By Jon Friedman
I have always been keenly interested in the quail in Southern Arizona; we are blessed with four distinct species of quail: Scaled, Gambel’s, Black-masked Bobwhite and Montezuma. Over the years, I have written articles that, at least in part, give good descriptions of these birds. Especially the Gambel’s, which is the most numerous and easiest to see in the Tucson area. In fact, I have written several long articles about Gambel’s Quail. However, the species that I find most interesting, for a variety of reasons, is the Montezuma Quail.
Their historical range was mostly concentrated in the ideal habitat of the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. Their northernmost range extended into southeastern Arizona and southern New Mexico. Today they are considered extremely endangered, in all the habitats they historically occupied. Experts tell me that without greater protection they may become extinct in the next decades. They are practically extinct in their native Mexico and throughout the Sierra Madres. Ornithologists in the United States have been captive breeding this species for decades on the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge along the Mexican border north of Sasabe. This has been a frustrating experience for all involved, as their numbers have not substantially increased over these years. Jim Levy, a Montezuma expert I rely on for up-to-the-minute information, claims that their favorite native grasses and bulbs have been virtually wiped out by overgrazing of cattle. In addition, even as captive breeding continued, so did the overgrazing of cattle in their habitat and range. As the cattle lobby is extremely strong and determined, the decline of Montezuma Quail is expected to continue. Trump’s border wall will have a very negative effect on wildlife migrations and movements. This is particularly important when it comes to considerations for endangered and threatened wildlife including jaguars, ocelots and other big cats, bears, and ground-dwelling birds like the Montezuma Quail. Instead of flying when it is surprised, the chunky little Montezuma Quail usually prefer to escape by hugging the ground and scuttling away through the grass. A border wall will cause further interruption or interference with their well-established range and habitat, with severe potential downsides for this precarious species. There are natural dangers present in their everyday life, such as extreme weather and predators. I hope this downward population decrease can ultimately be reversed, but in order for that to happen, greater protections and regulations need to be put in place. A ban on hunting these “gamebirds” should obviously be a first step!
The captive breeding stock initially came from two areas along the northern Mexican frontier, Magdalena and Benjamin Hill, both west of Nogales. Nowadays, even in these two last strongholds for breeding quail, they are extremely difficult to find. In Southern Arizona, they can still be found in some of the sky islands. I have discovered coveys of Montezumas in several of our border ranges, especially in the Huachuca Mountains, the Elgin area, and the contiguous San Rafael Valley. In addition to their relative rarity, hunters know they are extremely hard to flush. They freeze their position in the grasses they inhabit when danger lurks. One needs to practically step on the bird before it flushes. And, while it has distinct field marks and colors, its ability to camouflage itself amongst the grasses is rather amazing. One would think they would stand out in their environment but they know how to remain “invisible” to predators and other dangers.
Years ago, I was birding the Huachucas, walking a cow path in the grassy foothills and decided to take a break under the shade of a gigantic Emory Oak. I had to get off the cow path and traverse the terrain to get to the tree. Unbeknownst to me, there was a covey of about a dozen Montezuma Quail in the grasses between the tree and me. My heart almost jumped out of my chest when my foot nearly stepped on one of these birds and the whole covey took flight at once – with what seemed like a flurry of loud pops – like several small caliber guns being fired at once! They surprised me as no other birds had ever done before. The sounds of their wings taking flight really did seem like popguns or gunshots. I was temporarily stunned yet very happy to have had that experience!
Possessing strong mating and breeding instincts, these birds, when seen, are usually found in pairs or family groups. Grasslands and hill country with dense grasses and scattered oaks and pines are their preferred habitat. They are short, round and stocky in appearance. Average adult birds are between eight and nine and a half inches in length, generally shorter and lighter than most other quail species. More so than other species of quail, adult male Montezumas have the most amazing and intricately patterned bodies, short tails and round heads, and an especially striking facial pattern featuring bold black and white marks and swirls. Their facial patterns are so unique, reminiscent of a painted clown’s face. They used to be called Harlequin Quail for precisely this reason! Females are less flamboyant with a buff or brownish overall coloring that is still intricately patterned but lack the bold markings of the males. Both sexes have short, stout bluish bills and long, strong talons which enable them to dig for grubs and bulbs.
Their diet consists primarily of seeds, grains, acorns and nuts, small bulbs and tubers, and a variety of insects. They are very well adapted to desert conditions and, unlike most other birds, can derive needed moisture from their diet without having to rely on a daily water source. Unlike most other quail, the Montezuma Quail is more of a habitat specialist as they rely heavily on underground bulbs and tubers found in dense grass and open pine-oak scrub at mid-to-high elevation in their southwest desert range. They forage mostly on the ground but occasionally can be observed taking food from trees and bushes. They sift through plant litter and loose soil, using sideways kicking motions to expose seeds, grains and insects. They also tear pieces of leaves and flowers from living plants, and they jump up to grab hanging fruits and seeds. Their lower mandible is serrated to help cut through vegetative food materials. Because they can dig with their long and sharp talons for moist bulbs in dry months, they do not require free water access within their home range.
Monogamous pairs usually wait deep into the breeding season before beginning to nest. While breeding season for many other birds begins with spring rains, the Montezuma Quail wait until the end of monsoon period to insure enough food and favorable conditions for rearing a family. This is a shorter season than most, resulting in fewer broods and babies produced annually and those lower numbers play a part in their reduced overall population. Usually 6-14 eggs are laid in a shallow depression scraped into the desert floor, lined with leaves and grasses, amongst tufts of bunchgrasses. Both parents play full roles in nest building, incubating eggs, feeding babies, and all other child-rearing and parental duties. Incubation lasts about 25 days. The downy babies usually remain hidden in the grasses, are tended to, and remain with the family group until well into fall when they join up into larger family groups or coveys.
These birds are quite secretive and seldom seen for this reason. However, they are more often heard and can be observed by following their calls and songs. The male song is an eerie, melancholy, vibrant, and descending whistle vwirrrr. A primary call is a piping querp or a series of louder querp-quueeep sounds. Lower, softer calls include a whispery wep wep and pwew. Their assembly call is a low, whistled series of six to nine notes descending in pitch.
If you have never had the good fortune of observing one of our unique and secretive birds, a day trip to any of the above-mentioned locations should provide memorable rewards. I suspect that other, less birded areas, such as the Empire Mountains and other regional ranges, also contain small populations of Montezuma Quail. Go to the right habitat, scour the grasslands, walk the cow paths, and be patient: the thrill of observing these birds will remain with you forever!