other regulations.

As we’ve suggested with the other quail species, choose your favorite shotgun, load up the dogs and get after Montezuma quail wherever you can find them. Small shot—typically number 7.5 or 8—will do the job nicely. Since the birds are known to hold tight, more open chokes are preferred, with Improved Cylinder a good starting point.

The global breeding population of Montezuma quail is about 1.5 million birds. That makes it a species a low concern for conservationists.

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

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