Anyone lucky enough to start this curious little bird in shooting in the hills might recognize it by its tail, which is far bigger than in any quail-like bird, whether true quail, bush quail or button quail, being in fact three inches long, while the bird itself is little bigger than the common grey quail.
A true quail it certainly is not; some call it a pigmy pheasant, and it may be that, if the blood pheasant is fairly called a pheasant, for to that bird it seems to be allied. Like it, it has long soft plumage and red legs ; but it has no spurs, and the colour of the sexes, though different, does not present the striking contrast of the cock and hen blood pheasants. The cook mountain quail is grey, narrowly streaked with black along the edges of the feathers, and the hen brown, also variegated with black markings, but in her case these are broader and occupy the centre of the feather. There is, in fact, nothing in her colour to attract attention, but the cock is noticeable for the rather striking black-and-white colouring of his head, and of the feathers under the tail. Both have red bills, brightest in the cock; but in some apparently the legs and bill may be yellow, as in the first recorded specimens, which were in the Earl of Derby's private zoo in 1846.
It was not certain that these came from India, but nobody has found the bird anywhere else ; and even there it has only rarely turned up, always in the hills, and generally in winter. Less than a dozen specimens, in fact, are on record, and all these have been got near Mussoorie or Naini Tal. Hume suggested that they may have come "from the better-wooded southeastern portions of Chinese Tibet," which little-known region might certainly furnish novelties. But the bird does not look at all a wanderer; its wings are small even for a bird of this family, none of which have pinions adapted for lengthened flight. The common grey quail is the best provided in this respect, and that has wings of four inches or more from the pinion to the tip— the usual way of measuring a bird's wing, as it can be done in a skin made up as usual with closed wings ; the mountain quail, although larger than the common quail, shows a wing of barely more than three-and-a-half inches measured in this way.
It may be that the birds obtained represent some of the last survivors of a declining species ; such species must always be in existence, and may no doubt disappear without record, for extinction of course goes on, as it did before the advent of man with his much-abused destructive habits, from natural causes.
In the Naini Tal Tarai, for instance, there exists a large weaver bird or bay a, the Ploceus megarhynchns of Hume, of which very few specimens have ever been obtained; yet this is the brightest-coloured as well as the largest of the Indian bayas, the cock in breeding-dress being nearly all yellow, on the throat and belly as well as the breast and cap. This may be a declining form ; but against the theory of imminent extinction in the case of the mountain quail, and in favour of that of migration, may be set the dates of the latter bird's occurrence, which are almost all in the winter months. Thus it has occurred near Mussoorie in November, 1865, and close to Naini Tal in December, 1876. In November, 1867, however, a number appeared at Jerepani, and some of these were still there in June of the following year, but were not seen later.
Like a partridge, this bird is found in coveys, as well as in pairs or alone; it is extremely hard to put up out of the long grass or other low cover in which it lives, finding its food in the grass-seeds, and only taking a short slow flight when disturbed. Its presence, however, is often betrayed by its whistling call, which is quite peculiar. Being a hard bird to shoot and poor eating, there is not much inducement to go after it, and for the last thirty-eight years none have been seen or heard of either in India or anywhere else.