California Quail

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Scientific name: Callipepla californica

Other common names: California Valley Quail; Valley Quail; Topknot Quail

The basics:
The state bird of California, the handsome California Quail is a successful ground-nesting upland game bird of western North America. These dapper birds catch the attention because of their attractive forward-drooping crest and their willingness to visit suburban and even urban gardens in search of treats dropped under bird feeders. They are social birds that form small flocks or “coveys” that may dust bathe, forage, and otherwise entertain admirers. With the proper licenses, California Quail may be raised for hunting or for ornamental birds, so check with your local wildlife office to see what the requirements will be for owning these beautiful birds. They are hardy birds, as proven by the fact that they have been accidentally introduced to Argentina and Chile in South America, and Australia and New Zealand on the opposite side of the globe.

There are two species of western quail with forward-drooping teardrop shaped crests, California Quail, and its close relative, Gambel's Quail. Both adult males have black crests and similar faces with chestnut crowns, white “eyebrows,” and black throats. However, you will easily notice the black belly patch on Gambel's, as opposed to the chestnut belly patch on California. Females look like a faded version of their mates, with brown topknots and not nearly as well patterned faces. Color isn't always a great field mark, because some of the California Quail subspecies may resemble the Gambel's in color. However, you can be confident of your identification because California Quail always have scaled feathers on their underparts. Gambel's Quail has streaked markings instead.

Average weight:
170 - 198 grams (6 - 7 oz.)

5 - 7 years

While the California Quail is considered a hardy bird, they are at risk for various poultry diseases, especially if bred in large numbers. You should consult with a knowledgeable veterinarian, since vaccinations and other treatments can prevent a number of problems. Diseases that impact them include Quail Bronchitis, Ulcerative Enteritis, Quail Pox, and Coccidiosis, as well as various worms that may attack any ground-nesting species.

Behavior / temperament:
If you have previous experience with Old World Quail, you may be pleasantly surprised at the New World Quail's ability to form coveys, which allows you to have flocks that contain more than one adult male. However, any adult male quail is capable of being aggressive in breeding season, so make sure your California Quail have plenty of room, perches, cover, and feeders for all. It is advisable to introduce new birds during the winter months, when the coveys would naturally form in the wild.

Housing / diet:
How you house your California Quail depends on their purpose. Birds raised for meat, eggs, or exhibition can certainly be housed in cages in a well-ventilated birdroom. Egg producers can control the light to create artificially long days, which causes the female to lay many more eggs than she would normally do. They may not be as irascible toward each other as the Old World quail, but you should still provide them with a reasonable amount of space, and do not attempt to house multiple males together in small cages. They are more nervous than Bobwhites if confined, so don't try to hold them in cages that are too small.

Many California Quail today are being raised for reintroduction or for hunting programs. These birds will need special pens, with plenty of space and cover, to allow them to acclimate to the weather and to develop their powers of flight. Quail are tasty birds, so they also need to be protected from a large number of predators, from snakes to raccoons to various hawks and eagles. It is strongly recommended that you work with a more advanced hobbyist or even a professional breeder to make sure that you are providing a good habitat for your birds. If you free range your birds, learn how from an expert, or else you may just be putting out a food table for your local raptors.

California Quail are remarkably easy to feed as long as you make sure that these ground-feeding birds have easy access to food and waterers on the floor. The backbone of the diet is usually a non-medicated commercial gamebird starter, which the birds can eat their entire lives, not just as babies. Don't ever consider feeding them on starter crumbles meant for chickens, since the balance of medications, calcium, and protein in chicken feed is all wrong for these quail. However, this species has also been successfully maintained on unmedicated turkey crumbles, if for some reason you don't have the gamebird starter. You can easily supplement the diet with a chopped salad of apples, greens, carrot, broccoli florets, and dry and sprouted seed such as millet or parakeet mix. You may offer them some tiny mealworms or other small insects as well. They should have access to a grit that includes crushed oyster shell or another form of calcium.

Written by Elaine Radford

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