Scaled Quail

Callipepla squamata

  • Version: 2.0 — Published November 25, 2009
  • C. Brad Dabbert, Greg Pleasant, and Sanford D. Schemnitz

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Figure 1. Year-round range of the Scaled Quail in Mexico and the southwestern United States.
Adult Scaled Quail, probable female, AZ, August.

; photographer Kevin T. Karlson

Adult Scaled Quail, probable male.

Males are typically more bluish on the neck, and have whiter tufts than females. However, many are not identifiable in the field.

The Scaled Quail, also known as the Blue Quail or Cottontop (owing to the distinctive white top-knot on its crest), is a familiar game bird of the desert grasslands of Mexico and the southwestern United States. As F. M. Bailey (Bailey 1928c) wrote, “Picking up insects, seeds, and berries as they go, they wander through brushy arroyos, over juniper-clad foothills, cactus flats, and sagebrush or mesquite plains calling to each other with a nasal pay-cos, pay-cos, which by long association comes to take on the charm attaching to the birds themselves and to the fascinating arid land in which they make their homes.”

Like most quail, this is a gregarious game bird that forms large winter coveys and usually runs rather than flies to escape its enemies. Besides insects and leaves, its diet includes seeds from a wide variety of forbs, grasses, and shrubs. Scaled Quail populations periodically rise and fall. These “booms and busts” generally seem attributable to widespread reproductive failure, possibly owing to inadequate rainfall and a resulting lack of succulent foods. In addition, severe winter weather with prolonged deep snow can cause widespread mortality. Overall, populations of Scaled Quail are declining in the U.S. Like many other upland game birds of the desert southwest, this quail seems to be particularly vulnerable to excessive grazing by livestock, which has severely reduced its feeding, nesting, and roosting cover in many areas.

Early published work concerning Scaled Quail stems from efforts in Mexico (Leopold 1959) and Texas (Wallmo 1956b). Monographs by Schemnitz (Schemnitz 1961) and Campbell et al. (Campbell et al. 1973) characterize the advancements in knowledge of this species that followed this early work. Since these milestones, advancements in studies of other species, such as Northern Bobwhite, have far outpaced the relatively limited efforts directed at Scaled Quail. Considering the substantial revisions in our understanding of the behavior and ecology of Northern Bobwhite over the past 30 years, Rollins (Rollins 2000) suggested cautious interpretation of the existing knowledge concerning Scaled Quail. This caution was stimulated because telemetry was unavailable or not used for the majority of studies published before 2000. Completion of numerous Scaled Quail studies (some using telemetry) during the past decade has improved our understanding of the ecology and behavior of the species. We incorporate this new knowledge into this 2009 revision to provide a current account for Scaled Quail.

Recommended Citation

Dabbert, C. B., G. Pleasant, and S. D. Schemnitz (2009). Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.