Written by Jillian Butler (Lincoln University)
Edited by Michael Hudson, Lincoln University, September 2006
- Scientific name: Callipepla californica Gouldi (Bonaparte, 1850)
- Popular Common names: California Quail
- Other common names: California partridge, California valley quail
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves (the birds)
- Order: Galliformes (the Fowl, Quail, Guans, Currasows, Megapodes)
- Family: Phasianidae (the Chickens, Grouse, Partridges, Quail, Pheasants, etc.)
- New Zealand Status: naturalised
- Taxonomy sources: Heather & Robertson (2000).
The California quail averages around 25 centimetres in height and weighs around 180 grams (Heather & Robertson, 2000). Their key recognizable feature is the crest plume that sits on top of their head curving forward. The male quail has a bluish grey breast and a black throat outlined in white. The female is duller in colour and her plume is often shorter. The call of the quail is very loud and produced with three quick syllables; it is often joked that they are shouting to their mates, “Where are you?!” (Heather & Robertson, 2000).
Full natural and naturalised range
The California quail is indigenous along the west coast and western region of North America where it inhabits the drier coastal and valley regions. In the past it has been introduced to Argentina, Chile, Fiji, Hawaii, Tonga, Juan Fernandez Island, Norfolk Island, Australia, and New Zealand. Successful naturalization has only occurred in New Zealand, Chile, Hawaii, and Norfolk Island (Williams, 1966).
New Zealand range
The quail was introduced to both the North and South Island of New Zealand in the 1860’s. The main reason for their introduction was for the purpose of hunting (Heather & Robertson, 2000). The California quail is a very desirable game bird and is annually harvested in New Zealand (Williams, 1966). In the late 1940’s there were concerns of a declining quail population. Because of their desirability they have been looked after and today are widespread throughout New Zealand; with even a few on the Chatham Islands (Williams, 1966). The California quail are rarely found on the west coast and in the deep south of the South Island.
California quail have done very well in the Canterbury region and can be found throughout (Heather & Robertson, 2000). However they are not found in areas of extensive urban activity or native forests (Williams, 1966).
Natural History in Canterbury
The California quails have a very large home range covering variable habitat. Estimates of the radius of their home range is approximately 1.5 kilometres (Harrison, 1989). California quail tend to be found in areas of open country mixed with patches of low, dense scrub or around riverbeds lined with gorse (Ulex europaeus) and willows (Salex spp.) (Williams, 1966). Areas that have been disturbed by people, particularly farmland areas lined with hedgerows, provide a mix of habitat California quail usually like (Heather & Robertson, 2000).
California quails are very generalist birds (Caithness, Fitzgerald & Jansen, 1989); they are not picky when it comes to a habitat for survival. So long as there are some open areas with vegetation nearby, the birds are happy. However, there are a few requirements such as a supply of water and a patch of dirt or sand to dust themselves in (Ogle & Caithness, 1989). For a large portion of the year, quails hang out in large groups called coveys. These coveys feed in the early morning and early evening. For most of the day the birds are preening their feathers, sleeping and bathing (Williams, 1966). During this time they generally stay in the same place; preferably an area of bare ground of sand or dirt underneath dense scrub for protection.
Sometime around late August the California quail begin to form into pairs. During this time the coveys tend to break up until reforming at the end of mating season. The pairs formed are by no means permanent. Often there are displays of aggression between males over breeding females (Williams, 1966). Copulation is a brief mounting of the male upon the female; once completed both carry on as before. There is no noticeable display associated with mating. Usually the nest site is built by the female within the territory of the covey where it is defended by the male. The nest is often made from straw, grass, and feathers and is always at ground level where there is cover overhead (Williams, 1966). Egg laying and incubation begin by October. The average clutch size for the California quail is about thirteen eggs. Incubation is carried out by the female for an average of 22 days (Williams, 1966). December is generally the month when hatching and dispersal take place. This outline of the typical breeding cycle can vary with changes in environmental conditions; for example, weather (Williams, 1966).
The diet of the California quails is very variable. They eat everything from invertebrates to seeds and plant vegetation (Caithness et al., 1989). Primarily preferring the vegetation of broad leaf plants (Williams, 1966) the diet includes leaves flowers and also seed heads and pods (Caithness et al., 1989). Dietary changes occur throughout the year but are not dependent on what is most abundant. From January through March their diet is dominated by seeds. From late autumn to mid spring their diet consists mostly of green vegetation. From October through December it is breeding season and they feed on anything they can while they are busy nesting, incubating, and raising chicks (Caithness et al., 1989). Insects compose only about 6% of their total diet. The plant species that dominate most of their diet are lotus (Lotus spp.), sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosa), broom (Cytisus scoparius), and white clover (Trifolium repens). Very few of New Zealand native plants are included in the quail’s diet and none are eaten in any significant quantity (Caithness et al., 1989).
