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Idaho’s Only Native Quail Is Almost Gone

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Idaho’s quail hunting season started over the weekend. There are four quail species in Idaho, but only one is native to the state.

You can’t hunt Idaho’s native mountain quail because in the last few decades they’ve nearly disappeared. Now, Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game wants your help to find the ones that are left. But habitat biologist Tom Hemker says don’t bother looking in Boise.

“The ones we see in town are always California quail,” Hemker says. “We’ll get reports of people seeing a mountain quail walking down the greenbelt but it’s probably impossible almost, I mean there are just a few pockets left.”

The California quail and bobwhite were introduced to Idaho more than 100 years ago and are commonly hunted. The Gamble’s quail was introduced in the early 20th century but don’t have a hunting season.

Not long ago, mountain quail were common in southwest Idaho, including the Boise foothills. In the 1970s people started to notice they were becoming scarce. In the early 80s Fish and Game ended mountain quail hunting, but their numbers have continued to drop precipitously.

Idaho Fish and Game wildlife biologist Ann Moser says no one knows why, but there are a lot of theories. She rattles off a long list of those possibilities. It includes loss of habitat, competition with non-native species, even a major disease people didn’t notice.

“And maybe all of those things happened at once,” Moser says. “We really don’t know. It’s kind of a mystery.”

The mystery is compounded by the fact that mountain quail continue to thrive in other parts of the western U.S., including west of the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon.

Credit Idaho Department of Fish and Game
A flyer Fish and Game printed asking for reports on mountain quail sightings.

Wildlife managers don’t even have a rough estimate of their Idaho mountain quail numbers. So they’re asking for your help. If you do see a Mountain quail in Idaho, Ann Moser wants you to go to the Fish and Game website and report it. Here’s how you spot one.

“The California quail has a top knot, the little tear drop shape on the top of his head,” Moser says. “The mountain quail have a very tall, strait-up plume on the top of their head.”

They also have a chestnut-colored throat and white stripes on their sides. But Moser says even the pockets that still exist are hard to get to. Mountain quail like stream banks with tall, steep sides and dense undergrowth. She says they should be called canyon quail.

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