Topknots and Other Quail Quirks

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By Marissa Jensen

Topknots have become a frequent sight in today’s mainstream Hollywood media; however, many quail species owned this fashion statement long before hair-ties existed.

A topknot for a quail is, simply enough, a head plume consisting of feathers that sit atop the head. This ornate decoration differs between species and gender, with some lacking a topknot altogether.

Let’s take a look at the variety of top knots, along with some lesser-known, yet intriguing facts that surround some of our favorite quail species.

Mountain quail

The largest species of quail found in the United States, the mountain quail’s mysterious and little-known nature is alluring to both upland hunters and naturalists alike. Mountain quail are easily identified by their top knot, which consists of two straight feathers that employ a sharp appearance. The females, not to be left out of the fun, are adorned with a slightly shorter, yet still prominent topknot.

In 1901, famed naturalist John Muir expressed his admiration for the mountain quail in our national parks; “I think he is the very handsomest and most interesting of all the American partridges, larger and handsomer than the famous bobwhite, or even the fine California valley quail, or the massena partridge of Arizona and Mexico. That he is not so regarded, is because as a lonely mountaineer he is not half known.

Bobwhite quail

Noted for its iconic “poor-bob-white” spring call, this species is the most abundant on our list.

BobwhiteQuail

While all quail are capable of producing a lot of young, bobwhite take this to the extreme,” says Dr. Dwayne Elmore, Extension Wildlife Specialist for Oklahoma State University.  “Bobwhite have diverse reproduction strategies which enables them to produce large numbers of chicks when conditions (habitat and weather) are ideal.

Bobwhites are polygamous, meaning they mate with multiple partners over a breeding season, which allows a female to produce multiple clutches. It’s not unusual for a female to abandon her first clutch to start a new nest, leaving the eggs for the male to incubate.

According to Dr. Elmore, some years up to 25 percent of all nests are incubated by males. Bobwhite quail are widely distributed across the southern and eastern part of North America.

Scaled quail

Also known as a blue, cottontop or scalie, this species of quail is decorated with a topknot that resembles a tuft of cotton (hence the monikor “cottontop”) Their name derives from the scaled appearance visible on abdominal and breast feathers, with their overall coloration a blue-grey.

ScaledQuail

Thought to be monogamous, males participate in a courting ritual in the spring, known as “tidbitting.” Males will peck at the ground, bob their heads, high step and erect feathers along their neck and flanks to appeal to a nearby female. Scaled quail are found amongst sparse vegetation where they have room to stretch their legs and run.

I don’t know that anyone has ever clocked a scaled quail running. I can tell you that they can outrun a jogging hunter, but not a sprinting dog. I would guess that would put them at about 10-15 mph”, says Dr. Elmore.

Scaled quail can be found in arid to semi-arid landscapes, consisting of cacti and shrubs in the southwestern portion of the United States as well as Mexico.

Scaled quail can be found in arid to semi-arid landscapes, consisting of cacti and shrubs in the southwestern portion of the United States as well as Mexico.

California quail

Also known as valley quail, this popular bird can be identified by a curved topknot, consisting of six feathers that droop forward, resembling a comma. The male’s top knot is black and the female’s brown in coloration and slightly smaller in size. Their characteristic looks and gregarious personality helped secure them as California’s state bird.

CaliforniaQuail

Additionally, the California quail has unique characteristics (along with bobwhites) that help them survive in arid environments, such as gathering moisture from insects and succulents, thus allowing them to survive without surface water.

Chicks are known to peck at adult feces, thereby obtaining a protozoan that helps them digest To find a California quail, visit California, Oregon or Nevada.

Gambel’s quail

Discovered and named by naturalist William Gambel in 1841, Gambel’s quail are identified by a reddish-brown collection of feathers that make up their topknot. Their body is decorated in vibrant grey, chestnut and cream coloration with less scaling noted on their plumage than their look-a-like cousins, the California quail. Female gambel’s are known to call to their chicks just prior to hatching, with the chicks returning the call from inside the egg. Shortly thereafter, the chicks will hatch in unison.

GambelsQuail

Gambel’s quail have been known to breed with scaled quail, resulting in a hybrid that has been termed a ‘scramble.’ Upon discovery, the Gambel’s quail will run and hide in thick nearby cover, giving you and a trusty bird dog a fighting chance. While the largest range is in Arizona, Gambel’s can be found in Texas, California, Utah, Nevada, and Mexico.

Mearns’ (Montezuma) quail

This secretive bird remains clouded in mystery to most quail hunters. Although they are widely distributed throughout Mexico, in the United States they inhabit the smallest range of all our native quail. The Montezuma quail is a neotropical bird in origin, however, huntable populations can be found in New Mexico and Arizona.

This mystery is compounded by their ability to elude those who seek them. As a defense mechanism, they freeze in place and hold tight until a predator is nearly on top of them. It’s not unusual for hunters and enthusiasts to almost step on a Mearns’ quail. As a result, they have earned a reputation as a bird that will hold very well for dogs.

MearnsQuail

There is no shortage of nicknames for this quail species, known additionally as Montezuma quail, harlequin quail, and fool’s quail.

Their appearance is notably different between genders, and males are well-known for the clown-like markings around their face (hence the name harlequin).

Although they remain topknot-less, the males display an elegant, cinnamon-colored crest. What sets the Mearns’ farther apart from the other species is its unique diet and feeding behaviors. Equipped with large feet, they scratch and dig at the earth to locate sedge tubers. This is in addition to insects, seeds, and berries.

When one has an opportunity to admire all the distinct characteristics present with our native quail, it’s easy to understand why some are willing to walk that extra mile of sometimes difficult terrain in hopes of capturing a glimpse of such a bird, and, if you’re a quail hunter, to hold one in hand, admiring not only the bird but the land that provided an opportunity for each species to develop and evolve such unique and innately beautiful traits.

Marissa Jensen is PF/QF’s Education and Outreach Program Manager

Want to learn how to tie flies with your quail feathers? Read about it here!

 

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it PLEASE CONSIDER JOINING OR RENEWING YOUR SUPPORT FOR QUAIL FOREVER BY CLICKING ON THIS LINK AND HELPING US PROTECT THESE CRITICAL AREAS AND THESE CHERISHED TRADITIONS. JOIN TODAY AND YOU'LL RECEIVE A FREE $25 GIFT CARD TO BASS PRO SHOPS OR CABELA'S!