Quails are fairly regular in their daily routines. In the early morning, often signalled by a particular light intensity, the quails come down from their roost and gather in intensively feeding coveys (Williams, 1966). Coveys often consist of anywhere from 25 to more than 50 birds. After about fifteen minutes they split into smaller family groups and wander off to an area of denser vegetation for cover. Here they spend the rest of their day preening, bathing (or dust-bathing), sleeping, and casually eating. Once again signalled by light intensity, the quails reform their coveys in the late afternoon for another intensive feeding session. About fifteen minutes after sunset they make their way back to their roost (Williams, 1966). This behaviour repeats daily until breeding season begins. When leaving or returning to their roost or nest sites, quails tend to be very secretive. Hence very little is known about the location of these sites, or what they do there.
There are several predators of quail in New Zealand. These include stoats (Mustela erminea), ferrets (Mustela putorius), weasels (Mustela nivalis), cats (Felis silvestris catus), hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus), harrier hawks (Circus approximans), ship rats (Rattus rattus), and humans (Homo sapiens) (Ogle & Caithness, 1989; Williams, 1966). Predation occurs as both egg loss as well as live birds being hunted. Yet even with these threats the population is not suffering from a constant decline (Williams, 1966).
How to find the California Quail
California quails are fairly easy to spot because of their behaviour. Extremely sedentary birds with the daily routine of coming down from their roost, 15 minutes before sunrise, to feed with their covey (Williams, 1966) makes encountering one even easier. The most common quail roosting sites are in the introduced pine trees (Pinus spp.) and trees with thick vegetation and horizontal branches. During most of the day they can be found hanging around in dirt patches underneath hedgerows or amongst the scrub alongside riverbeds (Williams, 1966). Quite often they are found around gorse because it provides the dense overhead cover with patches of bare dirt underneath (Williams & Karl, 2002).
Abundance and Conservation Status
- New Zealand: abundant
- Canterbury: abundant
California quails are prevalent throughout New Zealand and are often subject to open hunting seasons. Because of their desirability as food these birds have been monitored since their introduction in an attempt to produce a sustainable harvest (Williams, 1966). If required, restrictions are put on the hunting season but for the most part quails are abundant. With the increasing efforts to control introduced mammal populations the quails have suffered many accidental deaths (Williams, 1966). It is not uncommon for them to be caught in a trap or poisoned by bait laid out for rabbits and others. However, because many of the introduced mammals are predators of quail, the overall effect of these efforts can actually benefit them; or at least helps to maintain a stable population.
Significance for people
The modern uses of California quail are for hunting, food and pet trade (Williams, 1966). Quail is a very tasty bird and is an extremely popular game bird. Hunters have been bringing quails home for many years and for some families it has become a tradition. There is a significant demand for California quail meat; it is also served as a main dish in many restaurants. Another, although less common use of the California quail, is its role as a pet. Often people keep quails so they can be bred for the pet trade.
California quails are generalists, making them an easy bird to harvest and maintain (Williams, 1966). Their habits, ecology, and uses combine to make them an appealing bird with benefits primarily to the hunting fraternity.
Caithness, T.A., Fitzgerald, A.E., Jansen, P. (1989). The foods of California Quail in Kaingaroa State Forest. Science and Research Series. V. 8, 1–9.
Harrison, M. (1989). A survey of California Quail in Kaingaroa State Forest. Science and Research Series. V. 9, 1–5.
Heather, B., Robertson, H. (2000). Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Viking.
Ogle, C.C., Caithness, T.A. (1989). A Method for Assessing Upland Game Habitat of California Quail in Central Otago. Science and Research Series. V.10, 1–7.
Williams, G.R. (1966). A Study of Californian Quail in New Zealand with Particular Reference to Population Ecology. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Lincoln University, Lincoln, New Zealand.
Williams, P.A., Karl, B.J. (2002). Birds and small mammals in kanuka (Kunzea ericoides) and gorse (Ulex europaeus) scrub and the resulting seed rain and seedling dynamics. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 26(1), 31–41.