Cyrtonyx montezumaeMontezuma quail

Geographic Range

Montezuma quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae) are found primarily in Mexico along the Sierra Madre mountains, however, their range extends briefly into the southwestern United States. States that have populations of montezuma quail are Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Populations are scattered along mountain ranges at elevations of 1000 m and above in eastern and southeastern Arizona, extending into western and southern New Mexico. Texas has a few isolated populations in the western portion of the state at similar elevations. Montezuma quail have been observed in Arizona at elevations as high as 3050 m on Escudilla Mountain, Green’s Peak and Mt. Baldy. (Brown, 1989; Sibley and Monroe, 1990)


Typical habitats of montezuma quail are oak savannas or oak-pine woodlands. These vegetative communities coincide with the species elevational distribution. Although rare, small populations have been recorded in pinion-juniper woodlands, mesquite grasslands, and mixed conifer forests. (Brown, 1989; Russel and Monson, 1998; Stromberg, 2000)

  • Range elevation
    1000 to 3000 m
    3280.84 to 9842.52 ft

Physical Description

Montezuma quail are plump, stocky birds resembling other new world quails. Adults are 205 to 230 mm long, slightly shorter than the other western quails. The species exhibits strong sexual dimorphism in plumage coloration, although markings are very intricate in both sexes. Males have a distinct black and white face pattern. The contour feathers on the male’s ventral side are black with spots, except for a central patch of dark cinnamon feathers extending posteriorly from the breast. Females lack the black and brilliant white on their faces found in males. Females are also more brown overall. Montezuma quail can be distinguished from Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelii) by their lack of a prominent “top-knot” as well as other color differences. Other quail that may co-occur in areas with montezuma quail are northern bobwhite (Collinus virginianus) in east Texas. These more closely resemble montezuma quail, but the species can be differentiated relatively easy upon close inspection. (Stromberg, 2000)

  • Range mass
    176 to 195 g
    6.20 to 6.87 oz
  • Range length
    205 to 230 mm
    8.07 to 9.06 in


Nesting occurs from late June thru August, however, newly hatched young have been found as late as September in Sonora Mexico. Montezuma Quail nest on the ground in areas with adequate protection. Nests are covered structures usually woven with grass. Both males and females participate in incubation of the eggs and brooding of the young for the first few days after hatching. The average clutch size is 10 and double brooding in the wild has not been reported. Reproductive success is thought to be correlated with summer precipitation. Summer rains increase abundance and growth of food plants and increase the biomass of native perennial bunchgrasses which provide critical cover and protection for the quail. (Brown 1989, Albers and Gehlbach 1990, Stromberg 2000)

  • Breeding season
    Late June through September

Montezuma quail young are precocial and are usually out of the nest foraging for food soon after hatching. When born, the young are fully feathered and capable of quick sprints to the nearest cover. During the first week, parents teach the young which food sources are palatable and often expose bulbs and insects to the chicks. Within 1 week, the chicks forage independently. Like many other species in the avian world, growth of the young follows a sigmoid curve. Juveniles reach adult weight between 10 and 11 weeks. After this time, the young are well developed and fully capable of flight comparable to that of adults. Juveniles will attempt to reproduce in their first year of life. (Stromberg 2000)


In captivity, montezuma quail may live up to 7 years but the lifespan of free-ranging birds is much lower due to less than optimal conditions and predation. (Stromberg, 2000)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    7 (high) years


Montezuma quail spend all of their time foraging and roosting on the ground in coveys, or small flocks. Flight is typical of other North American quail, consisting of a loud and powerful take off with rapid wing beats, quickly giving way to gliding flight. Distances flown are generally very short. Montezuma quail generally fly only as a last resort, preferring to run and “freeze”. The typical behavior of montezuma quail when a predator is detected is to run to the nearest cover. The quail then remain crouched and rely on their amazingly effective cryptic coloration and motionless posture to elude the predator. Montezuma quail are renowned for their tendency to hold tight in thick cover. This trait gives the species a very low detectability in surveys. Because of this, the Arizona Game and Fish Department uses hunting dogs to assist in finding quail during surveys. This behavior of montezuma quail has also earned it the name “Fool's Quail” because many a hunter has had a humbling experience when pursuing the elusive birds.

