Female California Quails (Identification Guide)

The California quail is a species native to the west coast of North America. Their range spans from British Columbia to Baja California, Mexico. They also occur inland, throughout regions of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah.

This extremely social bird often travels in family groups. These groups, or coveys, usually consist of mated pairs and chicks. If you come across a covey you can fairly easily identify the females and males amongst the group. The two sexes vary in plumage color and exhibit behavioral differences.

In this complete guide, we will take a closer look at the characteristics of the female California quail. These characteristics will include appearance, nesting, feeding, and vocalization behaviors. Read on to discover more!

Close up of a female California Quail on the ground

Close up of a female California Quail on the ground

How can you tell if a California quail is male or female?

Male and female California quail have similar plumage, except that the female is more grayish-brown overall and lacks the distinct facial markings of the male. These characteristics make it simple to differentiate between adult quails.

On the other hand, both male and female juveniles look more like the adult female California quail. Thus, determining the bird's sex at this stage can be difficult until they molt, taking on their adult plumage.

Young quails do have a shorter top knot and a downier appearance. These details can assist you in identifying an adult female from a juvenile.

California quail female

Female California Quail

Male california quail

Male California Quail

What does a female California quail look like?

The female California quail has a gray head and no facial markings. The feathers on her forehead are slightly darker than those on the rest of her face. Her crown is a light brownish-gray, topped with a dark brown topknot. The neck and upper back feature dark brown markings, while the chin and throat are a dull white with streaks of gray. The rest of her body is grayish-brown, mingled with white.

A female California Quail, stood on some old machinery

A female California Quail, stood on some old machinery

Do female California quail have top knots?

Female California quails have top knots, like their male counterparts. However, the female's top knot is shorter and not as full.

The longest plume on an adult female typically measures 13-18 mm, while the longest on an adult male may measure 28-38 mm.

What is a female California quail called?

Similar to chickens, female California quail are often referred to as hens. Their mates are called cocks.

Are female California quails bigger than males?

In overall mass, female California quails are similar in size to the males. However, mass does vary for both males and females depending upon the season. Female California quails are at their heaviest right before they lay their eggs. During incubation and while rearing young, females lose mass.

On the other hand, males are at their heaviest going into the breeding season. They begin to lose mass after pairing with a mate. On average, males also have slightly longer wings, tails, and bills than females.

Male (right) and female (left) California Quails, perched on a post

Male (right) and female (left) California Quails, perched on a post

Behavior differences

The female California quail exhibits a few behavioral differences from the male. The most notable contrasts are seen in calls, nesting, and feeding behavior. We will take a closer look at these differences in the paragraphs below.

Singing and calls

California quails do not sing, but they do have a repertoire of calls, which can be separated into three main categories - Advertisement, Aggressive, and Assembly. Advertisement and Assembly calls are given more frequently by males, typically during the breeding season. Females will occasionally use advertisement calls when looking for a mate.

Assembly calls are utilized by both sexes and can be heard in any season. However, calls do increase in spring as the mating season begins. This vocalization is most often used when a mated pair is separated. Female assembly calls generally contain fewer syllables than male calls.

Quails also have a series of contact calls that usually sound like this - ut - ut, mo - mo, pit - pit. Contact calls may be used to sound an alarm, signal the movement of the group, or let the group know food has been found.

Front shot of a female California Quail

Front shot of a female California Quail

Nesting and feeding

Female California quails generally build the nest. Nests are often simple structures located on the ground, lined with plant matter. Occasionally sturdier nests are built in a tree or dense brush.

Once the eggs are laid, the female incubates them - generally on her own, while the male keeps an eye out for threats. Male California quail do develop an incubation patch, but there is little evidence of them taking part unless the female dies.

After the eggs hatch, the female broods her chicks for the first two weeks (at night, during chilly mornings, and on hot days), as they are not able to regulate their body temperatures on their own.

Occasionally the male will also brood the young, but he mostly acts as a sentinel. Chicks leave the nest with their parents to forage. Females are primarily responsible for helping the chicks find food.

California Quail hen (female) sat on the nest

California Quail hen (female) sat on the nest

Can female California quails raise young alone?

A California quail female would likely be successful in raising her young if something happened to her mate. Unlike other bird species, California quail females are not as dependent upon their mates to assist in guarding the nest and providing food for several weeks.

Once chicks hatch, quail generally join up in communal coveys. Broods of two or more females are combined, and these family groups travel and forage together. With other adults present to act as sentinels, chicks are much safer.

It is also possible that a lone male would adopt the chicks, helping the female care for them.

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