Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata), also known as blue or cotton top quail, are the second most abundant quail species in Texas, behind bobwhite quail. Scaled quail have a large range covering a majority of the western half of Texas. These birds cover six of the eleven natural eco-regions of the state of Texas including: Trans-Pecos, Mountains and Basins, High Plains, Rolling Plains, Edwards Plateau and the South Texas Plains. Scaled quail prefer a more arid environment and are not usually found where abundant rainfall occurs. Unlike bobwhites, scaled quail usually inhabit dry areas that can sometimes only average 4-24 inches of rain per year.
Scaled quail vocalizations can be divided into two categories: those associated with reproduction and those that are not associated with reproduction. Male birds make several vocalizations during the breeding season. Unmated scaled quail males will usually make a call to an available female from an elevated and visible position, usually sounding like a “Cree”, “Squawk”, “kwook”, or “whock”. Aggressive male calls are referred to calls made between two combative males. Usually a “squeal” and a visual display by a male will ensue. Care-of-young calls often occur when a female quail with a brood is flushed or put under pressure. The female will begin a “broken-wing act” and send a shrill “ping-g-g” sound. A male will then follow up with a “chip” sound. There are also several vocalizations not associated with reproduction. One example is the gathering call. It is one of the more frequently heard vocalizations from scaled quail. This call is also used to make one quail’s location known to other quail in order to reunite a covey. A “Chip-churr, chip-churr” or a “chin-tang, chin-tang” noise is what it is most often described as. There are many other less known and studied calls. Some examples of these are the group alarm cry, the individual fright cry, chick calls and several different conversation notes.
Scaled quail are bluish-gray in color with a “scaled” feather pattern on a patch of their breast. Males, or cocks, have cream colored throats while females, or hens, have a brownish colored throat. There are a number of unique distinguishing factors between scaled and bobwhite quail. Unlike bobwhites, when scaled quail feel threatened or pressured they prefer to run rather than “flush” or fly. Scaled quail are also slightly larger in stature than bobwhites.
Nesting and Incubation
Scaled quail follow a six-month cycle for reproduction and breeding. They begin forming pairs as early as late February to early March. By late March most hens have selected a mate. Courtship consists of a male plumage display and call, and even a brief chasing of the female has been observed. Males are noted to be very protective of their mates. The nesting season usually lasts from about April through September. Nests are constructed on the ground, under cover of a shrub or plant, and do not usually exhibit a canopy as part of the nest itself. There are a few common nesting plants that offer a higher clutch survival rate. Tobosa, yucca and prickly pear cactus are a few of the suitable nesting plants for scaled quail. Prickly pear cactus have been suggested to be a reliable and trusted nesting shrub for scaled quail as these nesting sites are estimated to have twice the survival rate of other nests. Hatching occurs from early May to late August, with the eggs being larger in size than northern bobwhite eggs. It is thought that the larger chicks are conversely more adaptable to the arid environment they live in. The clutch size consists of an estimated 13 eggs, with chicks appearing after the incubation period, around 22-23 days. During this time females will display a brood patch (a patch of featherless skin) which aids in maintaining ideal temperatures for the eggs. Males tend to remain with the female during this period to distract potential predators and have even been noted to hatch the eggs when a female has been killed. Nest success is low but scaled quail that suffer a nest failure are likely to attempt re-nesting. After four weeks of age, the young quail can fly and between 12 and 20 weeks scaled quail exhibit covey behavior.
When looking at suitable scaled quail habitat, there are 3 main factors to consider: shrubs suitable for nesting; substantial “low-grass” cover; and suitable food species. In terms of habitat, scaled quail prefer a more upland habitat with scattered shrubs and open patches of ground. They tend to avoid areas with dense vegetation or shrubs. Lotebush, little leaf sumac, agarito, and althorn are a few shrubs that occupy habitats where scaled quail are found. Some prominent grass species include chino grama, black grama, bush muhly, threeawns and tobosa.
The scaled quail diet consists of 3 main food items: insects, seeds and green vegetation. Scaled quail feed twice a day, once in the mid-morning and once again right before dark. In the morning, these birds usually feed more on insects, such as grasshoppers and beetles. Scaled quail consume a larger amount of insects than the other quail species in the state. On the other hand, they usually consume more seeds in the afternoon. On average, scaled quail consume a smaller amount of seed and grain than bobwhites. Compared to other quail species, scaled quail consume about 4 times the amount of green vegetation including leaves, grasses and succulent plants. Although these birds show an aversion to rainfall, they are able to obtain water from the foods they consume. Scaled quail also find water to support their chicks (or brood) shortly after hatching.
Predation and Other Mortality Factors
It is estimated that 0.1% of scaled quail were still alive at their fifth year of life. It is believed that very few scaled quail die from old age. High mortality rates occur because of malnutrition, predation, hunting and other human related causes. Some of these factors can be considered interrelated. Predators can affect scaled quail in two main ways: predation on eggs and predation on the quail themselves. The single main cause of nest loss is predation. Raccoons (Procyon lotor), snakes, coyotes (Canis latrans), feral hogs (Sus scrofa), striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) and Cooper’s hawks (Accipiter cooperii) are just a few of the potential predators of scaled quail. Unlike northern bobwhite quail, weather has less of an effect on scaled quail populations. This species is more drought tolerant than other species and therefore mortality rates are not as high during particularly dry or wet seasons.
Conservation and Management
The loss of quail habitat in Texas is significant, and with over 95% of the state privately owned, landowners are the key to quail conservation. Incorporating quail management into livestock management is crucial. Moderately grazed pastures with a mix of grazing intensities can support higher densities of quail, compared to over or under grazed pastures. Land managers should learn to recognize and seek out areas that support greater numbers of scaled quail and mirror that habitat arrangement across their property. Mechanical brush control can be a very useful tool for shaping scaled quail habitat. The disturbance of soil from this type of control helps to promote the growth of forbs, which in turn are a valuable food resource to scaled quail. In addition, the creation of quail oasis can increase the plant and insect diversity in a given area, thus providing a rich abundance of food resources and ground cover for quail.
Scaled Quail in Texas: Their Biology and Management
Where Have All the Quail Gone?
Dr. Dale Rollins and the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch, Roby, Texas
Silvy, Nova J., Dale Rollins, and Shane W. Whisenant. 2007. Scaled Quail ecology and life history. Pages 65-88 in Leonard A. Brennan, editor, Texas Quails: Ecology and Management. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
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 45034. Scaled Quail – Callipepla squamata. Geoffrey A. Keller. United States, Texas, 5.0 km NW of Salineno; Falcon St. Rec. Area. 30 April 1986. Macualay Library, www.macaulaylibrary.org. Cornell Lab of Ornithology.