By Doug Moore
As the bird list for the Madera Canyon International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) gradually lengthened and many of the expected species’ names were written on the white board at Proctor, I began to wonder if anyone would report a lucky sighting of what is arguably the most elusive canyon bird - the beautiful, but shy Montezuma Quail.
Local residents in the canyon, Montezuma Quail are the smallest quail species in the United States. Stocky and plump with short, stumpy tails, the birds somewhat resemble small footballs with stout, gray legs. Males sport a clownish black and white facial pattern topped with a buffy-brown crest draping over the back of the head. The neck and back feathers are a rich mix of cinnamon, buff and brown heavily barred with black and divided by long, whitish pinstripes. Wings are short and rounded with golden-brown feathers spotted with black. Flanks are dark charcoal-gray dappled with white spots; the breast, a rich chestnut. It is a striking combination of colors and patterns for such a small quail!
Females resemble males in size and shape. They also are intricately patterned in cinnamon, brown, and buff with black barring and buff pin-striping, but lack the bold, spotted patterns of the male. Additionally, females have a more obscure facial pattern of buff and brown. Both sexes sport a short, bluish bill.
Montezuma Quail are residents of the Sierra Madre mountain ranges of Mexico and extend north into the scattered Sky Island ranges of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The birds are usually encountered in pairs in the grassy and scattered shrub undergrowth of Madrean oak-juniper and oak-pine woodlands. Their coloration and secretive habits make them very hard to notice unless foraging out in the open. Often when approached, these quail crouch hidden and motionless in the undergrowth, only to explode from underfoot in a “heart-stopping” sudden whir of wings. Typically flying just a short distance, they then hide away again quickly in vegetation.
Montezuma Quail relish berries, acorns, seeds, and invertebrates and also scratch up tubers and bulbs from the soil. Breeding is timed with summer rains when insect life becomes abundant for feeding chicks. Eight to fourteen eggs are laid in a grass-lined depression hidden in dense grass; males assist in raising the family.
In Madera Canyon, I’ve encountered Montezuma Quail in the grassy chaparral flanking the southwest side of Madera Creek, between Proctor and the Madera Picnic Area. Despite birding in this area of the canyon on May 7, 2011 no one reported seeing Montezuma Quail for the IMBD. The quail proved once again to be one of the most elusive canyon residents!