California Quail After a Snowstorm

April 29, 2022




Photographer: Ray Boren

Summary Author: Ray Boren

One can anthropomorphically imagine what the birds in this flock, or covey, of California quail might be thinking: Wasn’t it spring yesterday? Where did all this snow come from? How are we going to scratch and forage for seeds and other edibles as we usually do here a few times every day? The weather indeed had been spring-like, but the transition from winter into spring can be fickle. More than a foot (30.5 centimeters) of snow fell the day I took these portraits, on March 6, 2022, while furtively peering out a sliding door into my backyard in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The plump California quail (Callipepla californica) is a species known for its curved head-top plumes. The mostly gray males have strong face markings, with black-to-gray shaded faces and bibs, as well as a white border stripe on the neck and brow. Females are lighter overall, brown to gray, and without bold face designs. Both genders have white to light-brown scale-like patterns on their bellies. The birds’ traditional range is in brushy terrain from Baja California to the American Northwest, and the species was designated California’s official state bird in 1931. A cadenced warning call, often raised by a male sentry perched higher than quail down on the ground, has been described as sounding like “Chi-ca-go,” which, of course, is not in California. 

So, what are these West Coast natives doing in Utah? According to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, California quail — a game bird often called valley quail in California itself — were introduced to the Salt Lake City area in 1869 by a military officer who released 14 pair at nearby Fort Douglas. They thrived in the low foothills. Other releases have been made in the past 150-plus years. Though often habituated to humans, the quail remain cautious. When frightened or startled, the birds quickly flush and fly short distances toward safety.

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