“The quail, invisible, whistles, and who attends?” - Henry David Thoreau
A Favorite Bird
The Gambel’s Quail is one of the best known and well-loved avian residents in the Southwestern desert region. Many backyard birders, and hunters as well, consider this popular bird their favorite. Apart from their well-defined physical characteristics, inherent beauty, and unmistakable vocalizations, they are beloved by many birders for the traits and bonds that they exhibit that we humans respect and admire. When adults pair up and become a mated pair, it is not just for a single breeding season – these birds mate for life. They remain monogamous till death do them part. Both adults perform all parenting duties equally. Both select nesting sites, incubate eggs and, together, teach their young how to be quail. Both parents teach the young how, when and where to find food, shelter, water, and roosting sites. They teach their babies how to avoid predators. They fight to the death to protect those babies. Even in the event that one of the parent birds die, the surviving mate will undertake all the child rearing on by himself/herself.
All quail species are members of the pheasant family, Phasianidae. This family includes 174 species worldwide, but only nine species in North America. All resemble the domestic chicken in that they possess stout bills and strong, long legs with four toed, clawed feet. Arizona has four resident species of quail – Gambel’s, Scaled, Montezuma and the Masked Bobwhite. The Gambel’s is the species that is the most numerous and widespread in its distribution. This bird was named in 1843 for William Gambel, from the Philadelphia Academy of Science, who collected plants and animals along the Santa Fe Trail and may have been the first naturalist to recognize it as a distinct species.
Its 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 scrublands, thorny thickets and riparian areas. In our modern times, agricultural lands and suburban neighborhoods have also provided relatively good habitat, as well.
Gambel’s Quail are generally found from the desert valley floors to about 5500 feet in elevation. Some have been found as high as 6000 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 been known to hybridize.
Although the Gambel’s and California Quail both have forward tilting plumes, or topknots, 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 underparts, 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 Gambel’s Quail is the smallest of all southwestern quail, with the exception of the rare Masked Bobwhite. (Masked Bobwhite Quail can be seen only in the United States in the Buenos Aires Wildlife Preserve, near Sasabe, Arizona, where they have been reintroduced from among the native Mexican populations and captive breeding programs). The Gambel’s male averages only about 6 ounces, rarely exceeding 7 ounces. Females are slightly lighter, averaging between 5.7 and 5.9 ounces.
Historically, the Gambel’s Quail occupied a much larger range and were many times what the current population numbers are. It is believed that during the second half of the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th century, before the importation and introduction of non-native grasses and when the climate was wetter and rivers actually flowed, quail flourished on an abundance of native and wild foods. With the introduction of widespread and ecology-damaging cattle grazing, combined with periods of much drier weather, the quail population began to shrink. But, for early naturalists who ventured into Arizona, the numbers of quail were staggering.
David Gorsuch in 1934 remarked that “Gambel’s Quail populations of today are but remnants as compared with those of past years”. The diary of James M. Cutts (published in 1965), a member of Lieutenant Emory’s topographic expedition into Arizona in 1846, recorded “immense” numbers of quail in the bottoms of the upper Gila River. Emory himself, in 1848, described “myriads” of the birds. John Durivage, in 1849, found quail along the Gila to be “in the greatest abundance”, and Benjamin Hayes, in 1850 commented on the “immense number” of quail near the junction of the Gila and Colorado Rivers, describing the mesquites as “swarming” with them. S.W. Woodhouse, physician and naturalist with the 1851 Sitgreaves expedition across northern Arizona, termed the quail “excessively abundant” along the Lower Colorado River. E.A.Mearns’s field notes for 1884 also recorded large numbers of Gambel’s Quail in the same general areas north to the Grand Canyon – all locations where one is hard pressed to find a covey a century later.
A detailed description of quail numbers along the lower Gila during the presettlement era is provided by George A. Hand, a member of the California Volunteers. Hand kept a diary of his column’s journey from Yuma to Tucson during the summer of 1862. Near Gila Bend he wrote: “All along this day’s march the quail were astonishing; big flocks of them two hundred yards long. I really think there were millions of them in each flock. If I were to tell my old friends in California that, they would say that I had lost my senses, and would not believe me”. When Will Barnes arrived in the unsettled Tonto Basin in 1887, he found Gambel’s Quail “not in thousands, but in actual millions, being present in countless numbers on all sides”. No one knows for sure why the Gambel’s Quail population tailed off so dramatically in the last century but the introduction of widespread cattle ranching and overgrazing certainly had an effect. Couple that with the introduction of exotic grasses and salt cedar (tamarisk) and the loss of native vegetation, drought years, the loss of most surface waters, and unlimited hunting of these birds and we can piece together a picture of why these birds are only a fraction of their historical populations.
