The Montezuma Quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae) is possibly the least known quail in Texas, thanks to its limited distribution. Texas populations of this species are found in only two ecoregions of the state, the Trans-Pecos and Edwards Plateau, yet their numbers are still not abundant when compared to the other quail species. The Montezuma quail goes by many names including, Mearns’ quail, crazy quail, harlequin quail, black quail, painted quail, and fool’s quail.
There is currently no open season for Montezuma quail in Texas, however the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department classifies them as game birds because they are hunted in other states. Because they are not currently hunted in Texas, they do not have substantial economic importance compared to other species. However, a diversity of game bird species is a good indicator of ecosystem health and this species attraction by bird watchers offers a boost to regional tourism.
There are four main vocalizations from Montezuma quail that can be recognized. A soft cry can be heard from flushing coveys, presumably to confuse predators. An assembly call is used by males and females to regroup after being scattered. Males emit a specific call during the breeding season in search of a mate. This call is high pitched and described as a “buzz-shrill” sound. A fourth commonly heard sound that the Montezuma quail makes is a clucking noise made by feeding coveys.
Montezuma quail are sexually dimorphic, which means the males and females look different. The males feature a black and white face mask while the contour feathers on the breast, flanks, and sides are dark-gray colored with white spots. The females are smaller and instead of black and white faces, have patterns in different shades of brown. Both the male and female have bluish beaks, short tails, large feet for digging in search of underground food sources, and are sometimes described as “bug-eyed.”
Nesting and Incubation
Much like other quail species, Montezuma coveys break up and prepare to find a mate between February and March. Nesting dates are dependent on spring-summer rainfall patterns and thus may vary between regions (earlier in Edwards Plateau vs. later in the Trans-Pecos). Breeding takes place after the summer rains and a lack of adequate rainfall over time has led to decreased numbers of Montezuma quail in Texas.
Montezuma quail prefer to build nests under bunchgrasses or rock outcrops. Similar to bobwhite nests, they also build a grass dome roof. The size of the clutch is usually around 11 eggs per nest, although extremes of 6 to 16 eggs are possible. The eggs are described as white in color and are somewhat glossy. The incubation period is 24 to 26 days, and while the female seems to play the main role in incubation the male has also been reported to assist. Under good conditions, a second clutch may be possible. Juveniles of both sexes more or less resemble the female adult until around 16 weeks of age. It should be noted that Montezuma quail have stronger inclinations to survive as a covey during incubation than other species. Harsh winters and a decrease in available foods lead this quail to depend on a group survival mentality. Montezuma are prone to “freeze” in place in order to deter predators in an attempt at blending in to their environment. At the last minute they will then flush or run away.
Habitat and Diet
The water and food needs of the Montezuma quail are met through a diet that consists mainly of sedge tubers and rhizomes, wild onions, and underground wood sorrel bulbs. Other foods that can be included in their diet include acorns, insects, and various seeds. Ants, grasshoppers and beetles also provide for a large portion of their diet. Small cone shaped holes, surrounded by the remains of underground food sources such as wood sorrel bulbs, can indicate the presence of Montezuma quail and are thus a convenient means of determining what lands are being utilized by these quail (Albers). Surface water is not necessary if there is sufficient water content in their food (Sullivan).
In general, they seem to prefer mountainous terrain that is both wooded and includes important cover species, such as bunch grasses, as well as plant species (wood sorrel and flat sedges for food, little bluestem and sideoats grama for cover) that meet their dietary needs. The type of habitat they are most commonly associated with are pine-oak woodlands.
Predation and Other Mortality Factors
Unlike other states where Montezuma quail are more prevalent, in Texas hunting is not a mortality factor for Montezuma quail. Data on yearly survival rates of Montezuma quail in Texas is limited. What is known is that loss of herbaceous cover due to freezes, fires, overgrazing, and drought can lead to more avian predation by raptors because camouflage and crouching in cover are their main means of defense. Bad weather (hard freezes), car collisions, and predation can also be taken into consideration. Various raptors, including Cooper’s hawks, northern goshawks, northern harriers, as well as canine predators, such as coyotes, will target Montezuma quail. Much like other quail species in Texas, carnivores, including skunks and raccoons, or snakes may take advantage of the eggs if the nest is found (Greer).
Conservation and Management
Due to its small range in Texas, the Montezuma quail does not get nearly as much conservation and management attention as more popular species. However, some practices used to benefit other quail species or game animals, such as controlled burns and reduced livestock grazing, are likely to benefit Montezuma quail as well. Overgrazing reduces vital tall- grass cover. One study indicated that Montezuma quail will not live in an area where 40-50% or more of the tall-grass cover is removed (Albers). Another problem is the reduction in wildfires. Wildfires maintain grass cover thus, without fire woody plants out-compete grasses.
Although they do not provide the economic benefits in Texas associated with hunted species, there are benefits for managing Montezuma quail. As noted earlier, the presence of these quail can provide valuable insight into the health of the ecosystem. There is also the potential for Montezuma quail to provide economic benefits that are unassociated with hunting. The Montezuma quail could have potential to be managed as an ecotourism attraction in some areas of its distribution in Texas. Another important conservation issue that needs to be given more attention in Texas is a more in-depth study of the life history, habitat preferences and population dynamics to aid in the reintroduction of this species in areas of its former distribution.
Dr. Dale Rollins and the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch, Roby, Texas
Harveson, Louis A., Ty H. Allen, Froylan Hernandez, Dave A. Holdermann, James M. Mueller, and M. Shawn Whitley. 2007. Montezuma Quail Ecology and Life History. Pages 23-39 in Leonard A. Brennan, editor, Texas Quails: Ecology and Management. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
Greer, P. 2002. “Cyrtonyx montezumae” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed December 02, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Cyrtonyx_montezumae/
Sullivan, Janet. 1994. Cyrtonyx montezumae. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [2013, December 3].
Harveson, Louis A., Ty H. Allen, Froylan Hernández, Dave A. Holdermann, James M. Mueller, and M. Shawn Whitley. “Montezuma Quail Ecology and Life History.” Texas Quails. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007. 23-39. Print.
Albers, Randy P., and Frederick R. Gehlbach. “Choices of Feeding Habitat by Relict Montezuma Quail in Central Texas.” Wilson Bulletin Vol. 102.No. 2 Jun., 1990. 300-308. JSTOR. Web. 3 Dec 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4162867>.
Map: Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, D. J. Ziolkowski, Jr., and W. A. Link. 2012. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2011. Version 07.03.2013 USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD
ML Audio 105253. Montezuma Quail – Cyrtonyx montexumae. Geoffrey Keller. United State, Texas, Jeff Davis County, 4.0 km W of Fort Davis. 11 May 1993. Macaulay Library, www.macaulaylibrary.org. Cornell Lab of Ornithology.