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Montezuma's Revenge: Hunting for Mearns Quail

Mearns quail present a mental and physical challenge for any bird hunter ready to test their limits.

Montezuma's Revenge: Hunting for Mearns Quail

Hunting Mearns quail can be physically demanding for both hunter and dog. (Ben Brettingen photo)

I hadn’t seen my little French Brittany, Mia, in a couple minutes. I was hunting the edge of the canyon and my friend Mike was hunting the bottom. I yelled to him asking if he had seen her anywhere. About five seconds later he responded, “She’s on point in some grass below you. I’m going to her. See if you can work your way down.” About two minutes later, I was almost down and Mike was in position below her. Just as I was getting in position and trying not to fall down, the covey flushed with a whirlwind of wings. I had no shot as I was trying not to fall down the canyon side, but Mike brought down a hen and a male. Such is Mearns quail hunting.

If you are an upland enthusiast looking for a challenging hunt for you and your dog in spectacular but rough country, then consider the Southwest’s Mearns quail. These quail are known by several names: Montezuma quail, harlequin quail for the male’s distinctive and striking appearance and fool’s quail for their behavior. Locally here in New Mexico they are called “mean” quail. Read on and you will understand what “mean” quail means. They are found in mountainous regions from southern Mexico to central Arizona and New Mexico into west Texas. They will not be found in lower elevation desert-like regions or river basins but higher up in the pinyon/juniper and oak/ponderosa pine habitats. They are a very tight holding bird with typical quail rapid and explosive flight. The fool quail nickname comes from how tight these quail will hold when obviously in sight; and how tame these birds sometimes act if they decide you’re not a threat. I have heard of them being killed with a stick and casually walking away if you don’t have a dog. Many cowboys have had a wild ride on their horse from chance encounters with a Mearns covey. Mearns quail hunting is challenging physically for both hunter and dog and they can be difficult quarry to find. Hunting with a good pointer will significantly increase the odds of success and avoid a near heart attack from walking into a covey.

Mearns Quail Characteristics

Mearns quail are a short, rather plump bird with a very short tail. Females can initially be mistaken for a female bobwhite but closer examination shows the distinctive crest on the nape of the neck and markings unlike the bobwhite. Females and males both have tan on the back with light-buff streaks formed by the feather shafts and circular or oblong black spots midway down the back to the tips of their wings. The adult males have a distinct circular black-and-white pattern on the sides of their face, while a tan feathered crest sits flat at the back of their head and extends over the back of their neck. Their sides are black with vivid white spots.

Females have a face pattern suggestive of the male’s pattern but in much more subdued shades of tan and white or 
cream. Female chest and bellies are light to medium brown with pinkish tones interspersed with a few dark and light spots. Juveniles resemble females, but the chest and belly are grayish rather than brown. Juvenile males have the adult side pattern but do not develop the black and white face pattern until early winter. Another distinctive feature of Mearns are long curving toe claws that are used for digging for food.

Mearns Quail Behavior

Mearns are a very sedentary bird and do not wander very far from their home turf. In the fall, where you find them one day, they may likely be within 50 to 100 yards of that spot the next day. In the fall and winter, a covey will generally be found within a quarter mile area. In areas with prolonged snow cover there will be movements to lower elevations, sometimes concentrating coveys. They spread out more in the spring during mating season. In New Mexico, Mearns quail prefer higher country than what most hunters are familiar with hunting them in Arizona.

In the fall and winter, nightly roost sites are often found in heavy grass cover on southeast facing slopes above canyon bottoms or moist hill sides. In early morning, they can usually be found near the tops of hills or on south facing hillsides. They prefer areas with scattered oak and juniper, especially with taller grass that provides them with cover and hiding places.

hunter and dog in desert
Mearns quail have an uncanny ability to hide in plain sight. (Gun Dog photo)

Mearns do not usually form large coveys. They will be found in family coveys of eight to ten birds. Larger coveys of up to 25 birds can be encountered, but not often. Be careful how many birds you take from a covey to ensure their survival through the winter. Searching out areas with excellent tall grass cover will bring better odds of finding birds. Areas that have had recent fires often have higher Mearns quail concentrations due to the increase of new growth for food and cover.

