Species Fact Sheet
Mountain quail
Oreortyx pictus
Photo - Mountain Quail (USFWS). Map not available

STATUS: Species of Concern

The mountain quail was petitioned for listing in 2000. A 90-day finding, in 2003, concluded that a listing was not warranted.

Historical Status and Current Trends

Current distribution of mountain quail is restricted to western North America from southern British Columbia to Baja Mexico and includes the states of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, and California. The mountain quail may be found in every Oregon county.  During the mid-20th century, the distribution and abundance of mountain quail east of the Cascade range in Oregon showed significant declines.  However, increases have been occurring since the mid-1990s, particularly in the John Day River drainage.  Recent improvement in riparian areas may be responsible for supporting these population increases.  Mountain quail west of the Cascades remain abundant and are legally hunted. 

Habitat

Mountain quail are secretive birds that inhabit a diverse range of habitats, but typically occupy dense brushy slopes in foothills and mixed conifer forests.  Water can be a serious limiting factor for mountain quail in eastern Oregon, as these populations tend to focus around riparian areas.  They also do well in brushy thickets resulting from fires or clear-cuts. 

Life History

Mountain quail are the largest of six North American quail, averaging nine ounces in weight.  They are easily distinguished by the two long, thin head plumes and by the chestnut-colored sides boldly barred with white.  The male and female are monomorphic (similar in appearance) but females tend to be duller and have a shorter plume. 

Mountain quail are ground-dwelling birds that feed primarily on seeds, succulent greens, flowers, berries, and insects.  Adult females, and chicks during the first weeks of life, consume more insects than males.  Mountain quail drink a lot of water so a year-round water source is essential.

Mountain quail are known for their seasonal movements between breeding and wintering areas.  The quail typically breed at high elevations during spring and summer and avoid snow cover by migrating to lower elevations in groups called coveys.  Elevations can range from 700 to more than 3,000 meters (2,300 to 9,842 feet).  Mountain quail are monogamous, and both parents assist in incubation and raising of the young.  Nests are often highly concealed by an overhead cover of shrubs, inside bunchgrasses, under downed logs, and even under rocks.  Females lay large clutches of 10 to 12 eggs. 

Incubation period is generally considered to be 24 to 25 days.  Peak hatch in Oregon and Idaho is late June and early July.  The chicks are precocial, which means they leave the nest with their parents, shortly after hatching. 

Mountain quail coveys are generally small, consisting of 10 or fewer birds.  Small covey size coupled with the secretive nature of mountain quail, their reluctance to stray far from dense cover, and the often remote areas they inhabit, make it difficult for biologists to estimate their abundance. 

Accipiters, particularly Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, and the northern goshawk are major predators of adult and young mountain quail.  Other known predators include the great horned owl, coyote, bobcat, gray fox, weasels, and rattlesnakes.  Mountain quail mortality has also been documented during extreme winter weather when snow accumulation is too deep or persists for too long.

Reasons for Decline

The success of the mountain quail is tied to sufficient habitat, which expands in cooler and more arid climate.  Human-caused changes in plant composition have impacted the mountain quail as much as anything.  Large population declines have occurred in eastern Oregon due to livestock grazing, exclusion of fire, weed invasion, and water extraction.  Riparian habitats have been lost, fragmented, or altered.

Conservation Measures

In March, 2000, conservation groups filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking endangered species status for the northeastern populations of mountain quail.  The petitioners felt that the quail in these areas constituted a distinct population segment (DPS), meaning they had become isolated from other populations.  After careful review of the petition and its supporting documentation, the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that mountain quail in this area were not isolated and could not be considered for federal protection independent of the entire mountain quail population.  However, the Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned about the population levels in eastern Oregon and will continue to monitor and evaluate the status of the species throughout its entire range. 

Due to impacts from human-caused changes in plant composition, it is important to protect existing shrub habitat and riparian areas is important, especially where the birds already exist.  Development of springs by fencing and creating small reservoirs in areas of good quail cover will help to increase population numbers.  Bird guzzlers can be installed in areas where water is a limiting factor during summer and fall months.

ODFW, Oregon State University, and the U.S. Forest Service are interested in any observations of mountain quail observed east of the Cascade Mountains. Include date, time, location, and number of birds. Observations can be reported to Dave Budeau, ODFW, 3406 Cherry Avenue NE, Salem, OR 97303 or david.a.budeau@state.or.us

References and Links

Federal Register Notice: Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; 90-day finding for a Petition to List the Mountain Quail as Threatened or Endangered.