As the state bird of California, the California quail is aptly named. These plump birds are a treat to watch in the yard or local parks as they dash across open areas with comical precision, and they’re easy to attract to feeding areas as well. As a member of the Odontophoridae bird family, the California quail is closely related to other types of quail, partridges, and bobwhites, and like many of its cousins, it is occasionally managed and hunted as a game bird. Birders who recognize and understand the California quail can better appreciate its amazing attributes, and this fact sheet can help!
- Scientific Name: Callipepla californica
- Common Name: California Quail
- Lifespan: 1-2 years
- Size: 10 inches
- Weight: 5.5-5.7 ounces
- Wingspan: 14-15 inches
- Conservation Status: Least concern
California Quail Identification
These plump, chicken-like birds are easily recognized as quail by their overall jizz and plump body shape, but birders must look closely to note the specific field marks that properly identify California quail. Males have a white stripe above the eye and a white U-shaped curve around the black throat. A dark brown cap contrasts with their pale forehead, and back of the neck is speckled with white and shows a scaly appearance. The chest is plain blue-gray, while the abdomen is yellow with heavy scaling and a low rust patch. The flanks and lower abdomen have short white streaks. The black, knobby plume on the top of the head is actually several feathers that bob and wiggle as the bird moves.
Females are paler gray overall with white scaling on the abdomen and a much shorter, less distinct plume on the head. Females have the same scaling, speckling, and streaks as their male counterparts, but lack the black throat, brown cap, and more colorful belly.
Juveniles look similar to females, and when very young, have more buff or yellowish tones in their fluffy plumage. They quickly mature, however, and will have adult plumage within several weeks of hatching.
California quail are not primarily vocal birds but their repetitive undulating “chi-CAH-go” call is distinctive. They also use short “chup” calls.
California Quail vs. Gambel’s Quail
The California quail and Gambel’s quail can look very similar, though the Gambel’s quail has more reddish coloration on its cap and flanks, and a much larger, black patch on its lower abdomen. California quail have scaly markings whereas Gambel’s quail are plainer. The pale forehead of the California quail is distinctive, as the Gambel’s quail has a dark forehead. Females of both species can also be confusing, though California quail females are generally less colorful than their Gambel's cousins.
In southwestern areas where these birds have an overlapping range, hybridization can give their offspring some traits of both species, making identification even more complicated.
California Quail Habitat and Distribution
California quail are adaptable birds that can be found in brushy forests as well as urban and suburban parks, gardens, and yards throughout California, Washington, Oregon, southeastern Idaho, northern Nevada and northern Utah. The birds’ northern reach is as far as southeastern British Columbia and extends south through Baja California.
California quail have also been introduced to Hawaii, New Zealand, Chile, and western Argentina.
California quail do not migrate, but may be slightly nomadic in areas where food or water sources are less predictable.
These terrestrial birds are solitary or found in pairs during the breeding season, but family groups will remain together in the fall and coveys can form with more than 100 birds during the winter months. While feeding, one California quail, usually a male, will perch nearby as a sentinel with a good vantage point. This bird will watch for predators or threats and will sound the alarm to the rest of the flock if necessary.
California quail are most active near sunrise and sunset. When threatened, these birds prefer to run quickly to shelter. When they do burst into flight, their wing beats are rapid and the flight is low to the ground and level. They typically only fly short distances to reach suitable shelter. When running, they can show a rigid spatial orientation and stay in organized lines.
Diet and Feeding
These are granivorous birds that eat primarily grain and seeds, including weed seeds such as dandelions. They will also eat a variety of insects for protein, especially during the summer breeding season and when juvenile birds need more protein for proper growth and maturation. While foraging, California quail scratch 2-3 times first with one foot then the other before pecking at the ground for whatever seeds or insects they have uncovered.
California quail are polygamous birds that produce one brood of 12-15 eggs each year. The typical nest is a shallow scrape on the ground, just 1-2 inches deep and lined with grasses. Nests are often placed near vegetation or rocks for camouflage and protection, but will occasionally be placed up to 10 feet high in brush or low trees.
Eggs and Young
The eggs are whitish or cream-colored and have brown markings. Female birds do most of the incubating for 18-24 days, and young birds will leave the nest quickly to follow the adults when foraging for food. Both male and female parents will guide and safeguard their chicks. Juvenile birds remain in the family group for 27-30 days as they learn to forage independently and develop their flight muscles.
California Quail Conservation
These quail are not considered threatened or endangered. They do face risks, however, particularly in suburban areas where loss of habitat can make them more exposed to predators, including coyotes and feral cats. Pesticide use on grain crops can also cause problems for California quail, but their populations are stable and even growing in many areas.
Tips for Backyard Birders
California quail readily visit yards and will forage beneath bird feeders for spilled seed, often scratching at the dirt or mulch like chickens and other game birds. Birders who want to encourage visits from quail can supply cracked corn or millet in low ground feeders or scattered directly on the ground, and the birds will also drink from ground bird baths. Bird-friendly landscaping with low shrubbery provides good shelter for California quail and helps these shy birds feel more comfortable and secure.
How to Find This Bird
It is easy to find California quail within their range in the proper habitat, and the loud calls of these birds can often be heard even before the covey is spotted. Watch for quail to perch on roofs, rocks, or fences, or for larger groups of birds to be foraging alongside roads or in open areas in fields. Where suburban populations are established, California quail easily come to feeding stations.
California Quail in Culture
The California quail is the official state bird of California, and is the only state bird whose name includes the full name of its state. This quail was recommended by the Audubon Society as the state's official bird and was legally named the state's symbol by the legislature in 1931. They are common birds in most of California, but are missing from some eastern areas of the state, and are also difficult to find in the most heavily urbanized regions.
Explore More Species in This Family
The Odontophoridae bird family includes many types of quail and similar species. Birders who enjoy California quail will also want to check out other game birds in related families, however, including: