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This is a very special episode of Hunt Gather Talk, as I get the chance to talk with Rocky Gutierrez, one of the nation’s foremost game bird biologists. Gutierrez has published more than 175 peer-reviewed papers on birds ranging from spotted owls to ruffed grouse, Valley quail, band-tailed pigeons, as well as the main topic of our conversation, mountain quail.
He studied under A. Starker Leopold, the son of Aldo Leopold, who is considered the father of modern wildlife management. Gutierrez has also written many publications on hunting and how it works in tandem with wildlife management.
Every episode of Hunt Gather Talk digs deep into the life, habits, hunting, lore, myth and of course prepping and cooking of a particular animal. Expect episodes on pheasants, rabbits, every species of quail, every species of grouse, wild turkeys, rails, woodcock, pigeons and doves, and huns. Thanks go out to Filson and Hunt to Eat for sponsoring the show!
Rocky is one of the top three living experts on mountain quail, and we talk a ton about this mysterious bird: how to find it, how it lives, and how to hunt it.
But this episode ranges farther than that. Hope you enjoy this deep dive into upland game with the Game Bird Guru!
For more information on these topics, here are some helpful links:
- A good overview about the biology of the mountain quail, from Cornell University.
- Hunting mountain quail, from Project Upland
- Rocky Gutierrez’s Google Scholar profile, with all his articles.
- A great article on mountain quail habitat — in other words, how to find them!
- You can find all my quail recipes here.
I am bringing back Hunt Gather Talk with the hopes that your generosity can help keep it going season after season. Think of this like public radio, only with hunting and fishing and wild food and stuff. No, this won’t be a “pay-to-play” podcast, so you don’t necessarily have to chip in. But I am asking you to consider it. Every little bit helps to pay for editing, servers, and, frankly to keep the lights on here. Thanks in advance for whatever you can contribute!
As a service to those with hearing issues, or for anyone who would rather read our conversation than hear it, here is the transcript of the show. Enjoy!
Hank: Rocky Gutierrez, welcome to the show. I can’t tell you how excited I am to have you on because you may well be the Yoda of game bird biologists. I got a chance to look at your CV and it’s funny because most of us here in the real world have a resume and it’s a page or two page, but as a… Not only an academic, but a academic of pretty amazingly prodigious pedigree, your CV is like 31 pages long and you’ve published 175 peer-reviewed papers on all kinds of different subjects. I just have to say I’m pretty impressed to be able to talk with you today.
Rocky Gutierrez: Well, thank you very much, Hank. I think my graduate students would probably agree with you that I actually look like Yoda, too. Game birds, I will teach you.
Hank: I brought you on the show to talk about mountain quail because you are, as far as I know, one of the, if not the experts on this particular species. And I do want to talk about that bird extensively, but you have so much experience with so many of the other birds that we work with in this season of Hunt Gather Talk that I think we may end up being a little bit more wide-ranging because you have study band-tailed pigeons. You have studied valley quail. You have studied lots of different kinds of grouse. All of these are species that everybody listening to this is interested in, so we may go a little bit farther afield. But I think I want to continue introducing you in the sense that you have been studying upland birds as well as owls since the ’60s, is it?
Rocky Gutierrez: Probably when I was an undergraduate, but mostly the ’70s is when I really started getting…
Hank: You studied under… Is it Aldo Leopold’s son Aldo Starker Leopold?
Rocky Gutierrez: Well, Aldo Leopold was the father of wildlife management and his son was A. Starker Leopold who was a professor at Berkeley and I was his graduate student, so the son of Aldo Leopold. And Starker was a very famous wildlife biologist in his own right and was quite influential in public policy for wildlife management during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
Hank: Yeah, I had his book on valley quail.
Rocky Gutierrez: Right, right. Exactly.
Hank: You have a connection with Humboldt State, but you’ve also been to the University of Minnesota. Where did you grow up and what got you into birds?
Rocky Gutierrez: Well, I grew up in New Mexico in Albuquerque. My family traces its history to 1598 with the Oñate expedition of the first Spaniards who colonized what is now United States. So I guess it’s a really deep, long-rooted history in New Mexico. I grew up in Albuquerque, went to high school there and then when I graduated from high school, I joined the army and was… Actually, I signed up to go into the green berets but they gave me an IQ test and they pulled me aside after… They were making assignments after advanced infantry training and said that “We want you to go in army intelligence.”
Well first of all, they asked me… They said, “Well, we want to talk to you about your test scores on these IQ tests.” I went, “Oh my God.” I said, “I failed another test. The [inaudible 00:04:18] were right about me. I really am not very smart.” So anyway, I talked to them and they said, “Well, your IQ tests are really high and we’d like you to consider going in army intelligence and you could do different kinds of things.” So I agreed to that and so I went into the army in 1967 and spent… Or I mean, 1963 and spent four years in the army, got out in ’67 and then I started school. Actually, I had started school as night school when I was in Japan at a base outside of Tokyo. I would take some night courses at [foreign language 00:05:08], which is a Jesuit university in Japan. It’s kind of like the Harvard of Japan, but they had a program to allow GIs to take night classes there.
I took some night classes there and then when I got out of the service, I went into… I went to the University of New Mexico for a year and then to Colorado State University for three years and got my bachelor’s degree and then returned to the University of New Mexico for a master’s degree. And then after two years, went to Berkeley, University of California, Berkeley to work with Starker Leopold. I was there for four years. I took a position at Cornell University in New York for two years and didn’t really like it back East. I’m really a Westerner [crosstalk 00:06:03].
Hank: Well, I mean come on. I mean, I know about Ithaca and… You know how they say that the Inuit have 14 words for snow? There’s a million words for the all different kinds of horrible drab rain they get in Ithaca. They say it’s ithacating, where it’s raining but not quite raining and it’s just… And there’s something like 325 days of cloudy or rain there. It can be a pretty grim place for a guy from Albuquerque.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah, exactly. I went from Cornell to Humboldt State and of course, they were trying to convince me that it was going to be worse weather at Humboldt because of all the fog. But in fact, you’re right. It’s not nearly as oppressive weather as Ithaca was because at least it’s cool and it’s nice all year round. Even if it’s raining, it’s pretty amiable weather. There, it was just nasty. But that wasn’t the reason I was… I didn’t care about the weather. You just learn to deal with weather no matter where you are, just like hunting. You want certain kinds of weather for certain species, but sometimes it doesn’t happen and so you just deal with it.
I just really like the ambiance of the West and the mountains and whatnot. That’s why I wanted to move back. But anyway, I spent 21 years at Humboldt State and then I was offered an endowed chair at the University of Minnesota. And although I wasn’t really looking to leave Humboldt State, an endowed chair, like The Godfather, it’s an offer you can’t refuse. So I took this endowed chair because of the provided great flexibility to do what I wanted to do and so forth. So I stayed there for 15 years and then moved back to our house which we kept from Humboldt out in the forest east of McKinleyville. That’s basically my story here.
Hank: So where do birds fit in? Did you grow up as a hunter?
Rocky Gutierrez: I did, actually. When I was a young kid, my father bought a piece of property up in the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico. He was quite an avid fly fisherman and he taught me fly fishing at a very early age. I mean, I never even dunked a worm in my life, I don’t think, and just learn to fly fish from age of eight or nine. But anyway, he bought this piece of property and I think it was an acre or so. We built the cabin. We spent, I don’t know, six, seven, eight years building this cabin.
The the way we did it was, well, he… I should say we. He basically built it and I just hustled cement and other things on our weekends. We would go out fly fishing various places in Southern Colorado and New Mexico and every… Anytime we saw a really interesting looking boulder, we picked it up and put it in back of the truck or the back of the car and we compiled this giant pile of boulders that we built this cabin with over the course of four or five or six years. And so while we were doing that, he… And I’d get bored because I was a young kid. He had a .22 that he bought me and I would just go off on my own, just running around the woods and shooting squirrels and whatnot to eat or rabbits, and we’d come back and eat them.
That’s how I got interested in hunting. My father developed heart disease when I was young so he really couldn’t hunt. He was a absolute, tremendous shot and used to hunt pheasants in New Mexico with a .22. He would shoot them out of the air with a .22 which is, of course, illegal, but nobody cared about the legality at the time I grew up.
Hank: And it’s also impressive.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. It’s also illegal now. And so I got very interested in shooting and in becoming proficient with a rifle because my dad could throw a can in the air and keep it in the air until all 17 shells were expended from that tubular Winchester that he had given me. It was a pump action. So I learned to be a good shot by running around in the woods and shooting at rocks and different targets that I picked and… Nothing wanton, but just learning how to shoot. And of course, my father was very strict about killing anything. Anything I killed, we had to eat it or I had to eat it so I was judicious about what I shot.
Hank: I was going to say, did you enjoy those ground squirrels?
Rocky Gutierrez: I actually never shot a ground squirrel. I once shot a pigeon outside my house and I just took… With a pellet gun I had and I threw it in the trash can. I turned around from the trashcan and my father was standing at the door. He said, “What did you just do?” I just said, “Well, I shot a pigeon and threw it in the trashcan.” He said, “You get that pigeon out, clean it and eat it.” So I’m-
Hank: Pigeons are good.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah, well, but when you boil things… Because I had to do it all myself and he didn’t [inaudible 00:12:19]. He just said, “You’re on your own, buster. You pull the trigger, you’re on your own.” It sort of taught me that I needed to develop a sense of respect for taking the life of animals that I killed. It was a good way to teach hunting ethics without being draconian about it. He just said, “This is your responsibility. You just cannot kill an animal and waste it,” and so that’s why I learned to hunt and I’ve been that way through my entire life.
Hank: Did you hunt birds in New Mexico or did you pick that up when you were at Humboldt or… Because it’s interesting. One of the things about your background as you describe it to me is you have lived in the heartland of a number of pretty major game species. Minnesota is the home of woodcock and grouse and Humboldt has both Valley and mountain quail and Albuquerque has scaled quail and probably Mearns quail at some point, and maybe Gambels are New Mexico as well and there’s grouse in New Mexico. You’ve had at least geographic proximity to some of the major upland species that we hunt.
Rocky Gutierrez: Right. Well, I had mentioned about my father’s heart disease. I really wanted to go hunting when I was a kid. He worked with a couple of people and he got me lined up to go with them bird hunting. And so I started bird hunting actually with associates of my father. We went out the first time… A neighbor gave me this old single shot 16 gauge… I think it’s called a Baker… Baker shotgun and so I used that for hunting and he let me go with these two friends of his. We went out to a place called Corrales. It was just on the north end of Albuquerque, which was… Now it’s a yuppified place but then, it was where all the orchards were and truck farms that serviced Albuquerque to the north of the city.
But there was a lot of pheasants there and I remember… Oh, I must’ve been in the seventh grade. We walked out in this field early in the morning right at first light and roosters just started cackling all around me and getting up. Of course, I was so cold. I couldn’t even raise my gun and of course, I was the only one that… Everybody was spread out. The other two folks were spread out and I was in the middle with all the roosters around me. I was so cold, I couldn’t even follow my gun up to shoot. So we didn’t get anything but as we walked along, I wound up flushing a hen. Of course, it was illegal to shoot hens, but I didn’t know the difference between a hen and a rooster and I shot it and actually killed this hen.
When I got over there, I realized that I’d made a mistake and I put it… They said, “Well, just put it in your game bag.” So we put it in the game bag and it turned out that these guys were bandits. I mean, they were really [inaudible 00:16:03] and they didn’t really care because they were shooting at hens and roosters and anything else that got up. I was the only one that had gotten a bird that morning. I had this thing in back of my pocket. Fortunately, the tail feathers [inaudible 00:16:21]. We walked up on this dike and here was a game warden in his truck.
So they just walked right up to him, leaned on the car, started BSing, gave him a cup of coffee and I was just sitting there. I mean, I was mortified that I’d made this mistake and I had this illegal bird in my game pouch. They just bluff their way through this. He never even asked us for our licenses or anything. Because I didn’t have one. I mean, they just told me to go. And so we just went on. After that, I just said, “I’m just not going to do this again.” I’m learning all of this as I’m going along and realizing that something’s not right here. Again, it was the sort of lucky learning experience where you do something stupid when you’re 12 years old or 13 years old and you should have better advice from these people that are taking you, but they didn’t.
Fortunately I got back, I told my dad all about this and he got really furious because he said, “Well, why didn’t you buy a license?” And they said, “Well,” they said, “Don’t bother wasting your money on it.” And I’m going… And he said, “No, no, no. You don’t do that.” Luckily, I learned to make mistakes without penalizing myself too badly.
That’s how I got to learning about quail and realizing that it was really a lot of fun to… Well, it wasn’t so much the shooting of the birds, but just the thrill of having these birds rise up in front of you and hearing those cackling and the pandemonium that goes on. My heart was in my throat and I got really excited about that. And so really, that’s what turned me on to hunting birds.
And then, of course, I dutifully went and got a license. Any time I got a chance to go out with friends or other people, I would go out quail hunting. And as you say, we had Gambel quail in the valleys and scalies on the ridges in the Chihuahuan grasslands and, of course, both ring-neck pheasants and what we called Afghanistan whitewing pheasants, which used to be considered a different species of pheasant, but now is considered just a subspecies of ring-neck. They have no ring around their neck, but they have white shoulder patches. They introduced those onto the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in Southern New Mexico… Or South of Albuquerque, not quite Southern New Mexico, but getting down that way.
Hank: Are they still there?
Rocky Gutierrez: We had both of those in the Valley.
Hank: Are they still there?
Rocky Gutierrez: They pretty much hybridized with the ring-necks that were there. I’m not sure if you can find any purebred Afghans anymore, but at the time that I… Up until about 20 years ago, you would… Around the Bosque del Apache, you would find purebred Afghans, ones that had half a ring around them and white shoulder patches or no shoulder patches and then the pure ring-necks. My assumption is that they pretty much got swamped out by the ring-necks over there.
Hank: Gotcha. It’s a little bit like what people are saying is going on with the Mexican duck and the black duck and the mottled duck, is they’re interbreeding with a regular mallards and things are getting a little squishy from a genetics standpoint.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah, that’s right. My very first wildlife job after I got out of the army and I went to this… The first year after getting out of the army, I went to the University of Mexico and I got a job after my first year of college at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. We were sitting… Actually, I wasn’t sitting there. I was listening to the managers and the biologists talking about managing for Mexican ducks because they were considered endangered and that this [inaudible 00:21:11] problem and there was relatively little habitat.
It seems like they had a preference of habitat for ponds that were overgrown with shrubs and trees and whatnot, and so they were thinking about creating potholes in the brushy areas of the refuge so that they would have this kind of special habitat. They were talking about, “Well, how are we going to dig these potholes?” and I raised my hand and I says, “Hey, I know how to make potholes,” because, of course, I’d been trained in army intelligence. And so they said, “How you do want to do that?” I said, “I just need a backhoe and nitrogen-soaked diesel fertilizer, dynamite and Primacord and wire.” Then I said, “I’ll have all the potholes you want.”
So we dug these holes and of course I rigged up this whole thing to blow a pothole. I strung out the wire and I was going to just touch it off by touching it to the battery and to the blasting cap and get electric shock to the blasting cap. After about 150 feet, I ran out of wire and I said, “Don’t you have any more wire than this?” And they said, “No. We figured that’d be enough.” I said, “Man.” I said, “No way.” I said, “Get underneath the car,” and they said, “Wow, this would be okay,” so I said, “All right.” I hit the wires and [inaudible 00:22:54] it off and I just dove underneath the car. The next thing I see is people trying to get underneath the car because there’s debris and dirt and trees and everything was raining down on us. I had this beautiful pothole, though.
Rocky Gutierrez: It’s about 30 feet long, 15 feet wide and about six feet deep. It was perfect.
Hank: It’s funny because my experience is the same because I like to hunt Mexican ducks on the Mexican border in Arizona. We typically find them in the little cattle ponds and not in the big water.
Rocky Gutierrez: Right. Exactly.
