Ever since tasting tea squab many years ago at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, I’ve been fascinated by small game birds such as quail and pheasant. But it wasn’t until we moved to Salem, Oregon that I came across a specialty grocery store where quail and pheasant were available.
If you’re a game hunter and enjoy hunting fowl, two species of quail are native to the state, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Mountain quail are native birds found on both sides of the Cascades. They are brush lovers, usually existing in widely separated family groups rather than large coveys like valley quail. They are larger than valley quail. Mountain quail thrive in the natural brushlands of southwestern Oregon and are also found in northwestern Oregon when suitable habitat is created by logging, fire or other disturbances. Greatest abundance occurs in southwestern Oregon, with numbers gradually decreasing as one moves north.
Eastside populations are strongly dependent on brushy and diverse riparian habitat, and have disappeared or declined from many areas where they formerly lived, as they have throughout the inter-mountain regions of the West. Because of the low numbers and the uncertain status of populations, no open season is held in much of eastern Oregon.
Currently, many of these habitat areas are once again improving, holding out the strong possibility for population improvement through trap and transplant. A research effort is currently under way to evaluate this technique.
Southwestern Oregon provides by far the best mountain quail hunting in the state. Because of the brushy and often steep nature of mountain quail habitat, and the tendency for birds to run in heavy cover, they are among the most difficult of Oregon’s upland birds to hunt successfully.
Since coveys may be widely separated, a popular hunting method involves driving logging roads until birds are seen, at which time hunters stop to hunt on foot. Once a covey is located, it will probably not be far away on future visits.
The mountain quail is one of Oregon’s lesser-hunted upland species.
Then there are valley (or California) quail. The valley quail is a native species originally confined to the counties bordering California and Nevada. They were transplanted to other areas of the state so long ago (beginning as early as 1870) that most Oregonians do not realize they were introduced in most of Oregon.
Valley quail are adaptable birds and may be found associated with agricultural and urban areas, as well as in riparian habitats located miles from human habitation. Within these areas, however, valley quail habitat needs are rather specific. Valley quail feed on a wide variety of plant species, most of which we know as weeds. They need a combination of brushy escape cover with adequate roosting areas (off the ground) and more open areas for feeding. They are seldom found far from water.
Valley quail are somewhat vulnerable to severe winter conditions, but populations have generally been fairly stable over a long period of time in eastern Oregon. Because they nest somewhat later than most other upland species, they often are unaffected by late spring storms which can reduce nesting success and chick survival for other species. In western Oregon, numbers declined during the late 1970s, probably due to changing agriculture, but have remained relatively stable since.
Valley quail are among Oregon’s most widely distributed game birds. You may find them associated with pheasants on agricultural land, or with chukars along brushy stream courses in sage brush environments, or by themselves wherever their specific habitat needs are met. They are most often hunted in conjunction with other species, but can provide excellent hunting when pursued as a primary species.
Valley quail are often detected by their distinctive call. They are a covey-loving bird, and wintering groups may number more than 100. Quail and brushy environments go together like ham and eggs, so a good dog is an especially useful companion for hunting valley quail.
But me, I’m not the gun-toting variety of quail hunter. I’m more the grocery cart-pushing kind. So I was glad to find out that several stores in Salem carry quail, including Fitts Seafood and Que Huong Asian Store. At Fitts Seafood, you’ll find quail raised by the Valequet family in Clakskanie, Oregon; processed and expertly sleeve-boned by Nicky Farms in Portland. At Que Huong, the quail is bone-in and sourced from the Southeastern U.S. I’ve used both and would recommend getting the de-boned quail from Fitts; it’s worth paying a little extra and not having to de-bone the quail yourself, as it can be a time-consuming, finger-pricking process. Those bones are brittle and sharp!
Like other flying game birds, quail meat is all dark meat, even the breast. It has a wonderful earthy flavor and is very versatile when it comes to cooking methods. I usually start by searing them in a cast-iron skillet and then finish them in the oven. But it doesn’t take long for these small game birds to cook. You don’t want them to dry out, so using a marinade is a good idea. I’ve used a pomegranate juice, herb, and olive oil marinade as well as a marinade of Belgian cherry beer for these birds, and they both work wonderfully. You can keep the marinade juices and reduce them on the stove while cooking the birds, then dress the birds at the table with the sauce. You can get the beer in Salem at Capital Market on State St. The market has a wide selection of domestic and imported beers.
As an accompanying side dish, you can serve wild rice or some quinoa cooked with dried fruit. I opt for the latter as I love the taste of quinoa cooked with dried papaya, cherries and mango pieces.
Belgian Cherry Beer-Marinated, Pan-Roasted Quail
Quail (1 per person) thawed, rinsed and pat-dried
1 bottle Lindemans Kriek (cherry) beer, 25 oz. (740 ml)
1 tablespoon (15 ml) olive oil (for marinade)
1 teaspoon (5 ml) thyme
1 teaspoon (5 ml) rosemary
Pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons (45 ml) oil for frying
Place quail in plastic Ziploc bag. Add beer, olive oil, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper.
Close tightly and let marinate in the refrigerator at least 3 hours, preferably overnight, turning over a few times to make sure the birds are fully marinated.
Remove quail and pour marinade liquid in a pot and reduce to one-quarter of its original volume over low heat and set aside.
Pre-heat oven to 400 °F (205 °C).
Heat large cast-iron pan over high heat and add oil, searing each side of quail for 1-2 minutes and then place pan in oven for another 8-10 minutes, testing with thermometer until temperature reaches 150 °F (66 °C) .
Serve quail with wild rice or quinoa and drizzle with the reduced marinade sauce.