Steep Terrain and Heavy Cover make Mountain Quail a Challenge to Hunt

By Gary Lewis

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The birds were crossing the trail as I rounded the corner. I put the gun to my shoulder and closed the distance as they scurried through the fallen leaves. Advancing, I waited for them to flush, picking a target when they did and swinging with it.

The gun boomed and one bird dropped and I ran past it, hoping to get another shot. The birds flushed ahead of me. They were shadows in the trees, most running, some flying, a blur of wings here, a flash of feathers in the sunlight there. No real targets.

They were getting away. I had one barrel left to fire and there was an opening ahead where forest gave way to field. I knew all the birds would be in the air when we reached that opening. If I could just get there in time.

I hadn't known about the race until the moment I figured out where they were going. The quail had a good headstart. And I had a lot of catching up to do. It was fifty yards to the clearing. I switched the gun to safety and sprinted. The birds were just ahead of me. I could make one good shot, get one more bird. Then there would be two birds for dinner, plucked and slathered in butter, oven-baked, some salt and pepper, maybe a potato and sour cream.

The birds were all around me in the thick timber. Hit the opening, pick a bird going away, cover it with the barrel, pull the trigger. Almost there.

The quail had one advantage. They knew about the fence and I didn't. Until I hit it at a dead run. 

Running flat out, the fence took me just above the knees and, for the briefest of moments, I was airborne, soaring like the birds, my arms spread like wings. The shotgun flew on ahead of me. I prayed the fence wasn't barbed wire and did a face-plant in the decaying oak leaves.

The birds left the trees and me behind with whirring wings, blurs of sound against the pounding in my ears. They were long gone by the time I picked the debris out of the barrels of my gun and brushed myself off.

I walked back, swinging one leg at a time over the old field fence, grateful that someone, many years ago, had opted for field fence instead of barbed wire. I wished they had taken it out again, though, when it had served its purpose, instead of letting the ferns grow over it.

My one bird lay where I'd left it, under a tree. Picking it up, I examined my first mountain quail.

Its neck and breast were blue-gray, its throat was brown and its flanks were white with rusty brown bars. It had a plume atop its head, narrow and black, maybe 2-1/2 inches long.

Mountain quail are located mainly in western Oregon from the Columbia to the California border with higher concentrations in the southwestern part of the state. Small pockets of the birds can be found on mountain slopes east of the Cascades.

Typical habitat is between 2500 and 6000 feet above sea level, in the regrowth of an old logging area or burn. They prefer the lower brushy slopes of canyons with year-round water. As the snow level falls, the quail, like grouse, descend just ahead of it, ascending again in the spring as winter recedes. Favorite foods include lupine, clover, acorns and wild carrot.

They feed early in the morning and again in the late afternoon, taking dust baths and shade in the middle of the day. When flushed, they won't fly far, preferring to run and hide in dense thickets.

Quail coveys may be widely scattered across a mountain range. Since they live on steep, brushy hillsides, a good way to hunt them is to ride logging roads on a mountain bike until birds are seen. The hunters can then dismount and hunt on foot.

Mark the spot on your map after you find quail. You will probably find birds there again.

Mountain quail are often under-hunted. Many hunters avoid them because of the difficulty of the terrain, the heavy cover they live in and their tendency to run instead of fly. 

I too have a tendency to run. But for one brief moment a covey of mountain quail and a section of field fence changed that.

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