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Mountain Quail Life History



Mountain Quail thrive in a great variety of habitat types, both arid and wet, though they seldom frequent the grassland or open-country habitats occupied by other western species such as Gambel’s or California Quail. Their habitats typically have well-developed or dense understories. At lower elevations, Mountain Quail inhabit scrub habitats of the Mojave Desert, particularly during winter, when higher elevations have scarce food and heavy snow. In California, they also use chaparral. During summer, they are birds of coniferous and mixed woodlands, where they favor scrubby openings with sagebrush and aspen. Often, they move into burned or logged areas, where second-growth shrubs are abundant. They also use brushy habitats along streams and rivers. In coastal and shrubsteppe regions, Mountain Quail frequent thickets that include plants such as willow, manzanita, chamise (greasewood), blue elderberry, California lilac (soapbush), big sagebrush, bitterbrush, and buckthorn species such as deer brush.

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Mountain Quail eat mostly plants, along with small amounts of insects. Like other quail, they forage largely on the ground, walking slowly in search of seeds and insects, sometimes scratching with their feet to uncover food in leaf litter or under small stones, even digging up small plant bulbs with their feet and bill. They also leap up or climb into trees or shrubs to pick leaves or fruit. Most of their foraging is done within or very near the safety of low vegetation. In summer, young birds and females tend to eat more animal matter, such as beetles and ants. Mountain Quail diet varies through the course of the year but includes small fruits such as manzanita and poison ivy, acorns, pine nuts, mushrooms, grass seeds, and flowers and seeds of many smaller plants such as chickweed, tarweed, clover, and lupine.

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Nest Placement


The male makes a depression in vegetation on the ground, usually at the base of a sapling or shrub within dense vegetation on a hillside.

Nest Description

Nests are well-formed scrapes, lined by the female with grasses or pine needles from the vicinity of the nest. Very few nests have been measured. Rough dimensions are 5.9 inches across and 8 inches tall, with interior cup 1.4 inches across and 3 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:9-15 eggs
Egg Length:1.3-1.5 in (3.22-3.7 cm)
Egg Width:1.0-1.1 in (2.46-2.67 cm)
Incubation Period:24-25 days
Egg Description:

Creamy, buffy, or pinkish, without speckles.

Condition at Hatching:Downy and able to follow mother.
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Ground Forager

Mountain Quail are difficult to observe in the wild, where they are most often seen feeding quietly or taking grit near roads or trails. Many aspects of their breeding biology have yet to be fully described, but studies with captive Mountain Quail have documented courtship feeding, in which the male presents the female with food, bowing to her, with his flank and tail feathers fanned out. A courting male might also walk back and forth in front of a female, holding out the wings, cocking and fanning the tail, and sometimes flaring the feathers of the neck and flanks. Females, as well as males, sometimes crouch in the presence of a potential mate, similar to the position assumed by a subordinate quail in a covey toward a dominant quail. Another display, whose purpose is unknown, involves an adult Mountain Quail walking with exaggerated, high-stepping gait and alternately bowing and rearing backward, with bill nearly touching the ground. As with other quail species, male Mountain chase and peck at rivals during the spring, and females sometimes do the same to other females. In captivity, both sexes perform a display, probably courtship, that involves picking up a piece of grass or other vegetation in the bill, parading slowly, then tossing it quickly over the back. Females incubate the eggs and remain with chicks until fledging, and some males apparently remain with broods as well, as observers report seeing two adults with juveniles on many occasions.

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Restricted Range

According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Mountain Quail populations were stable or slightly declining overall from 1966 to 2015. However, during the decade 2005–2015, the survey estimated a sharp decline of 4.3% per year, indicating a 35% cumulative drop in just that decade. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 260,000 and rates the species a 14 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Mountain Quail is on the Yellow Watch List for species with restricted range. These species, mostly from aridlands and grasslands, require constant care and long-term assessment from conservation groups, as they could be in danger of further decline. Loss of habitat to grazing, agriculture, and development is the chief known conservation challenge for Mountain Quail.

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Gutiérrez, R. J. and David J. Delehanty. (1999). Mountain Quail (Oreortyx pictus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

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

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