Hank: So if there’s a little piece of water and there’s five ducks on it, chances are three or four of them are going to be a Mexican mallard.
Rocky Gutierrez: That’s right.
Hank: Quails. Let’s just talk about mountain quail for a second. So you’re writing the account about mountain quail for the… Which is this? Some major publication right now?
Rocky Gutierrez: There’s a publication. This is actually something that the audience would probably want to know about. There’s a series called The Birds of the World that is a species accounts that have all the natural life history of all the birds of the world that is being written as we speak by various experts throughout the world. These are published in a collaborative venture between organization called Lynx Publication, which is a Spanish publishing house, and the laboratory of ornithology at Cornell.
You have to pay for a subscription to this birds of the world account, but your library might be able to get a subscription to this so you should ask your library about that. And the point is, is that you can go online and then read about all of these birds of the world. Right now, what I’m doing is writing the account for mountain quail and also for spotted owls. I did original account for the birds of North America, but we will update it now with some new information that has been published in the last 20 years on mountain quail. It should be out probably sometime early next year.
Hank: Oh, good. So they are the largest of our quail. If you’re listening out there and you don’t know what they are, google them. I’ll have pictures in the show notes. They are the quail with the exclamation point on their heads. Gambel’s quail and California quail have a question mark on their heads or the comma… We like to call them comma heads… but the mountain quail have this plume that’s like, “I’m going to run away,” because they are a… I would argue they are every bit as running a bird as a scaled quail and they are really, really a gorgeous bird that…
They are really, really a gorgeous bird that tends to be the kind of the Holy Grail for somebody who wants to do the quail slam. They happen to be my local quail, but I’m unusual in that I live in the Sierra Nevada foothills, whereas for most quail hunters in North America, or really anywhere, their geographical distribution is very limited. It’s California, it’s Oregon, there’s a few in Idaho, there’s a few in Washington and there’s a few in Baja, but that’s about it. If you really want to hunt mountain quail in the United States, what is really pretty much only where they are … You’re going to correct me if I’m wrong, but I would say I would send somebody to Southern Oregon, the coastal range up by where you live, Siskiyou, which is the sort of the top middle of California, or where I live, which is the kind of Nevada County, El Dorado County, Placer County in the high mountains above about 6,000 feet. Does that sound about right?
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah, that’s about right, but then they’re also pretty abundant in the central coastal California ranges as well, and even in Southern California. So don’t sell those, those areas short for sure.
Hank: What makes them different from all the other species? How did they show up whereas, because I’m always interested in … I just talked to a guy named Kirby Bristow who’s a biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish about Gambles and Mearn’s quail, and a little bit about the Masked Bobwhite as well. It’s interesting in the sense that in that part of the world you’ve got multiple species of quail that are occupying different ecological niches. And you have the same deal in the West Coast where you’ve got both of the Valley quail and the mountain quail. So at some point there must’ve had a common ancestor that split and then one went high and one went low I guess.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah, I’ve actually tried to work this out and through using genetic analysis and essentially the mountain quail is an ancient lineage relative to the Valley quail, which means that they evolved much earlier than did the Bobwhite, the Valley quail, Gambel’s quail, Scaled quail and the like. In a paper I wrote at one time, probably 40 years ago now, I hypothesized that they very well might have been isolated as separate island areas from the North American continent and evolved independently and subsequently reinvaded the West as these oceans receded. So they belong in general, all the quail in North American belong to a family of the New World quail called the Odontophoridae, which is different from the Old World quail.
In that, there seems to be two big groups of these quail. One of those is the Mearn’s quail and all of its Southern relatives in the genus Odontophorus. And then there’s all these ones that we have here in the United States primarily, such as the Bobwhite and the Gambel’s quail, Scaled quail, Masked Bobwhite and the like. So there’s these two big lineages and the mountain quail is sort of an ancient one for the birds from the United States and it’s not entirely clear what relationship that they have to all of these species in Mexico and in Central America. Because when you go down from the Mearn’s quail, as you go further south, there’s the Marble Wood quail, there’s the Star quail, there’s the Big Tree quails, which are these great big, huge quail that almost looked like a partridge that live on the Kainos of Mexico in the genus Dendrortyx.
So there’s all these quail, probably 25, 30 species of them that are found in Southern Mexico, Central America and South America. And in what the relationships of those, we haven’t really fully worked that out from a genetic point of view. But anyway, that’s sort of a long answer to the question that you posed about these relationships.
Hank: What does a mountain quail need in terms of habitat and food and forage? So one of the issues from a hunter’s perspective is finding the damn things. In my experience, they do not covey up in the same way that Valley quail or Gamble’s quail or Bobwhites too, in the sense that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a mountain quail covey bigger than about 15. Usually they’re somewhat smaller than that. And even though they might be fairly thick on the grounds in some places they’re still fiendishly difficult to suss out, especially if you don’t have a dog.
But in the conversations I’ve had with other quail experts, the general thing that I’m getting is that all quail need shrubs that are anywhere from about waist high, to head high. They typically like berry bushes, things that they can eat, and they don’t like a ton of trees. They don’t mind some trees, but they don’t like a ton of trees because their enemies live in trees. Now, in my personal experience hunting mountain quail, they often do live in quite a lot of trees around. So they seem to be an exception to that and I don’t know what to tell somebody like, “You’re going to look for this, this and this, if you’re going to find mountain quail.” So I bet you do know that.
Rocky Gutierrez: You’ve just hit on some really interesting things. Of course, for my doctoral dissertation, I actually lived with mountain quail for four years. Every morning I’d get up in the dark and go out of my little cabin and hike up to these places to look for them. At the beginning, it is like virtually anything else we hunt. You really don’t know much about it, and you make a lot of mistakes and you don’t have much success. All of a sudden you see one and say, “Yeah, that’s pretty good.” And then you start seeing them more and more as there’s more time. What you’re doing is what we call in biology or in wildlife, you’re building up a gestalt, a niche gestalt of this animal. So when you finally get to know an animal and you go someplace and you look at that habitat and you see something in it, intuitively you say, “There’s going to be a deer here, there’s going to be California quail, there’s going to be mountain quail,” or whatever. You know that intuitively, but you don’t know how to articulate that.
So the subject of my dissertation was to say, what is that niche gestalt of mountain quail and California quail, where they occur together. Because sometimes I’d find them alone, mountain quail here, in California quail. Sometimes they’d be together. And so I was trying to work that out. The way I did this was to just spend a huge amount of time, basically dark to dark, early in the morning, late at night, walking around finding these birds, recording where they were, taking vegetation measurements at the sites where I would find a covey. Then of course I would collect 10 birds of each species every month to look at things like their molt and their reproduction and what they were eating and so forth.
I developed from that, not only my personal gestalt, but also statistical models to try to tell me what separated these two things. What you hit on was pretty close to what I observed, and that is the mountain quail is a bird that is cover loving. They were never more than, I think, 1.3 meters away, which is about five feet away or four feet away from a shrub or something that they could use as escape cover. Whereas, the California quail was quite different. There was always some escape cover, in the form of shrubs usually, near them. But they could be sometimes 50 yards away from a patch of shrubs that they would flush to. After time, I began to piece together, and these models sort of demonstrated that this bird is always around dense shrub cover, or as you say, sometimes they’re under the canopy of trees.
These other species usually stay more out in the openings and not in the forest. Now Bobwhites are different. They can be a bird of the forest, the pine forest and other kinds of forest, if they’re open in the understory-
Hank: It’s true. I’ve seen that in Alabama.
Rocky Gutierrez: Right. And in the Southeastern United States. But the mountain quail, it’s all about cover, whether it’s in the form of trees … But they always have to have shrubs down there. Then again, one of the things we try to do as scientists is disprove that which we think we know. So I published these papers on the need for shrubs. One of the first things I did when I became a professor is I had a couple of graduate students at Humboldt State that studied mountain quail. I asked them try to find places where mountain quail are not found where it’s steep, because that’s one of the drawbacks to the hunting mountain quail is that they’re always on these steep, nasty places and it’s dense brush. They make you pay a horrible price when you’re hunting sometimes.
