Oreortyx – Mountain quail

The dramatic head plume sticks straight when alert or agitated (it's not a wifi router, guys)

Mountain quail is a species that evokes the image of the rugged, untamed wilderness of the mountainous regions of the western United States. This bird is the largest quail in North America and is known for its elusive nature, often heard through its distinctive call but much harder to spot due to its cryptic plumage, which blends seamlessly into its habitat.

Adapted to life at high altitudes, the mountain quail can inhabit elevations up to three thousand meters above sea level, thriving in coniferous forests, chaparral, and brushy foothills. Their strong legs are well-suited for scratching at the soil to uncover food, and their wings are powerful enough for short bursts of flight necessary to escape predators or navigate the steep terrain of their mountainous home.

The mountain quail is easily identified by the two striking plumes on its head, reminiscent of a topknot, which are actually elongated head feathers. These plumes are not only a distinctive feature for identification but are also indicative of the bird’s behavior. When the quail is at ease, the plumes lay back, but they stand erect when the bird is alert or active, acting as a visual exclamation mark that signals their level of arousal or attention to their surroundings.

This species exhibits monogamous breeding behavior, with pairs forming lasting bonds. During the breeding season, the female lays a clutch of 9 to 10 eggs in a well-concealed nest on the ground. The chicks are precocial, meaning they are relatively mature and mobile from the moment of hatching, which is essential for their survival in the wild, where they must be ready to follow their parents and evade potential threats.

The mountain quail’s diet consists primarily of plant matter, including seeds, leaves, and fruits, but they will also eat insects, especially during the breeding season when additional protein is vital for the growth of their young. These birds often forage in family groups, and outside of the breeding season, they may gather in coveys that offer protection in numbers.