The Gambel’s Quail is the best known and most abundant of our four quail species. In fact, it may be the most loved avian resident in our Southwestern desert region. Many backyard birders consider this popular bird their personal favorite. Gambel’s Quail is a member of the pheasant family, Phasianidae. They resemble the domestic chicken in that they possess stout bills and strong, long legs with four toed, clawed feet. This species was named in 1843 for William Gambel, a naturalist from the Philadelphia Academy of Science who collected plant and animal species along the Santa Fe Trail and may have been the first to recognize it as a distinct species.
The Gambel’s Quail is the smallest of all southwestern quail, with the exception of the rare Masked Bobwhite. (Masked Bobwhite Quail can be seen in the Buenos Aires Wildlife refuge, southwest of Tucson, where they are been reintroduced from native Mexican populations and US captive breeding programs. In and around the refuge their population has been steadily, but slowly, growing and is estimated at about 900 or so birds. The Mexican population numbers are not exactly known but are estimated at around 3000. The Gambel’s male averages only about 6 ounces, rarely exceeding 7.5 ounces. Females are slightly lighter, averaging between 5.7 and 5.9 ounces. While running on the ground they can attain speeds of up to 14 mph and they can fly as fast as 35 mph.
This bird’s range covers a broad area of the American Southwest and the northernmost areas of Baja California, Sonora, Sinaloa, and Northwestern Chihuahua in Mexico. In the United States it ranges from Western Texas to Southeastern California and north from the border to Southern Nevada, Utah, and Southwestern Colorado. Additionally, it has been introduced in Idaho and California’s San Clemente Island. Historically, its preferred habitat is desert and desert scrub lands, thorny thickets and riparian areas. In our modern times, agricultural lands have also provided relatively good habitat. Gambel’s Quail are generally found from the desert valley floors to about 5,500 feet in elevation. Some have been found as high as 6,000 feet, but native preferred foods become quite scarce at that elevation. In the limited areas where their habitats overlap, Gambel’s, California and Scaled Quail have hybridized.
APPEARANCE & SOUNDS
Although the Gambel’s and the California both have forward tilting plumes that end in a comma shape, the male Gambel’s can easily be identified by its russet crown, chestnut sides, lack of “scaling” on its under parts, dark forehead, black throat and black patch on his belly. The female is drabber in appearance and lacks her mate’s distinctive head markings and black belly patch. However, like the male, she also displays russet flanks conspicuously slashed with white. The backs of both sexes are a blue gray, and formerly the birds were sometimes called “Blue Quail.”
The vocalizations of the Gambel’s Quail distinguish it from all other desert birds. The familiar “yhuk-ka-ka” is an assembly call used by both adult males and females to insure all the brood is present. This call is usually heard early and late in the day – before foraging and roosting. Upon approaching a covey, they emit a nervous “whit-whit-whit” and, if pressed, they sound a “crear-crear” alarm call.
NESTING & RAISING YOUNG
As nesting season nears and progresses, insects are increasingly fed upon, particularly ants. When the chicks arrive they are fed an almost pure insect diet, with ants being taken in the largest quantities. Even after the summer rains have started, the quail continue to forage primarily on the winter annuals – the seeds and leaves of deer vetch, filaree and lupine. The leaves and seeds of mesquites and white-thorn acacia are also consumed, along with cactus seeds and fruits, mimosa, wild mustard, and climbing morning glory. Ants continue to be the major insect consumed. Various beetles, leafhoppers and grasshoppers are also eaten but few summer annuals and almost no grasses are eaten during the summer months. Quail will regularly digest sand, grit and tiny pebbles to help their crops crush food and aid in the digestion process.
During the spring and summer months, coveys usually consist of single family groups. A typical clutch is ten to twelve eggs. In drought years, clutches can be as small as five or less. In wet years, clutches of twenty have been recorded. The largest clutch we are aware of consisted of twenty nine babies and the parent birds. (In this case, it’s possible that the parents became surrogates for babies whose parents may have died).
