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What is a California Quail?

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  • Written By: Angie Bates
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 06 November 2016
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The California quail is a short-necked, round game bird found in the United States, most commonly in California, Oregon, and Washington. Also called the valley quail, this bird became the official state bird of California in 1931. The scientific name for the California quail is Callipepla californica.

Playing a role in many Disney® movies, such as Bambi, the California quail is easily distinguished by its head plume. The plume is a clump of six feathers, which appear to be a single large feather. Always black, the plume sits on the top of the bird's head, thicker at the top and drooping to give the appearance of a large apostrophe.

Male California quails are shades of gray or blue-gray, with thick white stripes on the cheeks of their black faces. The females have no facial markings and are dull brown. Both sexes have brown and white scale-like patterns on their bellies. These birds are usually 9.4–10.6 inches (24–27 cm) long, with wingspans of 12.6–14.6 inches (22–37 cm). They usually weigh about 5–8 ounces (142–230 g).

Although they can fly, California quails spend most of their time on the ground, usually only taking flight when startled. They prefer shrubbed or woodland areas. Males will often perch in trees or on man-made structures. These birds mostly eat seeds, but they can also eat leaves or insects. California quails are extremely tolerant of drought and can get their required water from eating insects during dry seasons.

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California quails usually travel in groups called coveys, which can have as many as 200 birds but usually average 20–25. In the spring, they pair off for mating season. Nests are 1–2 inch (2.54–5.1 cm) deep hollows in the ground that are lined with grass and hidden under shrubs or at the base of trees. They usually hold 12-16 eggs, though sometimes they can have as many as 28. This increase is due to a practice among these birds called nest dumping, where females lay eggs in other females' nests.

Eggs are incubated for 22 or 23 days. Hatchlings are downy and mobile, but stay in the nest for the first two days after hatching. Both parents take care of the hatchlings. The female uses her body heat to keep them warm at night until they can regulate their temperatures on their own.

The California quail has several different types of calls, including aggressive, alarm, and advertisement calls. The assembly call, however, which sounds to the human ear like "chi-ca-go" or "cu-ca-cow," is the most commonly heard call. It is usually repeated up to ten times and given when a bird is separated from its covey.

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