On the Mountain Quail Trail
By Jim White It is early morning on a summer day. A Salmon River rafter is wakened in his tent by a sharp whistle, cle, cle, cle, cle. Soon more, softer whistles are heard all around, in and under the bushes. The rafter grabs his binoculars for a closer look and peeks out his tent. Finally he sees them. Beautiful gray heads, red-brown throat patches, white side stripes and straight, black plumes give them away. Few people in Idaho are treated to the wonderful but rare sight of the elusive mountain quail. Until the 1950s, mountain quail populations were abundant in western Idaho. They were found from our southwestern deserts north to our area along the lower Snake, Salmon, and Clearwater Rivers. Now they are found in only a few places, mostly along the Salmon River. They choose to live in steep rugged terrain and can survive along dry slopes that many people would characterize as chukar habitat. Old timers have told me stories of hunting mountain quail with their bird dogs on Craig Mountain south of Lewiston then finding more quail near Kendrick and Peck as they searched for grouse. Mountain quail were legally hunted in Idaho until 1984. Unfortunately, these times are long gone, as mountain quail are now a protected species in Idaho due to their low numbers. Because of their secretive nature and small population size, only a small amount of information is known about mountain quail compared to the abundance of research and monitoring conducted on bobwhite and valley quail. Biologists are puzzled with the reason for their decline. Theories include affects of long-term drought, increased grazing, fire suppression, and affects of introduced species such as chukar and wild turkey. Mountain quail, as their name suggests, are usually found at higher elevations than the more common California or valley quail that roam our pastures and brushy draws. While mountain quail have a long, straight head plume, valley quail have a short, curved head plume. Both sexes of mountain quail are similar in appearance, with gray heads and breasts, maroon throats, chestnut bellies marked with bold white bars, rufous-colored undertail feathers and brownish-gray upperparts. Mountain quail are quite unique. They are Idaho's largest quail species and also the only North American quail that exhibits migratory behavior. They move up and down along riparian zones changing elevation depending on snow conditions, food availability, and other factors. Mountain quail are also monomorphic, meaning the male and female look the same. The only way to know for sure if a mountain quail is a male or female is to do a blood test. Another unique thing about the mountain quail is that the male and female may have two nests with eggs in them at the same time. The female can lay up to 24 eggs, 12 eggs in one nest and 12 eggs in another nest. The female sits on one nest while the male sits on the other. In 2003 and 2004, biologists conducted calling counts and habitat suitability surveys for mountain quail on Craig Mountain Wildlife Management Area south of Lewiston, Idaho. The next year, a reintroduction study was initiated to provide more insights to better manage and conserve the species before further population declines lead to possible listing under the Endangered Species Act. Biologists and graduate students trapped 200 birds from a healthy population in Oregon then released the birds on Craig Mountain and in Asotin Creek drainage. One hundred of the birds were fitted with radio-collars and were monitored to investigate home range, movements, distribution, seasonal habitat use, productivity, survival and mortality factors. After one year of a two-year study, we determined that the majority of mountain quail released died within the first eight months. They could be highly susceptible to both predation and stress due to their propensity to move long distances in search of good habitat and wild quail to pair with for mating. But the reintroduction project continues. This past March, 88 additional birds were released in Washington and 89 birds in Idaho. The project is being conducted cooperatively by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the University of Idaho, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The public is encouraged to report any sighting of mountain quail to their nearest Fish & Game office. If these transplant efforts are successful, the calls of mountain quail may once again be a familiar sound in the canyons along our local rivers. I feel lucky to be a part of it and I am sure my English setter would appreciate the comeback of another game bird in Idaho. Jim White is a Regional Wildlife Habitat Biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Lewiston. He currently manages the Clearwater Region's three Wildlife Management Areas, including Craig Mountain, the state's largest WMA.