Mearns Quail

Mearns Quail – An Upland Game Bird Profile

How and where to hunt the rarely seen Mearns Quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae).

The Mearns quail, also called the Montezuma quail or fool quail, is a beautiful southern species of quail that mostly occurs in Mexico, but also lives in the south-central United States. While rarely seen here, you will feel very lucky seeing one of these stunning birds in the wild. Here’s some more information about them if you’re looking to see one for yourself.

Description and Life History of the Mearns Quail

The Mearns quail is a small bird with a round body, short tail, round wings, and a small head. It is shorter, but heavier than the bobwhite quail. Unlike the bobwhite, however, male and female Mearns quail have very different colored feathers. Females are fairly plain looking: mottled cream feathers, light brown in color and light cream circles around the eyes. This is likely to help them blend in better while in the nest. Males, on the other hand, are beautifully adorned with bold contrasting feathers. Their breast feathers from their necks to their legs are a dark rich brown color. On each side of their body, the feathers are dark brown with numerous small white circles. In addition, their back feathers have a light brown and black barring pattern. They also have prominent circular lines and patches of black and white on their heads with a cinnamon crest.

Mearns quail start forming pair bonds in early summer but often delay breeding and nesting until later in the summer (AGFD 2018; NatureServe 2018). Nesting success is tied to summer rains that encourage a flush of new habitat cover and food which is ideal for hatching new chicks. Females usually scratch a nest into the ground, line it with grass, and then loosely weave a grass top to hide the nest from predators. They lay 10 to 12 eggs, which are incubated by both sexes for about 25 to 26 days (NatureServe 2018; National Audubon Society 2018). Males also defend their nesting territory when not sitting on the nest. Both parents may lead the newly hatched chicks to food sources, but the chicks can feed themselves. They can make short flights at about 10 days of age and reach their adult size by 10 to 11 weeks.

Pairs or small coveys of quail feed by scratching with their feet through the leaf litter on the ground. It is rare to find large coveys of Mearns quail, as opposed to the bobwhite’s large coveys. They dig up plant bulbs (especially wood sorrel, chufa, and nut-grasses) and forage on seeds, fruits and berries, juniper berries, acorns, pinyon pine nuts, and insects (including larvae, pupae, and adults) (National Audubon Society 2018).

Mearns quail are especially vulnerable to predation while nesting or roosting since both activities occur on the ground. They require tall brush or grass structure to hide from aerial predators (hawks, owls, etc.) especially. When confronted by a predator, Mearns quail are especially known for freezing in place and relying on their camouflage to blend into their surroundings. Only at the last minute will they flush from cover to escape. It has earned them the nickname of fool quail.

Range and Habitat of the Mearns Quail

The Mearns quail primarily resides in the mountains of central Mexico from north to south. In the United States, their range is limited to small parts of central and southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and western to central Texas (NatureServe 2018).

The Mearns quail requires open oak woodlands, mixed pine-oak forests at higher elevations, oak savannas with grass understories, and scrub-shrub habitats (NatureServe 2018; National Audubon Society 2018). They are often found on steep slopes and hillsides. Within their geographic range, late summer rains are critical for producing enough grass cover to sufficiently hide nesting birds and newly hatched chicks. These quail typically avoid low desert areas due to inadequate habitat and food.

Conservation Issues for the Mearns Quail

It is difficult to obtain accurate population estimates for the Mearns quail due to its tendency to freeze and blend in so well. The rugged nature of where it lives has a lot to do with it, too. The estimate for the global population hovers around 1.5 million birds with about 10 percent of that population occurring in the United States and the remainder occurring in Mexico (All About Birds 2018). Similar to the bobwhite quail, the species is likely suffering from habitat loss across its range. This is due to overgrazing and lack of moisture to support habitat or development. Without well-timed summer monsoonal rains to rejuvenate the vegetation, nesting success may be poor and lead to clutch failure. However, given the right habitat and well-timed precipitation, populations can be rebound quickly. Because of their habit of holding tight when confronted, populations could easily be over-harvested without regulated hunting seasons and limits.

Hunting Opportunities for the Mearns Quail

While you do not have many hunting opportunities in the United States, you can still get out after them in two states (Arizona and New Mexico). The Mearns quail is considered a game bird in Texas, but there is currently no open season for them.

State Season Season/Possession Limit
Arizona December 8-February 11 24, no more than 8 taken in one day
New Mexico November 15-February 15 10 quail

*Hunting seasons are subject to change. Please check with local and state agencies for accurate up to date information. 

Hunting the Mearns quail is both hard and easy at the same time. It is difficult because they are harder to find within the United States than many other quail species. You also have to contend with hot weather and rough country with steep hillsides to get in the right habitat. Finally, they are relatively small and fast birds, which means you need to have plenty of shooting experience under your belt to quickly get on them.

It is easy, however, in the sense that when you flush a bird from a covey, it’s not uncommon for several more to sit still until you get very close. If you hunt with pointing dogs, especially, they can find the birds and you can methodically pick off the quail that finally do flush. That is, if you’re good enough at snap shooting!

Sources:

All About Birds. 2018. Northern Bobwhite. Accessed at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Bobwhite/lifehistory

AGFD (Arizona Game and Fish Department). 2018. Quail. Accessed at: http://azgfd.gov/h_f/game_quail.shtml

NatureServe. 2018. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life. Accessed at http://explorer.natureserve.org

National Audubon Society. 2018. Guide to North American Birds. Accessed at: http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/northern-bobwhite

Last modified: December 2, 2018

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