In March 1806, on the return journey up the Columbia River, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition shot a previously un-described species of quail near Beacon Rock, 10 miles east of today’s Portland. Lewis wrote “last evening Reuben Fields killed a bird of the quail kind.. it is rather larger than the quail or partridge as they are called in Virginia….this is a most beautiful bird.” A specimen of this bird was subsequently given to the famous illustrator, Charles Willson Peale, and included in a series of sketches of wildlife encountered by the expedition. That illustration is currently kept by the American Philosophical Society, the first learned society in North America and founded by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1743. Their web-site explains that they pursue equally “all philosophical Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things….”. This most beautiful bird was eventually described taxonomically as Oreortyx pictus (oreo = Greek for mountain and pict = Latin for painted) or Mountain quail in 1826 by the great northwest naturalist, David Douglas. He collected a pair of Mountain quail near Elkton but subsequently lost the specimens with “ a multitude of treasures botanical and zoological “ while attempting to cross the raging torrents of the Willamette River.
I have held, within my hands, hundreds of wild Mountain quail and they are indeed an astonishingly beautiful bird. The nape, mantle and rump feathers are a powdery gray-blue graduating to dark greenish-brown secondary and primary wing feathers. The most striking features of their plumage are their russet-brown flanks interrupted by bold white vertical stripes and the long erect, black top-knot of twin feathers that arises from their foreheads. The bold white, slightly curving stripes remind me of the elegant sweeping strokes of a calligraphy brush and the top-knot of feudal samurai horseman with their helmeted flags.
I studied Mountain quail from 1995-2002 as a graduate student and researcher at Oregon State University. They are a highly private species; secretive and shy, yet found in many diverse and rugged landscapes in the Great Basin and Pacific Coast. Hikers wandering on high rocky, ridge trails in the Sierras may encounter small coveys of Mountain quail. I have flushed them in steep brushy side-draws in deep canyons of the Snake River, in nearly impenetrable Manzanita chaparral and in open Oregon white oak forests in southwestern Oregon, and in young Douglas fir forests of the Coast and Cascade ranges. They assemble in large coveys during dry summer months near watering places in the sage dominated communities of the high deserts of Nevada and California. Sometimes they appear (many miles from their nearest known populations) in unexpected places such as deep in the Owyhee Canyon, in scattered ravines of the Trout Mountains or foraging in a backyard feeder in downtown Lakeview. Mountain quail are in the Coast Range and foothills and even valleys along the edges of the Willamette Valley. Someone remarked that they found one staring into a lower ground basement window of Strand Agriculture Hall on OSU’s campus. They were a mystery bird with big gaps in their life history and much speculation in the literature about their habits. That, in part, was my attraction to them. They also have a long narrative history with Oregon, beginning with Lewis’s descriptions near Beacon Rock, continuing through Douglas lamenting the loss of his specimens, and through many other references from many distinguished 19th and 20th century naturalists in Oregon. Their numbers have fallen dramatically in Idaho, Nevada and parts of eastern Oregon. Some believe they should be listed as “endangered” in parts of their range.
Our work on Mountain quail illuminated some incredible stories. In most avian species, males generally play no parental role or a very passive one. However, Mountain quail are true paragons of shared parenthood. Females lay two simultaneous clutches (in different nests) and the male will incubate one clutch without assistance and the female the other. Once the chicks are hatched the male shepherds and protects his brood and the female does the same, with the entire family coming together a week or so after hatching. They are ground-nesters. I found nests tucked neatly between tall grass clumps, under down logs, between rock crevices and deep inside root wads. Their plumage provides nearly perfect cryptic camouflage that blends into the background around the nest. The parents are dedicated nest-sitters. Sometimes you must gently poke them with a forefinger to get them to leave their nest while you count their eggs. They hover nearby and always return after you leave. I have observed nests that were likely depredated by a snake who consumed all but one egg and the parent faithfully completed incubation of that single egg. Another remarkable consequence of dual nests is that the female produces up to 27 eggs over one nesting period, a prodigious accomplishment (perhaps unparalleled) in the avian world. Mountain quail have great vocals…. from the throaty warbling and chirping assembly calls between covey members to the loud, sharp yelps of territorial males. In confined spaces they exude a slight earthy odor that one associates with chickens (they are from the Order Galliformes or fowl-like birds). I love their beauty, unique behaviors, and how you can feel their warmth through their gorgeous plumage when you hold one. My brief time spent with Mountain quail offers an example of how we are surrounded by many other life histories aside from our own and that occasionally we can read a few sketchy pages in the stories of other species and further illuminate “…..the Nature of Things…”.