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Not looking for lawns: Quail want plants that provide food and cover

California Quail
California Quail. Photo by Brent Bremer

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In 2014, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative identified 33 bird species that were once fairly abundant but are now in steep decline. Among them are two quail: Scaled Quail, which ranges from southern Colorado to north-central Mexico, and Northern Bobwhite, which occurs in the eastern and central states, southern Ontario, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

While some quail species are holding strong, such as California and Gambel’s Quail, others are struggling. The main problems for many species are habitat loss and degradation and growing pesticide use. In particular, agricultural lands are now managed so intensively that hedgerows and other fallow spots where quail once gathered to feed and roost are increasingly hard to come by.

In some areas, quail visit feeding stations, although they definitely prefer natural food. If you live in most urban or suburban kinds of habitat, you won’t have much luck attracting them to your yard unless a tame one escapes from a nearby game farm, but more open areas away from dense forests can be ideal. Quail try to avoid short vegetation that doesn’t offer cover, so they shun manicured lawns. Your yard’s natural plantings may be perfect, but if your neighbors have traditional lawns, quail are unlikely to discover your backyard.

The most important thing you can do to attract quail and to help them, individually and as local populations, is to plant the right kinds of vegetation to provide food and cover. The Oregon State University Extension Service recommends planting grasses and legumes along with such shrubs as serviceberry, snowberry, huckleberry, blackberry, currant, and grape.


Native trees that provide small nuts and acorns can also be useful. No matter where you live, locally native plants are always the best food sources for native birds.

Locally native conifers can provide safe roosting and nest sites for some quail. Thickets, tangles, and brush piles can also give the little birds excellent cover.

Water features can be wonderful attractants, especially when situated near cover. Quail seldom enter raised bird baths but are quick to discover artificial ponds and shallow bowls of water set on the ground; bubblers or drips make discovery even quicker. And water features lure in a lot of other birds as well, so even if no quail live nearby, you’ll reap rewards.

The Oregon State University Extension Service cautions against setting corn and seeds — exactly the foods quail like — on the ground in areas where you might attract rats or where outdoor cats may be lurking. Unfortunately, quail in most areas are reluctant to alight on feeders off the ground. But since skulking is the order of the day for quail under the best of conditions, providing natural habitat and water will afford you opportunities to observe them the way they want to be observed, and really, isn’t that what birdwatching is all about?



This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the July/Augsut 2018 issue of BirdWatching. 

Originally Published

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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