Hunting,Habitat & Conservation,Hunting & Heritage  |  04/19/2017

Western Quail: This Land is YOUR Land

They blipped and blooped from the rocky outcrop in ones and twos, launching from a snow-covered knob standing sentinel over sagebrush prairie flat as a pool table.  The blackberry tangle quivered as a covey rattled their way skyward. My dog froze, pie-eyed, while I tiptoed across the beaver dam, boosting two birds from the water’s edge.
Different species, different habitat types, different states, with one thing in common: all were found on public land. Uncle Sam’s “open” sign is out, and quail are one of the most prevalent species, available to anyone with the time, energy, and willingness to point their truck toward the setting sun.
Wild western quail might be our most accessible upland bird: epic numbers in good years, and a propensity to dwell on the rugged no-man’s-land managed for us by federal and state governments. The plucky little birds are survivors, living in some of the harshest environments in the U.S. and, luckily, the aforesaid agencies have pretty much left them alone.
They are in large part valley (or California) quail and there is no better bird for dog or man. Even when chittering along the rough ground in search of seeds, they often hold for a pointer. Singles, well, they’re the stuff of magazine covers. But wait, there’s more: I’ve shot mountain quail in the same country (seldom) and denser mountain thickets (often).
Gambel’s quail dwell in the searing heat of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts of California, Nevada, and Arizona. Mearn’s and scaled quail occupy the sere highlands and oak woods of Arizona and New Mexico.  Every species has a unique ecological niche, and fortunately for us, they’re often on land owned you and me.
Let’s journey west to public-land quail country.

New Mexico

New Mexico’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest is home to Gambel’s quail scratching for seeds in the desert washes and scrub. Scaled quail dart among tufted grasses at lower elevations. Mearn’s quail pinball among scrub oak in Cibola National Forest. Find green patches on the forest map and go hunting. No admission charge, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.


Arizona has national forests, too, and some even have trees in them. Mearn’s quail dig for tubers among the oaks and pinyon pines of Coronado National Forest’s steep hills. Tonto National Forest near Globe will put you into Gambel’s quail – look for open country with folds in the landscape and shrubs, not trees. The bare ground helps these notorious runners get up momentum when they hear you coming.


Unknown to many hunters east of the Rockies, the Bureau of Land Management is in charge of millions of public acres in the west, forgotten, given up by failed homesteaders or turned down by states when offered the chance to claim them. Their loss is our gain. What they lack in “beauty” they make up in quail habitat. Case in point: Nevada. Tracts near Tombstone support scalies and Gambel’s, and the shoreline at Lake Havasu is also a Gambel’s hangout. Find the yellow swaths on your map and have at ‘em.
BLM districts encompass the Mormon Mountains near Las Vegas, as well as the Delmar range near Searchlight. Both hold Gambel’s quail. Going north, find vast yellow blocks on the map east of Reno, near Elko, Winnemucca, and north to Gerlach and the Black Rock Desert. You’ll wear out some boot leather, but find water and solid habitat (rugged landscape with overhead shrubby cover), and you could find valley quail.


From the Silver State, Nevada, it’s a short drive to the Golden State, California, where the state bird is the valley quail. National forests straddling the coastal mountain range shelter the occasional mountain quail. The highly adaptable valley birds live in humid forestlands, arid desert, and everything in between. Look at areas near Ventura in the Los Padres National Forest if you’re in the southern half of the state. Up north, target the Lassen and Modoc national forests.
Tahoe National Forest, north of the town of Truckee, can put mountain quail in your bag if you’re lucky and willing to work hard. In the southeast, the Mojave National Preserve harbors Gambel’s quail. The surreal landscape of boulders and hills invoke western movies and Star Trek episodes.


Oregon’s national forests west of Grants Pass and Medford are where bucket listers bag their mountain quail. Far to the east, BLM ground near Burns has huntable valley quail populations. The Snake River country forming the Idaho border has valley quail in the checkerboard of public-private land characterizing the rural west. Draws and coulees feeding the John Day, Deschutes, Owyhee and Columbia rivers on the eastern side of the state are often managed by BLM, and among the buzz of rattlesnakes and yodel of coyotes the “pit-pit” of California quail can be heard.


The same habitat blankets western Idaho, where valley quail are found north of Mountain Home in the Boise National Forest. The east shore of the Snake River has birds, as do some lower elevations of the South Fork Boise River in the Sawtooth National Forest.


In the upper-left-hand corner of the map, Washington also has California birds. The breaks of the Yakima River are a mix of BLM and tribal lands, so read your map carefully. Farther east, the scablands of the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area hold quail. The Sunnyside/Snake River Wildlife Area is worth investigating. Walla Walla National Forest near the town of the same name has a few birds.
Sparsely populated, little-known, and by some definitions ugly, the rural west’s public lands are a treasure-trove of quail hunting opportunity. Yes, it’s hard to get to, harsh and foreboding. But the birds counterbalance the negative aspects, especially when you know most of their habitat is yours, mine … and ours.

USFWS photo
By Scott Linden