California quail are endearing birds who seem not to know where they are as they cluck "Chicago, Chicago" while wandering amidst shrub lands of California valleys. The male quail has a curly-q on his head. The female quail prefers to blend into the scenery.
In the spring, quail live together as pairs, but at other times of the year, they group into coveys of parents and child birds. When the covey stops to eat seeds on the ground, one bird acts as a sentinel to alert the group to any danger. Birdwatchers such as myself often first spot the sentinel, maybe a few feet perched off the ground, and then we are able to find the covey.
Each quail group is cohesive in its mealtime habits. The covey has breakfast and dinner at the same places and same times, 30 minutes after sunrise and 30 minutes before sunset, each day. These timekeeping birds are vegetarians, eating seeds and other plant material. In their habit of visiting regular feeding places, quail are much like Canada geese. In the photo we took above of two quail heading to their feeding area, it was indeed a bit before sunset.
California quail make scrape nests on the ground or platform nests in a fork of a tree or thicket about 10 feet high. There are between 12 and 16 eggs.
California quail live in four main habitats: open forest with space between trees; mountains and wooded canyons; scrub vegetation with thorns; and bushes, shrubs, and thickets (small trees closely packed). They have adapted fairly well to close contact with us, and sometimes venture into backyards. However, their habit of living close to the ground makes them susceptible to predators.
I have most often seen California quail in areas of scrub vegetation in the early morning or late afternoon. Usually it is easiest to spot the sentinel first and then scan the area for his watched-over covey. Sometimes I hear the "Chicago" call before even spotting the sentinel.
If you are a San Francisco Bay Area resident, you may be interested in my local sightings. I have observed quail in Shadow Cliffs Regional Park in Pleasanton, Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, various city walking paths in Walnut Creek, and on a sidewalk in Rossmoor in Lafayette. In the Central Coast of California, I saw California quail in the Elfin Forest in Los Osos.
To me, quail are companionable extroverts: in nature, in protective flocks and in literature, in the book That Quail, Robert by Margaret Stanger. The book tells the true story of a female bird misidentified as Robert that hatched from an abandoned egg and became a member of a Cape Cod family. My fifth grade teacher read this story aloud to us, and ever since, I had wanted to see a real-life quail.
In German folklore, farmers would keep quail as protection against lightning. The only theory I can come up with about this connection is that quail are low to the ground!
The state bird of California is the California quail. This site also features the California state reptile, the desert tortoise.