The scaled quail is a plump bird with a peaked crest of white, thus the “cottontop” nickname. (Photo By: Walter Eastland/Shutterstock.com)
The bobwhite quail may be the most popular game bird in America, with hunters from north to south and east to west pursuing the little bird with a passion. But that doesn’t mean the scaled quail (also called blue quail or cottontops) doesn’t have plenty of fans in the gun dog world.
A member of the Odontophoridae family like the bobwhite, Calipepla squamata, as biologists refer to the scaled quail, draws hunters from around the country to the arid southwest to try to bag this hard-running, fast-flying quail that often doesn’t choose to hang around when bird dogs are hot on its trail.
Scaled Quail Range
Native to the desert grasslands of the southwestern United States, the scaled quail can be found in five US states and a wide swath of Mexico. The bird has decent populations in the far southwest corner of Oklahoma, as well as in the state’s panhandle. It can also be found in far southwest Kansas and pretty much the western third of Texas. Most of New Mexico hosts scaled quail populations, except for the far west and far northern sections, and the birds are also native to the southeast corner of Arizona.
In Mexico, scalies are found in the northeastern reaches of Sonora, throughout much of Chihuahua, Durango, and Zacatecas, and in Coahuila, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Queretaro and the northern portion of Hidalgo. Scaled quail are also found as far east as the eastern coast of Tamaulipas.
As noted in the bobwhite quail profile, in the eastern part of its range, the scaled quail is known to cross breed with the bobwhite. Hybrids look just like you would expect them to, exhibiting features of both species, and are typically infertile.
Scaled Quail Biology & Habitat
The scaled quail is a plump bird with a peaked crest of white, thus the “cottontop” nickname. It is slightly larger than the bobwhite, and somewhat smaller than the Gambel’s quail. Their height is 10 to 12 inches, with adult weight ranging from about 6 to 6.5 ounces. The 15-inch wingspan is also somewhat wider than that of a bobwhite.
Adults are pale brown and grayish, with a scaled pattern that gives them a blue appearance in some lighting conditions. Their heads are typically brown with the tuft, which can range from white to buff in color. Their backs are a bluish gray.
A resident of arid desert grasslands and shrublands, the scaled quail’s diet is made up mainly of seeds, insects, leaves, and other vegetation. While they eat many kinds of seeds, grass seeds are a staple in their diet.
In spring, the female constructs a shallow nest on the ground made of grass and leaves. After mating, she lays 7 to 14 creamy to light brown speckled eggs, and some females have been known to produce a couple of broods a year. Their incubation period is 22 to 23 days, and chicks are able to follow parents to forage soon after hatching.
Hunting the Scaled Quail
Like bobwhites, scaled quail are found in coveys. However, scaled quail coveys are often much larger than bobwhite coveys, sometimes numbering 40 to 50 or more. Like bobwhites, a large covey rise of scaled quail will make the heart of even the most experienced hunter jump into his or her throat, but often, these birds run hard and long at the first sign of danger, making large covey rises sometimes hard to come by.
Many scaled quail hunters are also hunting other quail species at the same time, typically bobwhites in the eastern part of their range and some of the other desert quail species in the western edges. Accordingly, hunters often don’t know what type of quail they’ve flushed until their dog retrieves it to hand after the shot.
Season dates vary throughout the scaled quail range. Quail season in Oklahoma typically runs November 13 through February 15, while in Kansas the season runs from mid-November until the end of January. In Texas, hunters can chase scaled quail from the end of October until the end of February, and in New Mexico the quail season runs November 15 to February 15. Arizona quail hunters can typically pursue scaled quail, along with other desert quail species, from the middle of October until the second week in February.
As mentioned, scaled quail are typically hunted over pointing dogs of a variety of breeds, including English pointers, English setters, German shorthaired pointers and even field-bred Irish setters. Hunters turn their dogs loose in likely habitat and walk—often for miles—until the dogs find and point birds. Once pointed, the birds often run, and it can be a footrace to see if you can get them to flush within the shotgun range. Interestingly, when I used to hunt these birds a lot, we’d often find them around old, abandoned farm machinery and windmill sights.
While any shotgun can be used to hunt scaled quail, since they often flush at long distances, most hunters prefer a 20-or 12-gauge shotgun. Double barrel and semi-automatic shotguns are the most common and knocking down a double or triple is a pretty good feat. Some hunt them with the 28-gauge, but it takes a very good shot to kill a limit doing so.
Concerning ammo, I’ve found scaled quail to be somewhat tougher to knock down and kill than bobwhites. Number 7.5s are good for quail, but if you’re going to be taking longer shots, #6 or #7 shot might do the job a little more efficacy. In places where they are hunted along with pheasants, number #6 shot usually gets the nod. For chokes, a little tighter choke like a modified is usually appropriate, unless the birds are holding tight. Then an improved cylinder choke would probably be more effective.
Like with most game birds of harsh, arid environments, populations of scaled quail fluctuate greatly from year to year because of climate and weather. If you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hunt prime scaled quail habitat during a good year, you’re in for a treat you’ll likely never forget.
As with any species of game bird, Always check the hunting regulations for the area you intend to hunt before heading afield. This will ensure you do your part in proper management of the species, as well as keep you out of trouble with the law.