This Report is a Best of Wendy Langhans
It truly is a “feather in his cap” and it does looks a bit like elbow macaroni. But technically, it’s known as a head plume, or more commonly, a “top knot”, a head ornament that consists of six overlapping black feathers in the shape of a comma. It’s hard to miss – it sticks right out of their forehead – and in our Santa Clarita Valley, when you’ve seen the comma-shaped top knot and heard a call that sounds like “Chi-CA-go”, it’s almost certain you’ve seen a California quail.
At this time of year, when you see one quail, there are likely to be others nearby. That’s because in the fall and winter, California quail gather together into flocks of 10-100 birds, known as coveys. These coveys will remain together until the next spring, when the weather gets warmer and the new breeding season begins.
California Quail gather together for several reasons. The first has to do with staying warm. When these birds roost for the night, they “snuggle together” to stay warm. And the second has to do with protection. In the morning, when heading out to search for food, “they have a better chance of escaping a hungry predator if they stay in a group.”
California Quail have other tricks for evading predators. They are fast runners, and can melt into the brush at speeds of 12 mph. Or, they can quickly take to the air and fly for a short distance at 40-50 mph; can you visualize how a group of quail taking wing would startle a coyote or fox.
California Quail communicate with each other through a number of different calls. These calls vary from the Facebook-like status update, “I’m over here – where are you?” to a more strident “Danger!” or “Back off, buster!”. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has several examples of calls that you can listen to here.
Depending on your location in Southern California, you might see two other quail species. Gambel’s quail are found in the southeastern desert regions; they also have a elbow macaroni-shaped top knot. And Mountain quail are found in the mountains (duh!); they can be identified by a top knot shaped like an exclaimation point (or strand of spaghetti). But all three species of quail have some kind feather stuck “in their cap”, and…well…you know the rest of the song.
You can listen to stories like this every Friday morning at 7:10 a.m. on “The Hike Report”, brought to you by your hometown radio station KHTS (AM1220) and by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.
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