Ghost of the Woods

I first became acquainted with mountain quail years ago when I lived in a cabin in the mountains of Southern California

By Rob Breeding

I’ve been chasing mountain quail for 25 years. I’ve yet to kill one.

The birds are the redheaded stepchild of American quail. The other five species are birds of grasslands or deserts. Mountain quail, as the name suggests, live high, in the coastal mountains from Baja maybe as far north as British Columbia. The bird’s range also includes the Sierra Nevada, as well as the inland desert country where Oregon, Nevada and Idaho meet.

Mountain quail are similar in appearance to more common valley quail, though they are slightly larger and have a long, straight plume-like topknot that points back behind the head. The species broke off from the New World quail family tree before other American species, and they are the sole member of the Genus Oreortyx.

I first became acquainted with the species years ago when I lived in a cabin built in the kind of mountain habitat quail prefer. The cabin was in the mountains of Southern California, on the north slope facing the high desert, at about 6,000 feet. That’s piñon pine country in that part of the world, piñon with a mix of coastal scrub, manzanita and yucca.

The quail lived around us, and we’d routinely see them scurrying about the yard, except hunting season. I was a real novice back then, long before my bird dog days, and I never saw a bird on those occasions when I’d wander away from the cabin with my shotgun.

Once the season was over the birds returned.

I used to regularly find mountain quail as I hiked down to some of my favorite trout streams in those mountains as well, but it’s not a big secret a fly rod is of little use for dispatching flushing game birds.

I’d long-since moved away from those costal mountains by the time I started getting serious about bird hunting and I haven’t lived close to mountain quail country since.

I return home in California for the holidays, however, and I sometimes sneak away to hunt when the birds are in season.

I’ve been in the presence of mountain quail on these trips, but have yet to manage so much as a shot. A few years back Jack got birdy as we worked our way up a canyon in some choice looking habitat. The cover was good, and the grassy flats sported some impressive stands of Joshua trees. As we neared a saddle at the upper end of the canyon, Jack briefly pointed. I even saw a lone bird, dark in the shadows beneath some manzanita. Then it moved off. A moment later it flushed, flying over the saddle out of range. I walked up to where I’d last seen the bird and looked down a canyon so steep it would have made a chukar reevaluate its lifestyle choices.

Another time we worked up a promising looking canyon, even hearing a bird calling “woook … woook,” in the mountain quail’s eerie voice. The dogs worked the area with serious intent, but we never found the covey. Then, as we walked back to the truck on a two-track cut through head-high chaparral, a mountain quail scurried across the road about 20 feet in front of us.

It never got in the air but I was beginning to understand the sentiment I’ve heard from some mountain quail hunters: even ground-sluiced birds count.

This year I spent two days before Thanksgiving renewing my relationship with mountain quail, though I’m beginning to think if this really is a relationship, it’s an abusive one. California has been mired in a drought, but the high country is in better shape. Still, I wasn’t expecting the birds to be thick.

I walked up and down good-looking piñon-covered ridgelines, and the duff beneath the trees was littered with nuts. But in all that country we never saw a quail.

Mountain quail aren’t birds at all. They’re a specter.

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