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

Coveys forage strictly on the ground. After the covey leaves the roost, usually near a creek bed, the birds feed uphill staying close together. Their diet consist primarily of bulbs from wood sorrel (Oxalis spp.) and flat sedges (Cyperus spp.). Consequently, the birds are often seen digging in moist soil with their elongated claws adapted for exposing roots and tubers. Montezuma quail will also consume mast during years of productive crops. Insects and their pupa are another important food source when available. The birds generally shift their diet toward higher consumption of insects during the summer months when the prey are more abundant. Insects, however, may be eaten year round. A male harvested in November near the Buenos Aries National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona had parts from 8 large grasshoppers in its crop (P. Greer, pers. obsv.). Seeds from various grasses and forbs can also be an important food source for Montezuma Quail. Like other species of quail in the southwest, drinking water is not required to maintain internal water balance. (Albers and Gehlbach, 1990; Russel and Monson, 1998; Stromberg, 2000)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • roots and tubers
  • seeds, grains, and nuts


Montezuma quail are preyed upon most commonly by avian predators such as Cooper's hawks, (Accipiter cooperii) northern goshawks, (Accipiter gentilis) and northern harriers (Circus cyaneus). The elusive quail are more of a challenge for terrestrial predators but are occasionally killed by coyotes (Canis latrans). When nests are found, the eggs would likely be consumed by an array of carnivorous animals such as skunks (Mephitis) and various snakes. Montezuma quail are also considered a gamebird and hunted in Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. (Stromberg, 2000)

Ecosystem Roles

Montezuma quail are highly dependant on the dense understory grass cover of native annual and perennial plants characteristic of a healthy evergreen oak woodland community. Thus, the status of montezuma quail populations may reflect the health of the ecosystem.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Montezuma quail are considered game birds and hunted in Arizona, New Mexico, and to some degree in Mexico. The popularity of montezuma quail has steadily increased over the past two decades. Hunters in pursuit of these unique galliforms travel across the country each fall to search for montezuma quail in Arizona and New Mexico. The tendency of the birds to hold tight before flushing is also a desirable trait in a game bird which allows the use of various pointing breeds of bird dogs. This popularity among hunters brings substantial income to local guiding services and communities in montezuma quail country each hunting season.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Conservation efforts directed at improving montezuma quail habitat may indirectly affect livestock grazing permittees in these areas. (See Conservation Section)

Conservation Status

Montezuma Quail are directly dependent upon a thick ground cover of native perennial bunchgrasses for nesting habitat and escape cover. Consequently, the species is vulnerable to habitat alteration from overgrazing by livestock, change in weather patterns, and the spread of non-native plant species. Brown (1982) showed quail numbers declined in allotments where heavy grazing occurred although these areas did experience an increase in abundance of forage species. The negative effects of cover removal, however, outweighed the increase in forage. Stromberg (2000) stated that habitats subjected to reduction of greater than 50% of the annual grass production could not support viable populations of Montezuma Quail. Consequently, management objectives should be directed at maintaining the natural biomass of ground cover in these habitats. The most effective means of accomplishing this would be reducing livestock grazing permits. This alternative would likely be met with opposition from the ranching community. (See Economic Importance for Humans Section) (Brown 1982, Albers and Gehlbach 1990, Stromberg 2000)

Other Comments

Other common names of montezuma quail are: Mearn's quail, fool's quail, and harlequin quail.


Paul Greer (author), University of Arizona, Todd McWhorter (editor), University of Arizona.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


union of egg and spermatozoan


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


Albers, R., F. Gehlbach. 1990. Choices of feeding habitat by relicit Montezuma Quail in central Texas. Wilson Bulletin, 102: 300-308.

Brown, D. 1989. Arizona Game Birds. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Brown, R. 1982. Effects of livestock grazing on Mearns Quail in southwestern Arizona. Journal of Range Management, 35: 727-732.

Russel, S., G. Monson. 1998. The Birds of Sonora. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Sibley, C., B. Monroe Jr.. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stromberg, M. 2000. The Birds of North America: Montezuma Quail. Philadelphia: The Birds of North America Inc..