Quail broods are usually larger than most other birds. Typically, 8 to 20 eggs are laid. In bad years (severe drought, less rainfall) clutch sizes can be reduced to 5 to 8 eggs laid. In particularly good years, brood size can be as high as 25 or more babies per brood. The average size brood, in most years, is usually between 8 and 15. Mortality rates are far greater for young quail than adults so many babies never live to breed themselves. But, quail can have several broods in a single breeding season. And, in good years, their breeding season can be very long – from spring till fall. This past year, due to overall drought conditions still persisting and poor winter and spring rains, we didn’t see quail raising babies until late in the season. It wasn’t until late May and early June before we began to notice the cherished family groups at our backyard feeding stations.
As nesting season nears and progresses, insects are increasingly be fed on, 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 begun, 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, mimosa, carlowrightia, 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 regularly digest sand, grit and tiny pebbles to help their crops crush food and aid in the digestion process.
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 the quail’s livers. In spring, they primarily feed on greens and succulent vegetation, particularly the leaves and flowers of native Indian wheat and the exotic filaree (Erodium). The leaves, flowers (catkins), seeds and beans of mesquite, palo verde and mimosa are readily available and consumed. Deer Vetch, lupine and locoweed (Datura) are also favored. In saguaro country, the pollen, and later the seeds and fruits, are important dietary items. Fruits and seeds of other cactus, like prickly pears and chollas, are also used. By September, when these cactus fruits have ripened, many quail may have faces and breasts stained purple from feeding upon them.
At your feeding station, Gambel’s Quail can and do fly up to feeders that allow them access. Open platform feeders are best for this purpose. Many backyard birders broadcast our specially formulated quail food onto a designated area of ground. We recommend a two to three foot diameter of clean hard packed dirt for quail to scratch and feed. This particular quail food is highly nutritious and can be fed year round. It’s good for babies and adults. It contains all the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, plant proteins, essential oils, fiber, etc. that healthy quail need. This food source is most often used in conjunction with a quail block. Quail easily peck these 25 pound blocks of compressed food due to their strength of beak, bone structure, and well developed muscles. Most other birds attracted to the block prove less effective in pecking the block, especially for any length of time. The blocks are designed to be very cost effective usually lasting anywhere from one to 3 or 4 months before needing replacement. Our Quail Pavilion is designed to protect and preserve the block for a much longer time. Blocks will usually last 6 to 9 months (possibly longer) depending upon the number of birds feeding on it. Utilizing this method of feeding quail, the actual cost of daily feeding all your quail is reduced down to as little as a few pennies a day! Ask for more information next time you’re in the store.
We also sell ground oyster shell and limestone as a calcium additive to their diet. This is especially important during the long breeding season, when hens usually deplete their calcium reserve when laying eggs (eggshells are almost pure calcium).
Threats & Predators
The major threats to quail populations are mainly attributed to the effects of man and climatic factors. Hunting and habitat fragmentation 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 number than adult females, although the reasons for this are not clear. Bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes certainly take their fair share. More efficient hunters yet are the Cooper’s and Harris’s Hawks. (The raptors prefer doves and pigeons that go limp after being attacked whereas quail will fight back - kicking, scratching and biting. I once observed a Harris’s Hawk attack a female Gambel’s Quail. The hawk dropped it after lifting off the ground only several feet as the quail fought off the larger predator). Most significant of the predators, however, are the egg-robbing cotton rats, round-tailed ground squirrels and such snakes as the coachwhip, gopher snake, and king snake. Gila monsters are known to also rob the nest of its eggs. Once thought to be a major predator of the Gambel’s Quail is the roadrunner. But, scientific research has shown that roadrunners should really only be considered a very minor predator. Also, in agricultural areas, pesticides take an alarming toll on the quail population. The single most overlooked predator is common ants. Ants can and do invade nests with eggs and young. Ants may be responsible for more predation that all other causes combined.
The vocalizations of the Gambel’s Quail distinguish it from all other desert birds. The familiar “Chi-ca-go” or the “yhuk-ka-ka” is an assembly call used by both adult males and females to insure all the brood is present and accounted for. 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.
During spring and summer months, coveys usually consist of single family groups. But in fall two or more families group together to form large groups called winter coveys in preparation for the oncoming cold season of the year. Sometimes these winter coveys can number several dozen quail. They seem to understand the survival strategy of strength in numbers.
Nests are usually nothing more than a shallow depression in the ground that the birds scratch out among thick vegetation. The nest 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 5 to 30 above ground level. Sometimes Gambel’s Quail 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. When conditions are good, quail rebrood and take advantage of favorable conditions for rearing families. Some years females have several broods. Most years find quail having at least two broods at minimum.
In the Tucson area, quail can be found almost everywhere. Even in urban mid-town, there are many enclaves that quail call home. Backyards, empty lots, and rarely used alleyways can be homes for urban quail. Most folks who favor and feed quail know they have a food circuit that they travel within their well delineated territories. Usually once during the morning hours and again during the afternoon hours the quail will appear looking for their favorite foods. As with most birds, they are familiar with routine and their feeding circuit so they tend to appear at approximately the same times of day each and every day. One thing is for sure, once the quail discover your foods, they are dependable for showing up, and on time. You can count on the quail to brighten your day – every day, twice a day!