Hank: They do. They do. I mean, it’s funny, just a side note, I think limit on them is 10 in California. I’ll be damned if I’ve ever shot … I’ve never shot more than four in a day. I mean, they’re not always on steep spots where I live though. There’s lots of them in bowls and ledges and shells and things, but they always need that cover.
Rocky Gutierrez: Exactly. They have to have this cover and I told these grad students, “Go find places.” The other thing was that they were always correlated with steep slopes. And as you said, you found them where there weren’t any. So I had told these graduate students, “You go find places where there are quail, and it’s not steep. See if you can do that.” And sure enough, they found them in various places in Northeast California, on plateaus where the mountain quail was doing just fine. There wasn’t any Hills to speak of what whatsoever. So what that does is say, well, does that mean that I was wrong, that they needed the … or was the steep slopes correlated with something else, which is the shrubs? And in fact, that’s probably what it is.
It only happened that the shrubs just happened to be on these steep slopes. And that’s why they’re there. It’s not because of the steep slopes is because of the shrubs. The other thing, then later I spent some time in Baja, California in the San Pedro Martir, which is a big mountain range South of Ensenada that sits right on the Sea of Cortez. We went up there. We were actually looking for Spotted owls in this mountain range.
Hank: Really? The Spotted owls are that far South?
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. There’s early records from a hundred years ago from this mountain range, a guy named Chester Lamb found Mountain quail down in this mountain range. So we went to look for them to see if they were still there. We really didn’t find any Spotted owls. We thought we heard one individual, but we were never quite sure about it, although I’m pretty sure it was a Spotted owl. But what I did find was a lot of mountain climbing. They were up on the top of this mountain in an overgrowth Jeffery pine forest, and there wasn’t a shrub anywhere. It had been grazed at the bone and fires had removed the shrubs and grazing had removed the shrubs, but there were Mountain quail all over the place. I’m going, “What in the heck is going on here?” It turned out that there were piles of rocks in these little gullies and ravines, and they were ducking into these rocks to use as cover. It’s one of these things where you see something and say, “Oh, they’ve got to have shrubs.” But no, what they need is cover and they’ll use rocks for cover.
So here was this unbelievable population of Mountain quail up on the top of this mountain and they were all in these ravines, in gullies that had jumbles of a rock piles all over the place. That’s what they were using for their escape cover.
So there you have it. Its one of these things. Birds do different things in different places. And as long as the end result is the same for the bird, it’s sort of acceptable habitat. So the end result here is that they need to have escape cover, and they’ll use whatever they can as escape cover. And these rocks were apparently fine, just like the dense cover of canopy of these what we call [inaudible 00:16:07], which is the combination of deciduous oaks, live oaks and species like madrone trees, where it’s dense canopy and then shrubs underneath. They’ll use this dense forest as their escape cover.
Hank: I’m thinking on the fly here, but my initial thought when you’re describing this is, “Oh, well, they have to be so close to cover because they don’t have as many eyes as the Valley quail have.” If you’ve got a bigger covey, you’ve got an more set of eyes. Chances are somebody in that group is going to be like, “Something’s coming,” and they have a little bit more time to fly away or runaway. And the Mountain quail coveys are just so much smaller that they need to be closer because they don’t have that margin of error,
Rocky Gutierrez: That’s a good hypothesis. I think it’s one that definitely needs to be considered in thinking about why they want to be so close to cover. And another thing that you see with Mountain quail is their behavior is much, much more subdued than say a California quail or a Gamma quail. Most of us get a chance to watch California quail. So if you go out to any state park that’s out in the foothill country somewhere, you’re going to see California quail. If you just watch them for a while, you say, “These guys just can’t leave each other alone.” They chase each other and they run around and fluff their feathers and do all kinds of stuff.
They’re always moving around and messing around. And if you watch mountain quail for any period of time, they’ll do a little bit of that, but they’re much, much more subdued in their reactions. I’ve literally spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours, just sitting quietly, watching mountain quail do their thing. They just move very cautiously and they’re always looking around. And I think it’s because of this thing that you’re getting back to with the multiple eyes. In the case of a Mountain quail, their habitat is so dense that when they see a predator, that predator is dangerously close to being able to kill them. I think what they’re doing is reducing their overt behavior, just so they’re not as conspicuous.
It’s like you going deer hunting, for example. You’re sitting there walking along or looking with your binoculars and all of a sudden you see something that doesn’t seem right. And what you’ve seen maybe is a twitch of a leg or a flick of an ear. And that’s what alerts you to something that you need to focus on to try to then determine what is it that I think I saw there. And that’s what happens. When a predator sees a Mountain quail, it’s going to be on top of it. And so the Mountain quail, I think, have reduced their overt behavior as a result of that.
And I’ve even seen something quite unusual that’s never been recorded for any species of quail, and that is what happens when a Mountain quail gets caught out in the open by at least … I mean, caught out in the open meaning they have the potential to be seen by a predator.
Hank: I bet they hunker down.
Rocky Gutierrez: Right. They hunker down, but they do something even more than that. One time I watched the covey of quail. They were feeding and all of a sudden, one of them gave an alarm clock call and they all hunkered down, all went flat to their belly. But simultaneously the entire Covey turned their bodies and oriented their head to heads away from this Cooper’s Hawk that flew into a tree about, say, 20 yards, 25 yards away. That Cooper’s hawk knew that they were there and he was sitting there looking. I just sat there quietly watching it. They all just moved with their tail oriented towards that bird.
Then that hawk flew around me and landed just above me. As that bird was flying around, they just all simultaneously moved their bodies the same way and continued to orient their tails towards that bird. And as I looked at them with my binoculars, because I’m sort of sitting there and I’m a little bit above ground level, so I could see where they were. They were hard to pick up because those quiet marks of their tails and on their flanks sort of blended in and provided a disruptive coloration to that hawk, so that hawk couldn’t actually pick them up.
Hank: It also puts them in a spot to where they can flush away from the hawk in unison.
Rocky Gutierrez: Right. And of course they all had their heads turned like that, and they were watching the hawk so that if the hawk did that, they’d take off flying.
Hank: Do you know who else does that? Snipe. Snipe do that exact same thing. Because when you’re hunting snipe in a bog and a lot of times there’s no cover at all, but I’ll be damned if I can ever see them. But the one in a hundred times that you do see them on the ground before you walk up on them, they’re always with their tails towards you and they’re giving you side-eye kind of out of the corner of their eye. So they’re looking at you, but they’re kind of either in like a pre flush position, which is why you almost never see snipe on the ground before they flush.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. That’s really interesting. So let me ask you this. Refresh my recollection of what these snipe look like. Do they not have a vertical stripe going down their wing there … So you’d be looking down on them, there’s maybe a stripe on their wings or their-
Hank: They’re pretty cryptic. So the top of a snipe does have these … They have stripes on their head and they’ve got three ish white stripes going from their head towards their tail. But everything else is pretty cryptic. But yeah, there’s definitely a lined pattern going from head to tail on a snipe. If you look at it from above.
Rocky Gutierrez: So in a sense, the pattern of their back is similar to the pattern of a Mountain quail back when you look at it because they have those big, long stripes along their wing, those white marks going down their back.
Hank: Well, that’s cool.
Rocky Gutierrez: What you’re observing here is something we call an adaptation, that’s convergent across species. So whatever benefit that that disruptive pattern has, it’s being expressed in various species. And you’ll see this with lots of birds that live in grassland habitats with say, yellowish bars or lines going down their back. Like you’d be looking at a Mearn’s quail. Their back has a very similar pattern to other species that live in those same grassland habitats, because that’s disruptive camouflage and it’s selected for, but because of predation, by these birds.
Hank: So if you’re ever hunting common pigeons, the white one always gets shot first because your eye is drawn to it. And I bet you, that’s the same thing with hawks and things as well.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah, exactly. It turns out that we have a lot of vagrant birds that come from Asia and other places in California. And there’s always something different about that. People have measured the characteristics of these birds, and there’s always something a little bit different about them. But sometimes you read these bird reports and these vagrants get picked out of a flock by these predators.