Mearns eat some insects and plants in the summer and have a year-round diet of seeds. A peculiarity of Mearns is digging for and eating tubers, which compose most of their diet. They use their very long claws to dig for these bulbs. Diggings at the base of bushes and rocks is an indicator to the presence of the birds. Mearns diggings will look like scratching or small trenches that can be up to an inch deep and several inches long.

Hunting for Mearns Quail

Mearns are a delight to hunt. Hunting them will require you to be in good shape and test the conditioning and stamina of your dog. They are one of the tightest holding birds you will ever hunt and often will not fly until they are virtually stepped on. They often come up as one big covey like bobwhites do; but there are usually scattered birds nearby. You may think the shooting is done but, take a step and more birds will come up at your feet.

two Mearns quail
A bird in the hand is well worth the effort. (Ben Brettingen photo)

In my experience, they don’t seem to have much scent and I have seen very good dogs have considerable difficulty finding them. Late afternoon hunts are often more successful after the birds have moved around some and the humidity level begins to rise. Work promising areas slowly. Make your dog slow down and pause at good looking spots and work it thoroughly. These birds can virtually disappear after a covey is broken up. Mark carefully where birds land and get to them quickly.

Mearns will fly explosively and rapidly from virtually beneath your feet. They usually will not fly more than 30 to 60 yards before setting back down. You won’t have much time to shoot at them. A shorter barreled, fast handling shotgun with more open chokes would be a good choice. Hunting Mearns can be a lot like a mountain mule deer or elk hunt. You’ll encounter lots of climbing and, at times, dense vegetation in bottoms. At the end of the day you won’t regret carrying a lightweight shotgun. If you can attach a sling to your gun the availability of both hands will come in handy. My personal preference for hunting Mearns is smaller gauge guns. They are generally lighter weight and leave more edible bird. Hunting Mearns will definitely test your shooting skills due to uneven footing and their elusive flight.   

two hunters and dog hunting for Mearns quail
Be prepared to put in the miles hiking the desert terrain in search of Mearns quail. (Ben Brettingen photo)

In New Mexico, Mearns are generally found at higher elevations in the 5,400 to 8,600 foot range, in steep, rough terrain. In Arizona, they are at lower elevations that are typically not as steep. Plan on lots of walking and up and down climbing. Terrain can be rough with lots of rock and cactus. Plenty of water should be taken along for both the hunter and dog. A well-stocked first-aid kit should be taken as the rocks, cactus and difficult terrain can result in injuries to your dog. Keep a very close eye on your dog’s feet as they will take a lot of abuse.

Hunting for Mearns can be very demanding on both hunter and dog. You should expect to encounter lots of cactus. Your dog will get stuck with cactus needles especially in its legs and feet. Take along a bright flashlight, magnifying glass, forceps, or fine needle nose pliers. You may need to pull some cactus needles in the field and plan on spending several hours removing them from your dog at the end of the day.

Preparing You and Your Dog 

Whether you live at low altitude or are a local southwest resident, being in good condition will make your hunt much more pleasant. If you are hunting at higher altitudes, the dry, thin air will rapidly take its toll on you. The higher altitude will also dehydrate you more quickly. Make sure you take along plenty of water and drink whether you feel thirsty or not. I would recommend a very good fitting pair of all leather boots. Don’t wear the mesh type fabric boots. This could save you some significant pain and stops to remove cactus needles from your feet.

pointing dog hunting for Mearns quail
Both you and your dog are likely to encounter several desert dangers in pursuit of Mearns quail. (Gun Dog photo)

With the rugged, steep terrain and high altitudes, you should have your dog in very good condition. Get your dog regular exercise and find some place for it to run and build up lung capacity. Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your dog prior to hunting in the southwest is to toughen up their feet. The terrain they will be running on will likely be more rock and gravel than dirt or sand. I would recommend regular exercise on a gravel surface such as a parking lot, driveway, or abandoned lot. This will toughen your dog’s feet and help prevent a lame dog.

If you’re looking for a hunting adventure for birds that will test you and your dog, coupled with spectacular scenery, then consider going after Mearns. They are perhaps the most distinctively marked and beautiful member of the quail family. They are a trophy bird and the most difficult to hunt among the southwest quail species—but go in mentally and physically prepared because it won’t be a walk in the park.

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