There you are, out for a peaceful evening stroll, when suddenly masses of quail explode from the bush in front of you. After your heart starts beating again you can hear them calling to each other, waiting for you to leave so they can reclaim their roosts for the night.
The California quail (also known as valley quail) is common year-round in the brushy chaparral of the foothills around Three Rivers, although rarer now in the Valley. The State Bird of California is easy to recognize, by sight and by sound.
Quail have 10 to 14 different calls. The most recognizable is the “assembly call,” uttered to regroup the covey (as a group of quail is called). It sounds something like chi-CAH-go (maybe the quail should be the Illinois state bird?).
The whit-whit you sometimes hear is an alarm call, as when some careless walker blunders too close. For more serious alarms (like a hawk), they issue a kurr sound.
In fall and winter, quail forage in groups of up to 70 birds. They make a repetitive ut-ut noise to keep in contact with each other. Nearby you’ll often see a male standing guard on a rock, like a plump little sentry in speckled underpants.
You can communicate with the coveys if you are skilled enough with a quail call. I’m told that they will call back, but my attempt making the chi-CAH-go call scattered all local wildlife and sent my friends into convulsive laughter.
If you want to attract quail to your yard you need to provide them with a few basics. They need a reliable source of water, especially in dry times. They eat mostly seeds and green leafage, with an occasional bug for an hors d’oeuvre.
They must have protective cover nearby at all times. The Atriplex plant (a.k.a. saltbush or quail brush) or juniper work well, but even a pile of brush or sticks may suffice. And to really complete the quail-spa experience, provide a little place for them to take a dust bath.
Having a place to hide is vital. The quail is the Chicken McNugget of the foothills, and most live only a couple years. Many carnivores eat them, but their primary predators are Cooper’s hawks and any great horned owl that finds their roosting place.
In early spring, the coveys begin to break up as the birds form mating pairs. Males can be very aggressive at this time.
The nest is usually a well-hidden depression in the ground near a log or stone, with a thin lining of grass. The most common clutch is 13 to 17 spotted oval eggs, which take 22 days to hatch.
The young grow to adult size in about four months, and the family group stays together until the coveys begin to reform in the fall.
So this coming spring be sure to keep an eye out for the little families. If you’re lucky you’ll get to see the parents followed by a dozen little ones scurrying along like the opening sequence of The Partridge Family TV show (to whom they’re related, by the way; to the partridge, that is, not David Cassidy).
That pleasant sight, and waking up to the chi-CAH-go call of the California quail, is one of the wonderful things about living in Three Rivers.