Hank: Yeah. Including us. I mean, I’ve missed it, but I’ve seen Eurasian wigeon in flocks of regular wigeon two or three times. And people shoot the heck out of what Eurasians and our refugees in California in the winter because you can see them. They’re different.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. Your eye is naturally drawn to something different. That’s something unusual. As a guess, maybe that’s because predators recognize that something different might be something inferior, say like broken wing or not the adequate number of feathers to give the same degree of potential for flight escape. And so they just pick it out thinking that’s going to be the easiest target and sure enough, they get them.
Hank: As a shotgunner when that happens, it negates. Well basically, if you see that you won’t flock shoot because there’s something, one thing to focus your eye on. So we goose hunting here in the winter. If by chance you get an Eagle head, a blue phase snow goose, pretty much everybody is going to shoot at that particular goose because it’s the different one and it keeps your, as a shooter, I guess the same thing would be as a hawk. Like there’s a seal white and on there’s the one blue one we’re going to shoot that one blue one.
Rocky Gutierrez: Right. And, and in fact, when you think about it, this is one of the reasons why game and fish agencies are able to Institute a point system for ducks because in fact, hunters can, if they don’t, sky busts, if they wait for birds, come into spreads, they can pick the males from the females out and the different species out because we recognize them as different. And we can recognize the males. You see a big green head coming up and right away your gun is drawn to it.
Hank: Right. I mean I’m not a perfect at duck ID all the time, but I always know that it’s basically my role as I’m shooting for the skies as long, I mean obviously I can tell a duck versus a not duck, but I’m going to shoot for the skies until I had the limit of any given thing. Like if I’ve shot my one pintail, or if I’ve shot my two canvasbacks or whatever those little sub limits are, then you have to pay more attention.
Rocky Gutierrez: Right?
Hank: So with quail, especially mountain and Valley quail, I bet they eat different things, don’t they?
Rocky Gutierrez: Yes, actually it’s quite different. That was a big component of my dissertation and what basically I was able to do with these collections that I mentioned earlier in the talk, was that I would go out and shoot 10 mountain quail and 10 California quail every month of the year just to see what their food was, what they were eating over the course of the year as well as to look at their molt and their parasites and their reproductive organs and other things as well as to make a specimen for the museum zoology at Berkeley, I had deposited all my skins in those, in the museum. But in doing that and coupled with watching these birds intently and what they were actually feeding on, I found that the California quail is a generalist forger on annual seeds and plants.
So they primarily eat clovers and filleree rhodium and other legumes as seeds during the summertime and then when those plants become leafy in the winter time, they eat the leaf matter. And of course they’ll eat other stuff as well. And then they’ll eat berries and they’ll eat pieces acorn and the like but the mountain quail is very … and they do this, the Calla quail by Corvallis quail, they do this by scratching in the litter like you see, you just watch them in the summertime. They just scratch away and pick up seeds in the wintertime, they’re just clipping these green leafy forbs. But mountain quail they’ll eat a lot of that. Probably 40 or 50% of their diet are those annual plants and seeds and leafy material, but they also eat a very high proportion of perennial plants and they eat these perennial plants and by perennial plants, we mean plants that live from year to year without dying and depending on upon receding.
Hank: You’re talking about berries and such?
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. We were talking about blueberries, we call it vaccinium, blackberries to poison oak seeds and anything that has a berry on it, they’ll eat that.
Hank: They seemed to really like prunus emarginata where I’m from, that nasty little bright red plum that tastes super stringent.
Rocky Gutierrez: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Hank: So we always see them in either that Prunus emarginata, the little bitter cherries. They like white thorn. I think that’s just probably for cover and then kind of a sure-fire way to find them as if you’ve got white thorn and then you’ve got those spiky gooseberries and red currents kicking around up in the high Sierra.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. Okay. So the thing about this white farm, that’s in a genus of shrub called Ceanothus. Ceanothus is comprised of many species that occur here in California and one of them is whitethorn, another one they call buckbrush and another one in miners misery.
Hank: Oh, I’ve seen that one too.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. And it turns out that Ceanothus as a genus of plant, they produce a huge amount of seeds.
Rocky Gutierrez: And they’re in the mountain, God I love those things. So they eat quite a bit of Ceanothus. They eat these prunus that you talked about, these bitter cherries and they eat poison oak, and they actually eat acorns as well and unlike a Cal quail, which sort of depends on something to break it up for them and they eat the little pieces, Mountain quail just swallow these things whole, you know what I mean?
Hank: Yeah I’ve seen that.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. Not too big acorn.
Hank: The Mearns quails do the same thing with Emory acorns.
Rocky Gutierrez: Right. Exactly. And the other interesting thing about Mountain quail that separates them from California quail, is that the way in which they get these foods is often very different. So say 90% of the foraging you see California quail or Valley quail doing is scratching and pecking behavior. Well, as a Mountain quail does that, they also dig into the ground to get these little bulbs or bulblets of a plant called Lithophragma. I don’t even know if it’s got a common name to it, but the genus is Lithophragma and it’s these little bulblets and it digs them up and it really spends a lot of times digging those things up, just like the Mearns quail too.
Rocky Gutierrez: actually the majority of those diggings are going down there and getting these little Oxalis bulbs.
Hank: Exactly. They’ve got big long claws.
Rocky Gutierrez: Right. Exactly. But Mearns quail besides digging and pecking like the Cal quail, they will fly up into the shrubs or trees and eat these, pick the berries off or the seeds off and sometimes even the acorns and then they’ll also be forging along an annual plant called media, well has a big seed head and it sits about, well depending on the year of course but if it’s not too great a rainfall, when the seed head of this thing is about, say 14, 15 inches off the ground where its too tall for a quail to reach, these mountain quail jump up there and grab and take [inaudible 01:00:15] head off and eat them. So they jumped for food, they dig for food, they climb for food and they also scratch and peck. So the way in which they forage is much broader than this California quail, and that allows them to use these forest habitats much more effectively than in California quail did.
Hank: They seem to also be the most cold hardy quail, although they don’t like snow. So for us, we have our quail spots now in September and October, but the problem is we’re right now in the middle of the D-35 deer zone which screws us because there’s so much activity in the woods that the quail are all hunkered down in a virtually impossible, fine while there’s 40 million deer hunters in the woods, but they’re going to be gone in a couple of weeks and then that gives us November. November is usually good. But the season goes until the end of January. And so once you get to December and January, you start to get our good spots are all snowed out. But I have found that the Mountain quail will fly down to below the snow line in the dead of winter and you’ll find them in places in December and January that you’ll never find them in September.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. You hit on one of the really interesting things about Mountain quail again, and that is, they are the only quail in North America that migrate. And they migrate out of the snow because for obvious reasons, they can’t really reach down and get a lot of the food that’s fallen off the trees by that time. And the berries and whatnot that were on the shrubs that they could climb up to get, have also fallen off and fallen down on the ground so they have to pretty much move out of the high snow zone. And so there’s a couple of things that they do. One is that some of them will drop just straight down below the snow line and stay right, move up and down following the snow line and others will actually just get up and move a long distance.
Now, you mentioned earlier, at the beginning of this conversation that I had studied these birds for a long time and was one of the experts of them. And there are two other folks who’ve studied Mountain quail quite a bit. One is David Delahanty, who is a professor at Idaho State University. And he did his masters or his PhD work at the University of Nevada Reno and he also studied them in the Sierra. I studied my Mountain quail mostly in the central coast range, and then have observations throughout the range, wherever they occur. David primarily studied in the Sierra Nevada and also in the Mojave Desert, but also had some captive birds that he observed.
And then there’s a fellow by the name of Michael Pope who was at Oregon State University. And Michael did his PhD in Southwest Oregon and also in Hells Canyon area. But what he did was put radios on these birds.
Hank: Oh wow.
Rocky Gutierrez: Because the big question I always had, and I try to get money from agencies and whatnot to get radio collars to put on Mountain quail and I never could convince anybody that it was a worthwhile idea, but he was able to do this. And he’d put radios on quite a few birds and what he found sort of cooperated what we had seen just in general, like what you observed that these birds are not, when the snow falls where you’d find them at this time of the year they’re somewhere else.
