Montezuma Quail

Cyrtonyx montezumae

Fred Fallon, US. Geological Survey
  • Gallinaceous Birds
  • 1.5 million

These secretive birds are year-round residents of the grassy oak woodlands of the American Southwest and western Mexico. Despite the seemingly bold patterning of males, Montezuma Quail can be extremely difficult to detect, let alone census and study. American populations of this species are threatened by habitat degradation and destruction, and perhaps by increased hunting pressure.

Montezuma Quail are small, shy quail that are unmistakable on the rare occasions when they are seen. Adult males have a striking black-and-white harlequin head pattern, capped by a reddish-brown crest. Males have rich brown breasts, covered with heavy white dots. Their backs are also brownish, and are covered with a web of buffy streaks and bars. Females are light brownish overall, and are much more subtly patterned than males. They share males' facial pattern, but in muted shades of brown, rather than in bold black and white. Females are streaked overall with light touches of buffy-white.

Distribution and Population Trends
Montezuma Quail is primarily a Mexican species, occurring along almost the entire length of the western part of the country. The northern edge of its range extends into southern Arizona and New Mexico, where populations can be found in a number of different mountain ranges. The species also has small, scattered populations in west Texas.

Because of the extreme difficulty in locating Montezuma Quail, there are no estimates of population trends for this species.

Montezuma Quail are birds of the grassy oak woodlands found across the canyon country of Mexico's Sierra Madre and the American Southwest. With their cryptic plumages, these quail are incredibly difficult to sight, even by researchers with trained dogs. Once they are spotted, Montezuma Quail remain motionless until the last second, finally bursting into a vertical explosion of flight when observers approach too closely.

In Arizona, these quail time their breeding cycle to coincide with the rains of the summer monsoon season. As with many quail, large amounts of rain tend to produce viable sources of food, shelter, and nesting sites. Females build an intricate domed nest made of grass, with additional blades of grass hanging down from the top to conceal the nest's entrance. This nest, built on the ground, usually contains ten to twelve eggs, but may hold as many as fourteen. Incubation lasts for 25-26 days. The downy young leave the nest shortly after hatching, and receive care (but not direct feeding) from both parents.

Montezuma Quail have very long claws that they use to dig up food. Their diet is made up largely of acorns, underground tubers, and sedges, and also includes seeds of a number of plants. During the summer, the quail supplement their diet with grasshoppers, ants, beetles, and other insects. Following the breeding season, and during winter, Montezuma Quail are found in tight coveys made up of family groups, while during breeding season, birds are generally encountered in pairs. This species is resident year-round across its range, with no evidence of elevational or latitudinal movements.

Habitat degradation and destruction appear to be serious threats to Montezuma Quail populations, and recreational hunting may also impact this species in the United States. Substantial year-round cattle grazing in grassy oak woodland eliminates grassy understory, making the habitat unsuitable for the quail. Cattle grazing also allows for the establishment of non-native plants, which in turn, can render habitat unsuitable. Many of the remaining perennial grasslands in southeastern Arizona have been invaded by an exotic grass, resulting in the absence of Montezuma Quail from these habitats. In addition to being degraded by cattle and exotic plants, much grassland in Arizona is simply being destroyed as a result of urban development. In the San Pedro Basin of southern Arizona, the percentage of grassland habitat decreased from 41% to 34% between 1973 and 1992.

Because of the difficulty in censusing Montezuma Quail populations, it is hard to estimate the impact that hunting has on this species. However, one study in Gardner Canyon from 1969 to 1973 showed an annual population reduction of 51% to 75%, with 84% to 96% of this reduction the result of hunting activity. During the winter, Montezuma Quail coveys remain in relatively small areas, making these birds susceptible to repeated hunting efforts. These facts, combined with an increase in the number of quail hunters in Arizona, suggest that hunting could have a major impact on Montezuma Quail populations.

Although Montezuma Quail is considered a game bird in Texas, there is currently no open hunting season for this species. In Arizona, an increase in recreational hunting of quail, combined with an awareness of the susceptibility of Montezuma Quail to increased hunting effort, has resulted in a reexamination of the current management of this species in the state.

What Can You Do?
Audubon's Important Bird Area program is a vital tool for the conservation of Montezuma Quail as well as other species. To learn more about the Important Bird Areas program and how you can help, visit:

Information on where Montezuma Quails occur and in what numbers is vital to conserving the species. Help in monitoring this and other species by reporting your sightings to eBird. A project of Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is the world's first comprehensive on-line bird monitoring program:

Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York

Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Stromberg, M. R. 2000. Montezuma Quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae). In The Birds of North America, No. 524 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.