This spring there seemed to be fewer California Quail (Lophortyx californicus) at Big Creek Reserve than in years past. Just a few years ago, there would be up to fifty or sixty birds eating seeds in the yard. There are always more birds in the fall and winter, and they make up one big family. There are roosters and hens, but they have not yet chosen mates for having babies. As the spring approaches, the birds begin to get edgy, and the roosters fight over the hens. But the hens chose the mates, and sometimes they chose the male who has lost the fight with a bigger rooster. The bigger rooster walks away, very upset that he lost the girl after all.
It appears that the hen is very much in charge with the rooster as they begin to mate. The hen always walks in the front, and eats without a care for any danger. All the time, the rooster is keeping watch for predators. The rooster can lose weight during this time, as he doesn’t eat very much while he stands guard.
Throughout the spring, there seems to be fewer birds as they stay close to their nests, waiting for their eggs to hatch. As the chicks become old enough to venture away from the nest, the parents bring them to the same area where they know there is food. Sometimes this is risky as there are lots of other animals and larger birds who would love to have Quail chick for lunch. It appears that the hen also sets down the rules for the chicks. When they come to eat, the hen makes all the chicks sit in one area where she can keep track of them. If anyone tries to move, or gets out of line, the hen pecks them on the head. The hen also protects the chicks when necessary, and can be very sneaky and quick to attack other birds that get too close.
It often happens that a family will lose one or both parents. We have observed single parents who get together to raise their chicks as one family. Families will also adopt orphan chicks as their own. This spring, we observed a single rooster who never found a mate. Another hen had chicks, but lost her mate. These two birds got together with another family to raise their chicks. In fact, in one area, we observed one large family with over twenty chicks and two sets of parents.
For almost eight years, we observed both roosters and hens with a white patch on their chest, similar to a “bib”. We have seen them come to feed year after year. One hen with a bib brought eight chicks to feed, six of them had the same bib marking. Unfortunately, one hen and one rooster with the bib marking were killed when they flew into a window. These two birds are preserved in the museum at UC Berkeley. Hopefully, someday, a scientist will study the origin and genetics of this marking.
A few scientific facts:
– there are 174 species of this family (Phasianidae) of bird around the world
– the first illustration of a quail was by Jean Francois Galaup de la Perouse, who visited
A wonderful reference:
The California Quail by A. Starker Leopold, published in 1977 by
By Feynner Arias and Terry Hallock