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Montezuma Quail Life History


Open Woodlands

Montezuma Quail are most numerous in native bunchgrasses that grow in pine-oak forests on steep mountains of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. They often occur with oak trees, but use some other habitats as well, from about 1,600 to 10,000 feet in elevation. At lower elevations they frequent stream corridors with maples and sycamores. They may use desert habitats with yucca, creosote bush, mesquite, acacia paloverde, prickly pear, saltbush, agave, sotol, and brickellbushes, especially where native bunchgrass species are present. In the higher elevations of the desert, oaks and mountain mahogany appear among such plants, along with a variety of grasses, and such transitional habitats often harbor Montezuma Quail. Key grasses in their preferred habits include common wolfstail, plains lovegrass, and tanglehead. On rare occasions they range up into higher peaks (as high as 10,000 feet on Escudilla Mountain, Green’s Peak, and Mount Baldy, Arizona), where aspen and pine predominate.

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Montezuma Quail eat mainly tubers, acorns, and insects. They feed on the ground, where they move slowly through grasses and denser parts of woodland and dig into the ground in search of food. They often forage on the sides of hills, small gullies, creekbeds, and at the bases of rocks, trees, shrubs, or clumps of grass. They use their powerful feet, equipped with long, sickle-shaped claws, to unearth buried food. How they find this hidden food is unknown but may involve smell. Common year-round foods are acorns and tubers of Drummond’s wood-sorrel and various sedges. In spring, when acorns are very scarce, they dig up acorns cached by Mexican Jays. With the arrival of rains in July, Montezuma Quail’s diet expands to include far more insects, especially beetles, grasshoppers, and ants, as well as seeds of cluster-lillies, Mexican star, panicgrass, morning glory, nightshades, yucca, and lupine.

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Nest Placement


Nests on grassy hillsides or level ground, often near a large rock or tree.

Nest Description

Female and male apparently construct the nest together, a neatly woven chamber of grasses, stems, and leaves, lined with finer grasses; the nest is sometimes woven into living vegetation. The interior of the chamber measures about 5.5 inches wide and 4.5 inches tall.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-15 eggs
Egg Description:

White to creamy white.

Condition at Hatching:

Downy and able to follow mother.

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Ground Forager

Montezuma Quail usually have a monogamous mating system. However, the population tends to have more males than females in it—for unknown reasons, some 60% of all quail chicks hatched are male. In plentiful years (such as when rainfall creates a flush of productivity) females sometimes partner with two males. The female mates with them in rapid succession, laying eggs in two different nests and leaves the males to incubate and raise the chicks. No courtship displays are known. After the young hatch, they remain with their parents for at least several months and sometimes over the winter. By March the young have usually dispersed. At night, coveys roost on grassy slopes that face southeastward, usually near a rock, bush, or clump of grass, and all members of the covey face outward.

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Low Concern

Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 1.5 million and rates the species a 13 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. A 2016 report estimates the U.S. breeding population at 150,000 or less. Habitat loss has affected this species since the arrival of Europeans. Overgrazing of native perennial grasslands results in the complete disappearance of the species and allows nonnative plants such as Lehmann lovegrass to invade, eliminating many native grasses and flowering plants. Even in cases where grazing patterns have increased food supplies for this quail, the loss of cover had led to local disappearances. Urbanization has also decreased the extent of native grassland in Arizona. In one 4-year study of hunting in Arizona, populations of this species were reduced by 75% each year, with most of the reduction directly attributable to hunting.

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Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Rosenberg, K. V., J. A. Kennedy, R. Dettmers, R. P. Ford, D. Reynolds, J. D. Alexander, C. J. Beardmore, P. J. Blancher, R. E. Bogart, G. S. Butcher, A. F. Camfield, A. Couturier, D. W. Demarest, W. E. Easton, J. J. Giocomo, R. H. Keller, A. E. Mini, A. O. Panjabi, D. N. Pashley, T. D. Rich, J. M Ruth, H. Stabins, J. Stanton, and T. Will (2016). Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision of Canada and Continental United States. Partners in Flight Science Committee.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

Stromberg, Mark R. (2000). Montezuma Quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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