The Camera Trap

Caught on Camera: The State Bird, Surprised

March 7, 2019
Photo courtesy Susan Ferry, California State Parks environmental scientist

The California state bird is, in a word, unassuming. It’s small and rather plump, shaped like a knobby lemon and not too much larger. By bird standards, it’s not particularly colorful, though what hues it does have are rich. It is, of course, the California quail, officially given its title in 1931. The Audubon Society saw something in those little birds that made them eminently worthy of representing the state.

Perhaps it was their hardiness. Quails can be found in a wide variety of habitats throughout California and the Bay Area, from scrublands to oak forests. They even sometimes wander into suburbs. There used to be a population in San Francisco, but as of November 2017 there was a single bird left in Golden Gate Park. Audubon strongly suspects pet cats are to blame for the decline, as well as a loss of habitat. Although efforts to save San Francisco’s quail population were ultimately unsuccessful, the species as a whole is not endangered.  

Quails like to band together. They’re typically found in large family groups called coveys, running together along the ground and looking almost comical as they do so, due to their round bodies. They sport a topknot, six feathers that form an overhang for their face, which is more distinct in males than females. They like to take dust baths together, leaving distinct markings on the ground as a telltale sign of their presence.

This particular group has been startled, taking flight on short, broad wings. They won’t stay in the air for long; quails launch skyward in huge bursts, and then flutter down to safety as soon as they can, preferring the comfort of the ground to the air. It’s that preference that makes them vulnerable to predators like cats — another reason you should keep kitty indoors.

The Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society recommends going to McClellan Ranch Park in Cupertino to see wild quail. In the East Bay, quail are abundant throughout the East Bay hills and at Mount Diablo State Park. In the North Bay, quail congregate around the Marin headlands and like to stand on top of fenceposts all around the Reyes National Seashore.

The same scene at night sees an entirely different set of birds. The quails, we presume, have quite reasonably gone into hiding. (Photo courtesy Susan Ferry, California State Parks environmental scientist)
About the Author

Elizabeth Rogers is a writer based on the Peninsula. She writes Bay Nature's monthly Camera Trap column.

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