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Mountain Quail: Game Bird Profile

The mountain quail is the largest and one of the most vocal of the western quail species.

Mountain Quail: Game Bird Profile

Although not as popular as other western upland bird species, the mountain quail offers a sporty wingshooting opportunity for those who pursue it. (Photo By: Matt Gerlach/Shutterstock.com)

As we continue our journey through the North American quail species, we take a look at a bird that’s easy to hear but much harder to see. This western quail is, in fact, the largest of the quail species, and is frequently chased by gun dog owners in California and a few other western states.

A member of the Odontophoridae family like the other quail we’ve chronicled, Oreortyx pictus, the mountain quail, is another fast-running, hard-flying quail that offers substantially less hunting opportunity than some of its more plentiful cousins.


Mountain Quail Range

Native to remote mountainous areas typically covered with dense shrubs such as chaparral, the mountain quail spends much of the summer in woodlands as high as 10,000 feet of elevation where food like plants and insects abound. In fall, they descend back to lower ridges and desert plains, typically gathering into small coveys less numerous than most other quail species.

mountain quail habitat
Mountain quail inhabit some of the higher elevations of the western desert regions. (Photo By: Kelly vanDellen/Shutterstock.com)

California boasts much of the mountain quail range, with the birds inhabiting much of the state except for the far southeast and middle western portions of the Golden State. The birds are also found in roughly the western half of Oregon, along with a small patch of northeast Oregon and central western Idaho. In Washington, the birds can be found along the central part of the southern border and a smaller area in the middle of the state. 

South of the border, mountain quail are found in a somewhat narrow strip of land in the central northern part of Mexicali.

Mountain Quail Biology & Habitat 

One of the most interesting of the quail species, the mountain quail is a large, round-bodied quail with two distinctive straight plumes, often appearing as one, on top of its head. Its front half is gray, and top and back a deep olive brown. Additionally, it displays a short tail, chestnut throat and bright white bars on its sides.

As mentioned, mountain quail are the largest of the quail species, falling in size between the California quail and gray partridge. Usually about 10 to 11 inches in length, the birds have a wingspan of 14 to 16 inches and adults typically weigh about a pound.

Males call in breeding season to defend territory. After mating, females lay an average of nine to ten cream white to pale buff eggs (sometimes more) in scraped out ground nests lined with grass or pine needles. The incubation period is 24 to 25 days, and young are hatched downy and able to follow the hen immediately to feed.

Interestingly, five distinct subspecies of mountain quail have been identified, all with subtly different plumage tones. The three interior/desert subspecies are paler and grayer in color, while the two western subspecies are more richly colored.

Hunting the Mountain Quail

Those hunting the mountain quail should start at its favorite habitat, most commonly pine-oak woodland, coniferous forests, and chaparral. In lower elevations, they often hang out in pinion-juniper woods and in scrub brush areas. They are often found in thickets that include plants such as California lilac (soapbush), willow, chamise (greasewood), manzanita, blue elderberry, big sagebrush and bitterbrush.

The birds are also found in areas of second growth brush after fires or clearcuts. Look in thick areas, since mountain quail require dense, low thickets for cover. During hot weather, they are nearly always found within a mile of water, so brush habitat along streams and rivers are also prime locations to begin a hunt.

As with other quail species, season dates vary somewhat throughout the mountain quail range. In California, opening dates vary greatly by zone. Zone Q1 has an early mountain quail only season that runs from September 10 to October 14. That zone is then open to hunting all quail species from October 15 through January 29, as is Zone Q3. In Zone Q2, the season for all quail species runs from September 24 to January 29.

In Oregon, hunters in the western part of the state can hunt mountain quail from September 1 through January 31, while the season in eastern Oregon runs October 8 through January 31. Washington hunters can pursue mountain quail only in the western part of the state from September 24 to November 30 during the hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Regarded as one of the toughest quail species to hunt, mountain quail are often hunted over pointing dogs of a variety of breeds. They’re prone to run if you find them out in the open, so they can be confounding and confusing to younger, more inexperienced dogs and hunters. They will sometimes run uphill and fly downhill, putting a lot of distance between themselves and their pursuers. Dogs that are willing to bust through the thick cover will often find birds that more timid dogs will pass by.

pointing dog in western desert mountains
Because mountain quail are known to run, western hunters prefer to use pointing dogs to help pin down flighty coveys. (Photo By: CSNafzger/Shutterstock.com)

While a little larger than other quail species, gun and load selection is basically the same for the mountain quail. 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 #7.5 or #8, along with fairly open chokes to ensure a nice, even pattern at quail-shooting distances.

The global breeding populations of the mountain quail is estimated at only about 260,000 birds. Despite those numbers, biologists consider it a globally secure species across its range. However, the loss, alteration, and fragmentation of riparian habitats in arid regions east of the Cascade Mountains have negatively impacted mountain quail populations in recent years.

As with any species of game bird, always check the regulations in the area you intend to hunt before heading afield on a mountain 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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