And we know from his studies in one marking study in Idaho, by a fellow name of Osman that they do either one or two things, Oh, one of three things. One they’ll try to stay where they are and tough out the snow a little bit, or they drop down below the snow level and then follow it back and forth or they go somewhere else.
And this somewhere else can be in the case of Michael’s Pope studies was, up to 20 miles away. And in the Sierra Nevada, there was a really wonderful study that was done in the late 1940s by the California fish and game biologist led by a fellow named Enderlin. And they actually spent four or five years studying these birds just without telemetry, but just following them around. And they believe that some of these populations of, or some of these birds actually migrated 50 miles away and they mostly did it by walking. So they walked [crosstalk 01:05:38]
Hank: I’m just imagining 12 mountain quail just walking and walking. It’s kind of like a quail version of the Donner Party.
Rocky Gutierrez: Right? Yeah. Or just like deer they’re just emulating what our local deer do in these snow areas. So that’s any way, it’s a real fun thing. So for the people that hunt quail, if you’re on the coast of California, you don’t really have to worry about snow migrations for the most part and even when it snows, because it does snow on the central coast where I did my study, they basically get underneath the shrubs and just hang out because the snow is not going to last that long. And they are able to tough it out because there’s plenty of forge that under these snow free areas, underneath the shrubs. In the Sierra they drop down to area.
So there’s two strategies I would suggest one is just go to the snow line and look for shrub covered steep hillsides along the snow line. And the other thing to do is just to spend some time with your family and your kids or your spouse and just go down searching for Mountain quail in these lower areas because they don’t have any compunction or any problem invading Cal quail habitat for short times during this area. So they won’t be out in the open so much openings, but there’ll be out in these Foothill areas of brush that you find throughout the Sierra Nevada.
Hank: As you’ve hunted them over the years, how important is hunting with a dog because we hunt without a dog and I have seen people hunt with a dog and I get the sense that it would be a very particular kind of dog that could help you out a lot, but I suspect a dog would help you. I mean, what are your thoughts on that?
Rocky Gutierrez: You’re absolutely right about a particular type of dog. And I don’t mean breed. I’m talking about the individual.
Rocky Gutierrez: The reaction of a Mountain quail to a predator besides hunkering down, like we talked about before is to start running and they’re going to run before they fly. And for most bird dogs, that’s sort of the thing, you really don’t want to get your dog chasing birds. Flushing dogs, that’s not going to be a problem for them because they’re not going to, they’re generally not going to hold the point anyway, they’re going to flush them out. So what I’ve always felt is that it really depends on the dog and the conditions under which you’re hunting. Now, the reason I was successful in my PhD work, and really there’d never been a doctoral dissertation done on a Mountain quail prior to my research. It was because I had a dog that for some reason, understood how to handle a Mountain quail.
And this dog was a German Short haired pointer. His name is Toshio. I named him after my best Japanese hunting buddy, when I was stationed in Japan in the army, in this intelligence unit, there was a local gun shop there and I was befriended by the man who owned this shop and his name is Toshio. And he had a German short hair that we hunted copper pheasants and green pheasants and, and Japanese, Chinese bamboo Partridge and other species with. And so I really liked his short hair and he named it, John for John Wayne.
So when I got this short hair as an undergraduate student at Colorado State. I named him after my hunting buddy Toshio. And Toshio, this dog, grew up in my sleeping bag when I worked on big horn sheep as an undergraduate student, as an assistant for a graduate student in Colorado.
And this dog turned into a machine because I mean, you can imagine a dog that ran 20 miles a day at 11,000 foot elevation. First for the first six months of after it became a … after it was four from the time it was four months to the time it was 10 months, it ran 10, 15 miles a day up and down these mountains in the high Colorado Rockies.
Rocky Gutierrez: Absolute machine. And, but it had a knack that I’ve never seen any other of my bird dogs have about just sort of figuring out the gestalt of escape of a mountain quail. And when I took him out on my studies of Mountain quail right away, he figured out that these things are going to run away from you and what he needed to do was get around them and stop them.
So once I realized what he was doing, and the birds would get confused and they’d sit there and then he would sort of crowd them back and they’d come back to me. And then I just, with the hand signal, I just have him sit. I can see him in the brush and he’d sit. Then I would sit down and then he would, then I just make him lay down and he’d lay down. And then these quail would just sit there hunkered for 20, 25 minutes, and then they’d finally get up and they’d start moving around and then they’d moved down towards me and they’d come out in the open meaning where I could see them better. They were still in the brush and under the tree canopy and then they would start foraging and doing the thing and they’d sort of forget about it.
And he would just lay up there or if they moved off, I’d just call him down to me and he’d come to my side and then he just laid down and go to sleep. I just watched them with my binoculars as they were doing their thing. But he learned that if he could get around them, he could stop them from running away and then I could move forward and they were afraid to go towards him and as I crashed through the brush, they would then get up. And then, boom, I could, if I was lucky, I’d get one and he would retrieve it. And that’s the other thing about a dog is that it’s really helpful to have them a dog to retrieve, because if you don’t kill that bird cleanly, it’s going to run from you. And man, they’re hard. They’re really hard to find.
Hank: Yeah, not all quail will run but I was talking to another biologist named Ryan O’Shaughnessy and he hunts scale quail pretty exclusively in West Texas. And he said the exact same thing that you’ve got to, he uses led sixes for that reason, because he doesn’t want his quails running away on him. It seems like it would be hard to pin down, like what kind of dog or how you would even go about it.
Rocky Gutierrez: Well, to be honest, mine was just pure blind luck. I just happened to be blessed with a dog that nobody wanted. It was the runt of the litter and this friend of mine who had the female, he had sold all the pups and this last dog was, well, I call it a run, but it really wasn’t quite a run. It was just a small, the smallest of the litter, and nobody wanted the dog and so he practically begged me to buy it and I didn’t have any money and I’m a [inaudible 01:14:00] undergraduate student. And finally, I said, “Hey, I’ll give you 50 bucks for it.” And so, that which to me was like a fortune.
Rocky Gutierrez: When I was an undergraduate and he was selling them for 150. And so he sold it to me and this dog never was a big, short hair. It was on the short, sharp, small end of a short hair. But I think that having it just grow up in my sleeping bag every night because well, we had our base camp was 11,500 feet, and it was always cold. And I felt sorry for the little dog. It was pretty small when I got in so he would just sleep in my sleeping bag and he just grew up for the first five or six months of his life in my sleeping bag but he got to be in tremendous shape because of this. And then, because we were so close and spent all this time together, we just knew each other. And he understood like every dog you wish understands, that you’re a team.
And I’ve had my last short hair. She was a wonderful dog but she kind of thought she was independent. A lot of times she didn’t always get the drill that this is a team effort here. And so sure she was good she just never quite reached that plateau that that first dog did in terms of realizing this is a team and he would. And I trained him right away because when, you’re working on other animals, like big horn sheep, you can’t spook them.
Rocky Gutierrez: And so I had to. I couldn’t blow the whistle. I had to do everything with hands and I trained him to do everything. Come here and go left, go right. Everything like, you’d see at say a lab doing these field trials. That dog knew to do by hand and knew when to behave itself and when to stay here.
And I mean, you could have a quail and walk right in front of its nose and it would not move a muscle. And so it was able by the nature of the dog, I was able to accomplish this. And so I guess getting back to your question, you just have to have a dog that’s patient, is willing to break off a point and come to you or to do his hand signal and go to where you want it and to be absolutely rigid on its point. And like sometimes the dog didn’t know I was there and I would direct them with, with a hand signal to get around, or I knew the quail were headed and it didn’t because he was upwind from him, didn’t know they were going there and get him around the top side of these birds and then he would lock onto them when he finally found them up, smell them up on top. So it’s a dog that you have to have absolute control over. And that’s not prone to breaking.
Hank: Yeah. Well, I mean, it also sounds like you might be successful with a smallish flushing dog.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. I think of a small flushing dogs, like I said, even a lab could.
