The California quail is the inspiration for a San Francisco restaurant that just made America’s top new eating house — the whimsically named State Bird Provisions.
Fortunately, the official state bird is not actually on the menu because it numbers fewer than a dozen individuals in San Francisco today, given the loss of brush habitat and the influx of predators such as feral cats and raccoons.
But that’s not to say that California quail can’t be found elsewhere. Now’s a good time to spot them. As summer winds down, these gregarious birds begin to form large flocks, known as coveys. Reaching numbers of 75 or more, the quails will stay in their coveys throughout the fall and winter, and it’s a time when they are most endearing. Snuggling together when they roost, covey members provide each other with the vital body warmth needed to survive cold winter nights.
Marching out together in the early morning and late afternoon, the quails also forage in coveys rather than venturing solo. Many sets of eyes not only increases each member’s chance of finding food—calling to each other when seed, insects or fruit are in sight—but it also enhances their safety, as each member alerts the entire flock the instant danger is detected.
Named California’s state bird in 1931, the California quail is a symbol of abundance, highly prized as game throughout California and Oregon as well as in places like Hawaii, Europe, and New Zealand, where it has been introduced to placate hunters.
Often seen scratching through the dry vegetation of chaparral and coastal sage brush, California quail are generally a robust species with high reproductive rates—one nest can contain as many as 28 eggs. However, since these quails build their nests in grasslands or at the base of trees, their clutches easily fall victim to predation, especially in areas where refuse left in parks attracts unusually large populations of rodents and small carnivores.
Check out photographer Jen Joynt’s snaps of California quail from the Tennessee Valley in West Marin.
Courtney Quirin is a Bay Nature editorial intern.