By Andrew Stuart
The Montezuma quail is one of Texas’ most mysterious and elusive birds. Level ground may belong to bobwhite and scaled quail, but these quail live on grassy hillsides and mountain slopes. For naturalists and birders in Texas, seeing a Montezuma is a rare pleasure.
By the 1950s, these quail had nearly vanished from Texas. They were reduced to isolated populations in the Davis Mountains and in Edwards County, in south-central Texas.
Now, they’ve made a comeback in the state.
Montezumas are found from Oaxaca, Mexico to the mountains of southern Arizona and New Mexico. In Texas, their historic range included the Trans-Pecos and the Central Texas hills. They’re also known as harlequin quail – for the male’s spiraling facial patterns.
Scientists are just beginning to unravel the mysteries of their ecology and behavior.
When it comes to questions of survival, most quail species will flee, sprinting through the brush or flushing in a burst of flight. Montezuma quail are different.
“Out of all the quail species that we’ve got here in the state, they’re probably the most secretive,” said Dr. Eric Grahmann, a quail researcher with Texas A&M’s Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute. “They’ve got a tendency when approached by a predator to crouch and hide. They will fly, but they tend to wait until you almost step on them until they burst out and fly away.”
Tan and streaked, Montezumas blend in to grassy terrain. They’re small – less than 9 inches – which also helps them avoid detection.
Montezuma habitat includes a slope, typically of about 20 percent, which may help the birds evade predators. Montezumas need both high grass – with a height of at least 4 inches – and woody cover. That woody cover – in the form of oaks, junipers or piñon pines – provides shelter from the heat of the day.
During the spring and summer, Montezumas eat insects and green, leafy material. All quail do this. But during the lean fall and winter months, Montezumas forage in a unique way.
Their winter diet is subterranean tubers. The birds are built to forage for these plants. Montezumas have elongated claws and strong legs and feet. Tops on their menu are four plants: violet wood sorrels, wild onions, nut sedges and rain lilies. Scientists believe that without these plants, the birds can’t survive.
Often foraging together, nearly touching one another as they work the ground, the quail dig inch-deep, conical depressions in the soil. How they know where to dig is a mystery.
“That’s a remarkable aspect of their foraging ecology,” Grahmann said, “because we really don’t know how they find these foods. We suspect there could be visual cues, or something about the soil texture. Some folks have suggested that, unlike other birds, they may have more developed smelling.”
Mammals will happily make a meal of a Montezuma. But the quail most often fall prey to raptors, usually sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks.
What sets the Montezumas apart from other quail is that they would rather hide then flee. But this instinct has made them vulnerable to changes in West Texas rangelands.
By the mid-20th Century, grasslands across Texas had been denuded by decades of overgrazing. Without grassy cover, Montezumas were defenseless. Grahmann said it was likely these range conditions that caused the near-disappearance of Montezumas in Texas.
But as land-management has changed, the quail have returned to their historic ranges. The birds are now found in all the “sky island” mountain ranges of the Trans-Pecos, from the Chisos to the Guadalupes. And their populations have expanded in the rugged limestone hills of the southern Edwards Plateau, north of Del Rio.
Scientifically, the birds remain a frontier. Only one study of Montezumas has used modern radio-tracking techniques, Grahmann said.
Grahmann said researchers’ first task is to quantify preferred Montezuma habitat – in terms of the percentage of woody to grassy cover. Grahmann is working to pin those numbers down in his research in the Edwards Plateau. And scientists with Alpine’s Borderlands Research Institute are conducted parallel research in New Mexico, on Bureau of Land Management property near Fort Sumner.
“There’s a possibility of trying to figure out what kind of techniques we could use to help Montezuma’s quail and foster habitat rehabilitation,” Grahmann said. “But we’ve got to figure out what their habitat is quantitatively before we starting making recommendations like that.”
Montezuma quail are returning to their ancient Texas grounds. If you’re lucky, you might see one.
Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.