John Muir (Muir 1902: 219) described the Mountain Quail as "the very handsomest and most interesting of all American partridges ... That he is not so regarded, is because as a lonely mountaineer he is not half known." Over 100 years later, Muir's observation remains largely true. The Mountain Quail is a secretive bird inhabiting dense shrub and forest habitats of the Pacific Coast and western Great Basin of North America. The largest quail north of Mexico, its elegant plumage and mysterious nature captured the interest and imagination of the early naturalists of the American West.
Despite its occupation of almost every major mountain range along the U.S. West Coast, its proximity to major coastal population centers, and the description of 5 subspecies, the Mountain Quail remains an enigma to avian ecologists. Its sometimes impenetrable habitat and secretive nature contribute to the paucity of life-history information. The feasibility of ecological study often is dictated by whether hunting dogs can be used (Gutiérrez 1977) or whether special conditions exist, e.g., the population is isolated or habitat constrained. The few comprehensive studies of Mountain Quail provide tantalizing insight about a bird that appears to differ from other North American quail in many ways. These differences include its ability to exploit high-elevation habitats by making long-distance seasonal movements, its sexual monomorphism in ritualized behaviors, and its un-usually high degree of herbivory and ability to exploit temporarily abundant foods.
Most early published accounts are anecdotal natural-history observations (see reviews in Gutiérrez 1975, Vogel and Reese 1995). The first extensive study of the Mountain Quail occurred during 1946-1949 under the auspices of the California Department of Fish and Game (Miller 1950). This statewide study was never published and the data apparently have been lost. Two other studies (Lahnum 1944 cited in Johnsgard 1973, P. Q. Tomich pers. comm. [hereafter PQT]) were conducted during the dawn of modern wildlife management, but again neither was published, and in the case of Lahnum the data also were lost. (Tomich's field notes are archived at Hastings Natural History Reservation, Carmel Valley, CA.) There remained a hiatus of research activity until a Master's thesis was completed by Ormiston (Ormiston 1966). Another decade followed before the first doctoral dissertation was written on the ecology of Mountain Quail (Gutiérrez 1977). This work was followed by a brief flurry of activity during the 1980s (Gutiérrez 1980, Gutierréz et al. 1983, Brennan 1984, Brennan and Block Brennan and Block 1985, Brennan and Block 1986, Block et al. Block et al. 1986, Block et al. 1987, Brennan et al. Brennan et al. 1986, Brennan et al. 1987). Finally, a renewed interest in research on the species (Brennan 1991b, Heekin et al. 1994, Delehanty Delehanty 1995b, Delehanty 1997, Delehanty et al. 1995) has occurred, motivated in part by significant declines in Great Basin populations (Brennan Brennan 1990, Brennan 1993b). The recent studies have revealed aspects of Mountain Quail sociobiology that are little known from Odontophorine quail.