Although the gorgeous Montezuma Quail is not rare, it is incredibly difficult to find, and once found, incredibly difficult to see well. Unlike most quail, they don’t form large coveys, and they tend to freeze in place when danger is near. You can almost step on one before it will take off straight up into the air and fly about 30 feet away and frustratingly disappear again. Once you catch your breath and find your glasses, congratulate yourself on joining the “heart attack bird” club. Luckily, Montezuma Quail aren’t usually spooked by vehicles and many are seen very well along Harshaw Road in the Patagonia Mountains from tour vans during our Southeast Arizona Birding Festival. When you do finally see one, you’re treated to a riot of feather patterns not often found all on one bird. Males have a clown-like face pattern, sky blue bill, and a kaleidoscopic array of cinnamon, white, and black streaks, bars, lines, and dots on the back and breast—a written description doesn’t do it justice.
Montezuma Quail are resident in the mountain grasslands and oak woodlands of the Sky Islands here and into Mexico. They move as little as 150 feet per day as they root amongst dense bunch grasses feeding on tubers, acorns, and insects, using their powerful feet and long, curved claws specialized for digging. Listen for their out of this world songs and calls. The species’s beauty and behavior have inspired nicknames such as Harlequin Quail and Crazy Quail.
Image by Greg Lavaty