Hank: You mean small labs? But probably small labs.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. Small. Yeah.
Hank: Just not the big old Blockheads because you know, they’re not going to do well with altitude.
Rocky Gutierrez: Well, not only that, the brush can be so dense sometimes that they’re going to be hitting a lot and a sleeker, smaller dog can move through that thing. Actually, as you mentioned the flushing dog, I was thinking one of these water Spaniels might actually be a pretty decent dog for doing something like that.
Hank: As long as they have kind of a sleek coat otherwise, you’re going to be combing things out of their…
Rocky Gutierrez: Oh, yeah. Right.
Hank: I want to cover two things before we wrap up. One is calls. I’ve noticed that mountain quail aren’t terribly cheepy, but you can use a call and you will sometimes get them to call back. I’ve got both a handmade call made by a guy named Jim Matthews, and I’ve got a Primos call that both do pretty well in terms of making a mountain quail sound, but, and I’ve only just started using them. So I’m not terribly experienced with it, but I’d be wondering about your thoughts on using a call and the hunting context.
Rocky Gutierrez: Well, I’ve never done it. So anything I say here is speculation, but I see no reason why they wouldn’t work. Just like they would, they work for Cal quail, or chuckar’s, or roe deer, or anything else that responds to vocalizations. There’s no reason in the world why they wouldn’t work.
Hank: Okay. Yeah. I know Ryan, the guy who studies scaled quail and hunts them quite a bit, he says no way on a scaled quail.
Rocky Gutierrez: Oh, really?
Hank: Yeah. And I guess, because it’s such an esoteric species in terms of, you’re going to get a lot of people who want to hunt mountain quail, who are not from the West, so it’s to finish their quail slam or just to get themselves in that kind of a habitat. What would be some of your sort of basic 30,000 foot tips for somebody who lived in say, Kansas, to be successful if he or she wanted to go out on a mountain quail hunt?
Rocky Gutierrez: I think that part of your early observations about how they’re harder to find later in the winter is a key here. You want to hunt these mountain quail early in the season before the snow comes on. There’s two reasons for this, one is that of course they migrate, as we discussed, they’re liable to not be in the places that you would normally see them in the winter time. The other thing is that when the annual plants leaf out, or they sprout, and they turn to green leafy material for a lot of their food, and they’re not tied to water, they really disperse. One of the things we didn’t talk about, which is appropriate here, is that this Michael Pope, when he did his work in Oregon with radio telemetry, he found, he estimated the sizes of their home rages. And they’re huge relative to any other quail. Or at least the quail that most people from say Kansas would be familiar with. So say maybe a bobwhite home range might be anywhere from 10 to 30 acres in size. A mountain quail home range could be 500 acres in size.
Hank: Wow. I had no idea because I’ve been hunting them under the assumption that they’re always within a quarter mile of water.
Rocky Gutierrez: Well, they are before the rains come.
Hank: Oh, okay.
Rocky Gutierrez: But once the rains come, then they disperse away from these water sources. You can’t depend on the water sources. Anyway, that’s the second point. You come early before they’ve migrated, and before they’re away from water, and you hunt along the areas that have riparian zones or guzzlers. Places that you know that they’re going to be fairly close to, because multiple cubbies will use any particular guzzler, or spring, or whatnot. But the other thing is that they don’t like to come into stock tanks or water sources that are open. They want to have cover coming in here. And that’s why guzzlers with brush piles or springs that are tucked away in some canyon or streams are the main places that they come to drink.
Some places they’ll even go down in caves and drink down in caves, in these desert areas. I would tell a person from, that wanted it to get a mountain quail is to come early before the rains come, and like you say, before the deer season, if they can do it. Here, our mountain quail season usually starts a week or so before the deer season. But even at that, just one way to think about, or to scout for them is to walk along roads, and look in the dust because they’ll come out to take dust baths, and you’ll see their footprints in there.
But you have to remember that you have to be, especially if you’re not familiar with these birds, that sometimes California quail and mountain quail are in fairly close proximity in these mountain areas of California. If you’re really high, you’re almost all assured that it’s mountain quail. But if you’re down in these intermediate elevations, you can have both mountain quail and California quail in the same areas. So you have to be very careful, because least up here on the North coast, there’s an early mountain quail season that starts before the California quail season.
Hank: That’s true here, too. So for us in the Sierra Nevada, I generally don’t even start hunting them until I’m about 5,000 feet, because I almost never see California quail above 5,000 feet. So it helps a lot. It also happens to coincide with the fact that virtually all of the public land starts at 4 or 5,000 feet. So, I mean, if you’re in the 3000 foot range in the Sierra, you’re pretty much A in California quail habitat and B on private land.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. Well, here on the Coast Range, see that some of the Cal quail can be almost as high as the tops of these Coast Range mountains, depending on whether or not… What the particular type of vegetation there is there. They often were, well, you’ll see them cubbies very close in close proximity. So you have to be really careful. And I only emphasize this so that you don’t make mistakes if you come here early and shoot a California quail by mistake and get a ticket.
Rocky Gutierrez: You know, you don’t want to do that.
Hank: I think another point that I will have to, anybody listening to this is if you’re going to come all the way to Oregon, or California, or wherever to try and get your mountain quail, you have to put away the notion in your head that you’re going to get the perfect point, and the perfect flesh, and that bird on the wing. Like, it just can happen, yeah I’ve seen it happen, but it’s pretty rare. Chances, I’ll put it this way. If you out there are hunting next to me, and you are only going to kill a mountain quail on the flush from a point I will kill six before you kill one.
Rocky Gutierrez: I’d agree with that.
Hank: Yep. I mean, I will ground pound them, because if you’re going to run like a rabbit, you’re going to die like a rabbit.
Rocky Gutierrez: Again, it’s like this thing with that, my dog Toshio when he realized that he could circle around these things and stop them, I can walk right up to them and flush them and shoot them on the fly. I did shoot a lot on the ground when I was collecting, but then it’s no prisoners you know? I mean, it has nothing to do with sport, it has nothing to do with meat, although I did eat all of them. I would bone them out afterwards, after I made the skins and saved the skeletons for going into museum specimens, I would save all of the pieces of meat for eating, but essentially you can get a dog to point them, if it’s the right dog and it’s the right circumstance.
Now, one place where I will say that I think you might have a chance to do some pointing is in recently burned areas. So if you go into recently burned areas, I mean, what I’m talking about recent burns and probably the second to fourth year of the burn before it gets so overgrown with brush that you can’t walk through it, but that you can actually, and I’m talking here mainly stand replacing burns. Unfortunately we’re having way too many of those now. The only thing that is a silver lining, is that it creates a lot of mountain quail habitat and a lot of deer habitat.
Hank: And you know, Morel mushrooms.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah, and Morel mushrooms. Yeah, exactly. But when you walk through these burned areas that have say anywhere between a 25% shrub cover up to about 75%, which is what you can reasonably walk through, you’ll find mountain quail in there.
And if it’s not too dense, they’ll in your dog, oftentimes a dog by chance alone, comes in and gets a quail between you and it, just because it’s running there, and that’ll stop them. You very well might be able to get points off there. The other place that you might be able to get points is in these Central Coastal California forest’s, which I mentioned earlier in the program, called broad sclerophyll forest, which are again, the Madrone Live Oak, Deciduous Oak, mixed hardwood forest in those areas where you have shrubs in the understory, particularly with poison oak, you can often walk through it fairly easily and the quail will very often hold in these little patches of brush. And actually the very first quail I really, mountain quail, I ever killed was in that sort of a situation. It’s a sort of fun little story.
I was thinking about working on mountain quail for my doctoral dissertation. I had spent my first summer messing around, looking for them all over the place, and had found a population in the central coast that I thought I could work on. I came back and gave a seminar on my proposal to the other graduate students and professors in the Museum of Urban Zoology.
Basically I wanted to repeat a study that I had done on band-tailed pigeons, which is reproductive cycles and the like, and you have to remember that Berkeley is the number one public research institution in the world. The expectation for a graduate student is very high. When I gave this proposal to do this study, to be kind, it was pedestrian, it was a simple study. It was easy. One of the professors stopped me about 15 minutes into my proposal, as I sort of outlined the general idea, and he said, Rocky, he says, are you so married to this proposal that you can’t drop right now and save us all another 45 minutes of time? You can imagine for a graduate student to have that sort of criticism, it was pretty humiliating.