The nest that quail create is not much more than a shallow depression scraped into the ground among thick, thorny vegetation. It may be bordered by small twigs and sparsely lined with grass stems and a few feathers. Tree nests are occasionally constructed where suitable platforms can be found from five to thirty feet above the ground. Sometimes Gambel’s Quail will reuse an abandoned Cactus Wren grass nest or a thrasher’s stick nest, both usually found in prickly pear and cholla cacti. We have heard many reports from our customers over the years about how these quail use the protection of fenced or walled backyards to locate nesting sites. In urban and suburban areas, it seems quite commonplace to find a quail nest in a suitably sized flower pot, particularly if there are no dogs or cats present.
Both adult males and females share in the parenting of the young birds. While the female usually incubates the eggs by herself, the male both guards the nest and brings the food. If the female is taken or dies of natural causes, the male assumes the duties of both parents. When sexually mature birds pair up, it is almost always a monogamous relationship which lasts their entire lifetime. In the Sonoran desert, breeding usually occurs between March and September, but if very favorable conditions exist, they might begin slightly earlier and/or end somewhat later. If predation rates are high and overall favorable conditions exist, the pair rebrood.
Gambel’s Quail, like all birds, have their preferences when it comes to diet. Breeding behavior and development of the reproductive organs are dependent on the quantity of plants they forage upon, as determined by the amount of winter rains and is directly correlated with the amount of vitamin A stored in their livers. In spring they primarily feed on green and succulent vegetation, particularly the leaves and lowers of native Indian wheat and the exotic filaree (Erodium). The leaves, flowers, seeds, and beans of mesquite, palo verde, and mimosa are readily available and consumed. Deer vetch, lupine and locoweed (Datura or Jimson Weed) are also favored. In saguaro country, the pollen and later the seeds and fruits, are important dietary items. Fruits and seeds of other cacti are also used. By September, when these cacti fruits have ripened, many quail have faces and breasts stained purple from feeding upon them
At your feeding station, Gambel’s Quail fly up to feeders that allow them access. Most backyard birders broadcast inexpensive “scratch” or grain mixes onto the ground for them. Any and all the feeds commonly used by backyard birders offer substantial supplemental nutrition. We also sell calcium grit which benefits both sexes but is especially important to hens who would otherwise become calcium deficient due to the amount of egg laying they do during the long breeding season. Grains, which are less in cost than seeds that quail prefer, include the red and white milos, cracked corn and whole wheat berries. We also sell a specialized mix for quail that is the most nutritious food one can offer to quail. Specially formulated so that newly hatched babies as well as juveniles and adults can digest, our quail food offers maximum nutrition with all the vitamins, minerals, proteins, fat, essential oils and amino acids they need. It even has small doses of medication included to help keep quail healthy.
The Wild Bird Store also sells a very popular Quail Block. Designed for game birds like quail, it is a 25 pound compressed food block (9”x9”x9”) which quail can easily peck due to their strong beaks, bone structure and well developed muscles. Most other birds, including doves and pigeons, cannot peck this block effectively or for any significant amount of time. The block is designed to be very cost effective and long lasting. Housed in our Quail Pavilion, a single block can feed quail for three to four months, on average. Utilizing this type of food source can cost as little as a few pennies a day! Ask for more information when you’re in the store next.
The major threats to quail populations are mainly attributed to the effects of man and climatic factors. Of course, hunting and habitat fragmentation and loss due to human sprawl take their toll on the overall population. Habitat quality is also a factor. Generally, wetter years produce more green plants, and associated insects, which are vital elements in their diets. Predation, once thought to be the major threat, is now known to be a very minor factor in the diminishing populations of Gambel’s Quail. Males and juveniles seem to be taken in more numbers than adult females, although the reasons for this are not entirely clear. (I suspect they put up more of a fight than other prey. I once watched a large Harris ‘s Hawk give up on trying to take a female Gambel’s Quail as the quail was pecking and scratching the hawk as it attempted to lift off with its prey. It dropped the female quail). Bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes and Coopers Hawks certainly take their share. Roadrunners enjoy hunting baby quail. Most significant of the predators, however, are the egg-robbing cotton rats, round-tailed ground squirrels and such snakes as the coachwhip, gopher and king snakes. Gila monsters are known to also rob the nest of its eggs. The single most overlooked predator are common ants. Ants can and do invade nest with eggs and young. Ants may be responsible for more predation than all other causes combined. In urban areas, domestic and feral cats also hunt quail and in agricultural areas, pesticides can sometime take an alarming toll on the quail population.