feature By: Jim Matthews | November, 17
Western quail live in big country, and coveys often disperse over a broad area.
Birds call to stay in contact, alert each other of danger and socialize.
Learning to use a quail call will enhance your hunting experience and make you more effective.
Most Western quail hunters don’t have a clue about how and when to use a call during the hunting season or during preseason scouting, and most also don’t realize how much fun quail calling can be, especially during spring scouting.
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, straightforward primer on the birds’ calls, what they mean and how and when you should use each type for 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. This is the famous three- or four-note Chiquita or Chicago call we’ve all heard. 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 call is used frequently (but not repeatedly) 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 dominant birds in the covey will make this call just to let everyone else in the group (and nearby coveys) know where they are 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 and less as young birds age and learn the covey’s 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 at 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 others 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.” 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 away their location by calling. The coveys have places in their home range where the young birds have learned to rendezvous without calling. Sometimes you might hear a single call that tells the rest of the birds the direction that bird is heading, giving away the rendezvous point. 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 flushed, so he answered with a calming dominant bird call as he sat under the tree. Almost immediately he saw the two young birds running zigzag down the wash toward him from cover patch to cover patch. They stopped under a palo verde 30 yards away, so he called again. Since he was dressed in camouflage, the two young birds soon approached him under the tree, 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 hunters primarily use this rally call 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 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 are 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 kind of doubles the middle note – Chi-Ca-ca go. It’s like a melodic 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 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. This call is generally only made in the spring.
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. By scouting in the spring, you can frequently find pockets of a covey’s home range where you might not otherwise hunt if you hadn’t been spring scouting.
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 a throaty, almost purring, urht-urht-urht.
The reality is this is both the birds’ close-quarter contact call and its 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 imminent. 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. It’s usually not a call you will have occasion to use anyway, because if they are close enough to hear and use this call, they are usually already aware of your presence.
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 their territory. Hens use it if they are surprised and annoyed at something. This is a tough one to imitate. It sounds like the word rank said in your throat and pushed out your nose instead of your mouth.
There are a number of quail calls on the market, and no quail hunter should be without a couple. The two most common are the orange plastic version made by Primos or the smaller wooden call made by Lohman. Both cost $10 to $12 and use rubber bands or rubber band pieces for the reed. Both mimic both valley and Gambel’s quail well. Online, do-it-your-selfers can find several instructional videos on building quail calls using clothespins and other common materials.
Mountain quail have a similar repertoire of calls, but their voices are far more musical and whistlelike. 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. That’s another reason why spring and summer scouting is a good idea: It’s the time to practice your call. But you can and should also practice at home. 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.