Mountain & Valley Quail
September 24, 2010
The clock is ticking down on a hunt for mountain or valley quail. Here are some tips to make your effort a success.
For more than 30 years, I've had the good fortune of pursuing quail. I never tire of the thrill they bring, not to mention their fine table fare.
Two of the West Coast's most prized upland birds: a pair of valley quail, also called California quail, and a single mountain quail. Photo by Scott Haugen.
This time of year, valley and mountain quail have a lot to offer.
Here's what to look for.
Also called California quail, the valley quail is one of the most adaptable of all upland bird species. It makes its home in a variety of habitats, withstands a range of weather conditions and provides hunters with no shortage of sport and thrills.
Valley quail thrive from Canada south through most parts of Washington, Oregon and California, all the way down to Mexico. So popular is this bird that in 1931, Californians declared it as their state bird.
Some ornithologists distinguish California and valley quail as two separate subspecies. But whatever you call them and no matter where you hunt them, their seasons and hunting methods are the same.
What does dictate how valley quail are hunted are the habitat and terrain. The flatlands make for easy going, but brushy habitat offers the best results for hunters with dogs, especially when it comes time for retrieving birds in thick brush.
Because many flocks are year-round residents of agricultural land, they are easy to pattern and predict, which makes for highly successful hunting. As the winter progresses and flocks grow larger, your hunts can become even more productive, to the point that securing a limit is simply a matter of time.
Streamside habitats are also excellent places to find valley quail.
These birds have very specific needs: food, brushy cover, safe roosting sites and water. Find these and you'll likely find birds.
For feeding, valley quail prefer open areas over brushy ones. If one covey finds such a place, you can expect more groups to join them as the winter progresses.
One reason why valley quail are so prolific is because of all upland birds, they are one of the latest species to nest. This means their clutches are not hurt by late-spring storms, which are a big factor in nesting success.
The quail's wide-ranging diet of plants, seeds, grains and even weeds allows the birds to grow quickly and be in good condition come winter.
The typical hunting approach for valley quail is to spot them first, and then stalk to within shooting range.
Many hunters pursue them without dogs. But that requires stealth and good planning in order to get a shot before the birds scamper into heavy brush for safety.
When these quail do flush, they often take off and fly over brush, which can make recovering them a challenge. If you're shooting over brush, carefully mark where each bird falls. Some hunters will bring along a dog for the sole purpose of retrieving birds.
Valley quail are very vocal. Often a male -- sometimes more than one -- will perch up on an elevated vantage point and serve as a sentry for the flock. Should danger approach, it sounds a warning call, sending all the feeding birds into cover.
But this isn't always a bad thing.
Often valley quail will hold tight in the first bush they escape to. As you get closer, you'll hear their little putts of alarm, similar to the sounds of a flock of disturbed turkeys in fall, only at lower volume.
As the covey grows nervous, more birds talk. Often they'll reach a level of chatter that finally peaks out to where they can't stand it any more, and they'll flush.
The other blue-colored quail, the mountain quail, is the largest of North America's quail species. It's also one of the most challenging to hunt.
Over the past two decades, for reasons unknown, some populations of mountain quail have been struggling in parts of Washington, Oregon and California. In other habitats, they are stable and even growing.
The biggest advantage of late-season hunting for mountain quail is that their migration behavior brings them down to lower, more accessible elevations. In a few of the areas I hunt, we'll be chasing mountain quail at more than 2,000 feet on the season opener. Come winter, we'll be hunting those same birds at 500 feet.
South-facing slopes and valley fringes are great spots.
Unlike valley quail, mountain quail typically live in small family flocks. They are usually widely separated, which means you'll have to cover ground to succeed. The exception to this can be in winter, when coveys congregate in low-elevation drainages in search of food and grit.
One thing mountain quail love -- which also makes them so difficult to hunt -- is thick brush.
Find a combination of heavy brush interspersed with a diverse riparian habitat, and your chances of finding mountain quail increase.
If winter conditions are mild, keep precise track of where coveys are located, for they will likely remain in that same area.
Because mountain quail live in such thick habitat, they prefer to run rather than fly to escape danger.
This can make shooting difficult, so be ready. Shots can come at very close range, and fast. It's not often that hunters burn three shells on a single flush.
Southwest Oregon, in and around the Coast Range, likely holds the best population of mountain quail. The western face of the Cascades also has good numbers of birds. As a general rule, the farther north you travel, the lower the quail densities.
Early morning and afternoon are when most birds will be out in the open. Clover and grass growing along roadsides and the edges of logged units are prime foods. They'll also gather fine gravel for their gizzards, which is another reason why roadsides are good to hunt.
No matter where you choose to hunt, be ready for fast action. Many hunters
refer to these quail as the "blue bombers" of the forest.
And once you get a taste of the close-encounter thrills each one has to offer, you'll know why!