A Bird with a Plume

September 25, 2014 Posted by: TA - Park Ranger (Yosemite Valley)
On the list of animals I'm always surprised to see in Yosemite, the mountain quail tops the list. With its prominent head plume called a topknot, it's a bird that is sure to command one's attention. My fascination with this animal took particular focus this spring as I vainly attempted to discover the source of a piercing, single note call I kept hearing in the forest. Woooooot! Hike after hike I would hear this mysterious noise and puzzle over its source. Recently, I was lucky enough to find the responsible party as I spotted a mountain quail perched proudly on a downed log in the forest. Woooooot! Mystery solved. 

Mountain Quail  
After getting home and doing a little research, I found that the mountain quail is even more fascinating than I had originally thought. During the spring breeding season males will make this loud call in dense mixed conifer forests up to 9,500 feet in elevation. These calls are an attempt to announce the bird's presence and attract mates. If the male is successful in finding a mate, they will stay monogamous, and both parents will assist in the incubation and raising of the young. What makes the mountain quail particularly fascinating though, is their prodigious clutch size of 10 to 12 eggs. This big family is an attempt to ensure the success of the future generations as many predators like hawks, owls, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, weasels, and rattlesnakes will prey on the young. 

After raising their family, mountain quail, like many "snowbirds" of the human variety, will migrate in late fall to lower elevations where it's warmer. This altitudinal migration is a long difficult journey, as the birds supposedly walk, rather than fly, downslope. Imagine if you had to walk to your favorite winter vacation spot! These migrations are also done in groups called coveys that may consist of up to 10 birds. 

And, of anything that makes the mountain quail stand out, what about that thing on its head? Called a topknot or head plume, the reason quail carry these is not well understood. The most common explanation is that the topknot helps to attract a mate. A healthy topknot suggests to the potential suitor that they have excellent genes to pass on. Perhaps what may appear most fascinating to the human admirer though, is the fact that when moving quickly, as when scurrying away from a predator or surprise hiker on the trail, the plume sticks straight up on the bird's head like an exclamation mark! Watching this display has always been a curious delight that I look forward to seeing every year during my own seasonal migration to Yosemite as a park ranger. I hope that someday you may all see one of these delightful animals on your trip to the mountains. 

Have you ever seen one of these mountain quail or been perplexed by a noise in the forest? Please share your thoughts and stories with us!  

Yosemite Valley, Nature Scene, TA

Last updated: October 1, 2014

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