A comprehensive primer on calling valley and Gambel’s quail throughout the year
By JIM MATTHEWS
Most quail hunters don’t have a clue on how and when to use a call during the hunting season or during pre-season scouting, and most non-hunters and birders don’t realize how much fun quail calling can be, especially this time of year.
There is one common bit of knowledge: That “Chiquita” call you hear in the background of all John Wayne movies is made by quail.
Here’s a simple, straight-forward primer on the birds’ calls, what they mean, and how and when you should use each type for viewing, photography, hunting, or scouting.
There are three basic types of valley and Gambel’s quail calls and a fourth you may hear occasionally.
The first and most useful call to imitate is the rally call. Think of it as the birds saying, “We’re right here.” Or it can mean the exact opposite, “Where is everyone?” depending on how it is delivered. This is the famous three (sometimes four) note “Chiquita” or “Chicago” call we’ve all heard.
This call is used infrequently throughout the morning when the birds have come off the roost and have spread out feeding. It is primarily used in late spring and throughout the summer and early fall. The dominate birds in the covey will make this call, just to let everyone else in the group (and nearby coveys) where he or she is located, and it serves to let the other birds know the direction the covey is moving. Both males and females make this call. The birds use this call less as young birds age and learn the travel routine. By late winter and through early spring, you might only hear one or two calls during a short window of time in the mornings or right as dusk as the birds go to roost.
In summer and through the fall when you or a predator flushes a covey of birds, they frequently scatter in all directions, and within a few minutes, the first birds will start giving the rally call. Soon, the calls will be coming from many of the scattered quail. If you pay attention, you will notice two things about the calls in this situation. First, there can be two distinct tempos to the calls -- with some birds making a slower, soothing call, and other a nervous, fast-paced call. The slower call is usually the mature bird telling the young birds its location. It’s almost like it is saying, “Calm down, I’m right here.” While the nervous call is usually a young bird calling out, “I’m alone here -- where is everyone.” As young birds mature, they will call less and the mature birds will answer less. By winter, the birds in the covey have learned how to escape predators, and one of those ways is not to give their location away by calling. The coveys have places in their home range where the young birds have learned to rendezvous without calling, or after hearing a single call and knowing the direction that bird is heading. But during summer and at least through early fall, young birds still get nervous when away from the covey and calling is far more frequent.
I once had a hunting buddy call a pair of young Gambel’s quail right to him under the mesquite tree where he had sat down after spooking some birds while scouting. He heard some young birds make a panicked rally call not long after the covey flush, so he answered with a calming dominate bird call as he sat under the tree. Almost immediately he saw the two young birds running zig-zag down the wash toward him from cover patch to cover patch. They stopped under a paloverde 30 yards away, so he called again. Since he was dressed in camouflage, the two young birds soon were under the tree where he was sitting looking around for the other quail. One actually hopped up onto the toe of his boot as he sat there with his legs outstretched, getting a little elevation while looking intently around for its family.
While this rally call is primarily used to locate birds, quail will come to the call, especially in the summer and early fall. But birds will almost always answer the rally call because they are very social and vocal. The big mistake most hunters and bird watchers make when using this call is calling way too frequently. If you don’t hear a response within a minute after your first, you can call a second time. But don’t keep tooting away if you don’t hear answers. You have either spooked the birds already (and now educating them on “human” quail calls) or no birds are nearby.
You also don’t want to call during the heat of the day. The birds mostly call in the mornings. Once it becomes hot, they usually are all sitting together as a covey in the shade somewhere. When they hear a call then, they probably look at each other and wonder what crazy bird is out in the sun in this heat. I can almost hear them whispering to each other, “Don’t answer, we don’t need dumb-bird genetics in our covey.”
There are slight differences between the valley and Gambel’s quail rally calls, but they are so recognizable that you are unlikely to confuse them with anything else. (OK, that’s not entirely true. Mockingbirds that live around quail will frequently do amazing imitations of this call, but it is usually followed immediately with other calls that make up the fabric of mockingbird calls. You will probably only be fooled momentarily.) The valley quail usually makes a three-note call -- Chi-Ca-go -- while the Gambel’s quail has kind of doubles the middle note -- Chi-Ca-ca go. It’s like a stutter or hiccup. The key is to imitate the birds in your area as closely as possible.
The second call to learn for both species is the one that is fun to use this time of year. It is the single note “cow” or presentation call the males use to attract females in the spring mating/nesting season. This call also serves as a warning to other males to keep their distance. It is a single exclamatory note that trails off at the end: Kerrrrr. It is then repeated a few long seconds later, or made in response to other males calling from a distance and not made again until the bird hears another bird call in response.
Both species of male quail battle other males for dominance in the spring just like turkeys (which are closely related). Males set up home ranges and try to lure females to them, and they will battle with other males for the best spots. This is my favorite time of year to call quail because the males will frequently run (or fly) right to you, strutting purposefully around, neck bowed and features ruffled, ready to fight the intruding male. The less dominant males distribute themselves throughout a covey’s home range trying to lure the hens away from the dominant birds. They are usually within earshot of each other, and mature males will frequently test each other and repeat battles for dominance.
The third call you hear frequently, but only when you are close to the birds, is the contact call. Most people only hear this call given in rapid sequences when they are close to the birds before they flush. So most think it is an alarm call. In valley quail it is a rapid, chit-chit-chit, while in Gambel’s quail it is throaty, almost purring, “urht-urht-urht” call.
The reality is this is the birds’ close-quarter contact call and an alarm call. They use it all the time when they are moving and feeding in an area. The tempo is much slower when they are not panicked, and it is a happy noise they make to be sure other covey members are nearby. If they hear the call increase in tempo and nervousness, it means danger is near and flushing is eminent. If they cease making the call, it usually means there is danger and they are going to sit tightly and wait out the danger. This call is best imitated by making the sharp ticking sound with your mouth for valley quail, while making the Gambel’s quail is more problematic, at least for me.
The final call you will hear on occasion is an angry “putt,” to use turkey language parlance. It is more like a loud contact-type call or the first note of the rally call that has a nasally, cough-like sound. The bird sounds annoyed. Males use it in the spring to show their displeasure with another male that has entered his territory. This is a tough one to imitate.
There are a number of quail calls on the market, and no quail hunter or bird enthusiast should be without a couple. The two most common are an orange plastic version made by Primos or a smaller wooden call made by Lohman. Both cost $10 to $12 and use rubber bands for the reed, which mimic both valley and Gambel’s quail well. I make my own custom calls out of highly figured pieces of wood with sound chambers and rubber bands for the reed. You can also make your own out of wooden clothes pins, black electrical tape, and rubber bands. [I have detailed directions with step-by-step photos on how to do this on my website at www.OutdoorNewsService.com. Go to the “Quail Calls” page and you can download the directions as a PDF file there. It’s a great Scout or kid’s school project.)
Mountain quail have a similar repertoire of calls, but their voice is far more musical and whistle-like. You will need a completely different call for mountain quail. Some hunters use pintail or wigeon whistles to make the “quee-ARK” call, and some mountain quail-specific calls are available. The repeated, single-note whistle song can be done by people who are good mouth whistlers.
Lastly, the key to becoming a competent quail caller is practice. A quail call is really a small musical instrument, and during your practicing it helps to have real bird accompaniment. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website (www.allaboutbirds.org) is a great place to listen to quail sounds and begin practicing your quail calling by imitating these sounds. The Xeno-Canto (www.xeno-canto.org) website has an even greater number of recordings that allow you to hear -- and imitate -- even more variations.
Hopefully, you don’t have a brother-in-law who thinks your quail call is a kazoo.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 909-887-3444.]