Hank: Yeah, ouch.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah, it was pretty bad. But the professor was right. This is a really simple minded thing, and it was easy to do, and it wasn’t going to… It wasn’t real effort to break the frontiers of science. That’s what he was telling me, he says, don’t do something simple. Don’t do something you’ve done before. Do something that’s novel. I was sort of depressed about it. I thought, well, I need to go clear my head on this, and I took my dog down to a study area that I’d planned on working on.
Just go hunting and hang out a while and lick my wounds. We’re walking out into the forest and we’d been walking on this steep hillside, which was this type of area that I declined your little patches of brushes, poison oak here and there in this broad sclerophyll forest, and my dog locks up on point. I walk up, and I kick the brush, and this cubby of quail gets up, and I just instinctively swung on one and smoked that and then swung on another one and got another bird luckily, and because I’m not a really great shot, I’m what I call a street shooter. So if I’m on, I’m on. If I’m not, I’m not. It’s as simple as that. I got this devil and my dog went and got the first one and brought it back and it was a valley quail. Okay. So then it went and got the second one came back, and it was a mountain quail.
Hank: Oh, wow.
Rocky Gutierrez: So I’m going like, wow. This light went off in my head that, you know what you ought to do, you ought to study the relationships of these two birds in what we call sympatric, where they occur together.
Rocky Gutierrez: And this had never been done before. I mean, actually nobody had ever done a dissertation on mountain quail before, but that’s not novel in itself. That’s just a circumstance of just hasn’t happened. But at that time, the big thing in ecology was how competition between individual species structured their communities. It was hypothesized that competition really forced the way in which species divided their habitats, and their niches, and so forth. A light went off, said, I’m going to study the comparative ecology of these two species in sympatry and try to figure out about that. That was all because of a legitimate criticism, as harsh as it was, the person wasn’t trying to be nasty to me, they were just being… This is just Berkeley man.
Hank: Yeah. I had a similar experience at Wisconsin actually. I was a military historian, and I was in a PhD program in Wisconsin. And as a military historian, nobody had told me, so you studied under professors who did work that you wanted to emulate, at least partially. This is very good advice for anybody who’s told you need to do that, because nobody told me about this. So as it turned out, my lead professor, who was probably antithetical to military history, now that I look back on it, but this was right after Namibia had successfully won its war of independence. I wanted to write a history of the word independence in Namibia, and had the same reaction from my professors. Like, yeah it’s not really that interesting enough. And it’s like, nobody had ever done it before. Just like nobody had ever studied mountain quail. I got all bent out of shape when he said, no. To the point where I just cut and ran, I got my terminal master’s and stopped my academic career and became a newspaper reporter at the time. But yeah, I know how that feels.
Rocky Gutierrez: You know, when you play with the big dogs, like at Berkeley, you better be able to bark and bite you know?
Hank: Yeah. Yeah. You know, it’s funny, you’re describing that flush, and my first thought that went into my head was, I wonder what they were talking about, like I wonder what a mountain quail has to say to a valley quail and vice-versa. Because, you know they were standing right next to each other, like looking at each other like, Oh man, it’s the hairless monkeys with their dog friends again, and we better get out you know?
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. You know, that they are really quite different, but yet I’ve seen them numerous times associating together loosely, and sometimes together. Of course there are even hybrids between California quail and mountain quail. So there have been several that have been found in the wild. So even though they’re really quite distantly related, there is something about the, what we call isolating mechanisms, see the things that prevent them from breeding, that may be tied up in quail with the habitat. So they’re so in tuned to their own habitats. So they’re very infrequently together, but sometimes they are, and in this place that they are is in Central Coast of California.
Most of the time there during the breeding season, they’re not in close proximity because like in the Sierra Nevada, mountain quail are quite high during the breeding season, and the Cal quail or Valley quail are the mid elevation to lower elevations. If you see the hybrids and say Gambel quail and scaled quail, they’re all in areas where there’s been a disruption of the habitat, the grassland in the… See the Gambel quail usually takes the upland drier, brushier places, and the scaled quail is more out in the grassland areas with scattered shrubs. When you have agriculture going in there and disrupting and inputting, intermixing, these habitats, then these two species come together. And that’s where you find your hybrids.
Hank: Yeah. You find the same thing with chickens in the Great Plains, the hybrid Sharp-tailed Grouse and Prairie chicken, that exact same phenomenon occurs with them.
Rocky Gutierrez: Right. Of course there you have the differences where the Sharp-tailed Grouse is more of a brush species, and the Prairie chicken is more of a grassland species. When they disrupt it with agriculture, you’ve often seen, sometimes I’ve killed Sharp-tails and Greater Prairie chickens right out of the same cubby.
Hank: I haven’t done it in the same cubby, but I’ve had them within a hundred feet of each other, in two different groups. That’s pretty crazy. So we’ve been going a fair bit and I actually want to see if I can, cause you’ve done a bunch of studies about ruffed grouse too right?
Rocky Gutierrez: Right.
Hank: I think I might, if it’s okay with you, call you back and have you on a show to talk about ruffed grouse. Cause I haven’t done that show yet, and I’ve seen your research on it. It’s pretty fascinating. I mean, literally we could go on for hours and hours and hours, because you have such a deep well of really cool information about the birds that we chase, that if you’re willing, I mean, I’d love to have you on for the other grouse show.
Rocky Gutierrez: I’d love to be on. Anytime I can talk to hunters or share what little information I have. I’m really happy to do it.
Hank: I’m reasonably certain, you have forgotten more about these birds than I’ll ever know.
Rocky Gutierrez: I doubt that, but you’re probably a better hunter than me, for sure. I know you’re a better cook.
Hank: That I’ll take. That I’ll take. Definitely a better cook. Well, if somebody wanted to get in touch with you to, I don’t know, to find your research or talk birds or whatever, where would somebody look?
Rocky Gutierrez: Well, if you Google my name, just put R period J period Gutierrez, G-U-T-I-E-R-R-E-Z, and just Google that. You’ll come up with my website, although I’m not sure that websites working anymore because I haven’t been active on it, but nevertheless, there will be a Google profile for me. Google Scholar profile. Okay.
Hank: Oh yeah, that’s right. That’s right. That’s right. Make sure you’re going Google Scholar out there, like regular Google has it, but Google Scholar is pretty cool.
Rocky Gutierrez: Yeah. You go to Google scholar. So type in Google Scholar and you get to that and just put R.J. Gutierrez, and that’ll immediately come up to me and then you’ll go on there and I think there’s two other R.J. Gutierrez’s. One of them is Rodrigo and somebody else. You’ll see that little icon up there with me standing there with the red Minnesota shirt on, with a spotted owl sitting under a branch behind me, you’ll see that. Then just click on my name, and then it’ll come up with all the papers that I’ve published, and you can organize this. The way it comes out is, it lists them by date or by the number of times it’s been cited. You can change that back and forth, and then you can scroll down and look at all these things and find out the things that I’ve been working on.
Hank: Well, cool. I will put that in the show notes so that people will be able to find it real easy. Man Rocky, I mean, it’s been great and I’m definitely looking forward to have you just to geek out on grouse, because it is, we’re in high ruffed grouse season in the upper Midwest right now. It’d be good to talk about that while people are still chasing that bird, but for now, I’m going to let you go. And I once again, really, really, really thank you for coming on the show.
Rocky Gutierrez: Well, thank you very much, Hank. I really appreciate it. And I actually really appreciate all the effort that you’ve gone through to make these recipes available, and to publish those books so we can get a chance to try different things with the wonderful things we get to hunt and eat.
Hank: I know, its been… Fish and seafood is going to be the next book that comes out in the spring.
Rocky Gutierrez: All right.
Hank: Well take it easy and I will talk to you soon.
Rocky Gutierrez: Okay. Thank you very much Hank. Bye-bye.