Quail Behavior, Traits, & Characteristics
by Jon Friedman
The more we know about bird behavior, the better we understand the natural history and everyday lives of birds. Of course, this statement is true for all the living entities we examine. This includes humans and other mammals, all animals, insects, plants, and microorganisms. But this article will be limited to taking a closer look at one of our favorite backyard birds, found throughout the Sonoran Desert and beyond: Gambel’s Quail.
Arizona has four distinct species of the quail family. Gambel’s Quail are the most numerous and popular species. (See the article on the history of southern Arizona’s Gambel’s Quail in our website archive.) Other common names for the Gambel’s Quail are Arizona quail, desert quail, and valley quail. Other quail species are more limited in their numbers, range, and habitat.
Masked Bobwhite Quail
The rarest of the four species is the Masked Bobwhite Quail. Its range has shrunk in modern times as their numbers have declined due to habitat fragmentation and loss, overgrazing, drought, and hunting, particularly on the Mexican side of the border. This is the most endangered of our quail species and today can only be observed in a few remote and unpopulated grassland habitats. In the United States, the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge along the Mexican border southwest of Tucson has operated a captive breeding program for these birds and it is the only U.S. location where they are found. The best estimates from the refuge, about ten years ago, was that the population had held at about three hundred birds in this range for quite a few years. It’s unlikely that their numbers have increased much since then, and they may have actually dwindled due to cattle grazing upsetting the natural balance in the rare habitat. There are still, presumably, at least two sites across the border where they have been observed in recent decades: the Magdalena and Benjamin Hill regions of Sonora. However, I have not seen any research conducted on the Mexican side of the border. Serious birders have told me they haven’t come across Masked Bobwhite Quail in either of these two locations, long considered to be the best spots in Mexico for observing this rare and elusive species. This species is the southwestern form of the more widespread Northern Bobwhite found throughout the southern and central regions of the United States. The Masked Bobwhite gets its name from the black mask, or hood, that the adult males exhibit. Females are virtually identical to the Northern females.
The most distinctly patterned member of the family is the Montezuma Quail. It is found in small numbers in range limited to foothill grasslands. In the U.S. they are only found in southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and southern Texas, particularly the Big Bend area of the Rio Grande Valley. In Mexico, they are found throughout the grassland foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental. They are readily identifiable by their intricate and bold field marks, a clownish face (they used to be called Harlequin Quail), and by their distinctly rounded body and head. They are, coincidently, Arizona bird hunters’ favorite bird as they pose the greatest challenge compared to other quail or dove species and tend to be the largest and heaviest of all quail. Montezuma Quail’s bold and intricate field marks and coloration actually help them blend in visually with the surrounding grassland habitat, making them hard to find in the field. Additionally, they “freeze” in place, holding their posture and position, so cannot be discovered by motion or movement. Hunters, birders, and hikers sometimes get a jolting surprise when they encounter these birds up close. Because they hold their “freeze,” they will not flush until almost stepped on. Then with a burst of loud sound, almost like gunshot, they beat their wings furiously and the entire covey will take off at once. Several years back, I was birding in the Huachuca Mountains along the Mexican border at about 6500 feet in elevation, following a cow path in the wilderness and watching out for birds and wildlife, when, without warning, I stepped into a covey of fifteen or twenty birds – which I did not notice were “frozen” just a foot or so off the path. The explosive sound of their lift-off, en masse, surprised and scared me for a moment. My heart started racing and my pulse quickened. It was my first encounter with Montezuma Quail and I will never forget it as long as I live.
Scaled Quail are also found in arid, brushy grassland in southeastern Arizona, most of New Mexico, and throughout western Texas and the entire Rio Grande Valley. While visually different from the other quail species in basic coloration and field marks, they are more closely related to the Gambel’s and California Quails. In fact, where the Gambel’s and Scaled Quail ranges overlap, they have produced documented hybrids. The Scaled Quail are stockier and shorter-tailed than the Gambel’s Quail. And they have a short white tuft of feathers on top of their heads instead of the typical top-knots of the Gambel’s and California species. In the Tucson basin, they are known to occupy foothills grassland in the Rincon Mountains and the Vail area. I have not seen or heard reports of other Tucson area locations where they can be found.
Chukar, an introduced Eurasian species released in several western states for hunting purposes, initially appears very quail-like. Chukars are native to the middle-eastern areas of Iraq and Iran. As an introduced species, they have adapted well to the Rocky Mountain region of the American West. Hunters have told me they are a real challenge and that it takes great skill to bag the limit of this species. I have seen small family coveys in the Escalante Staircase and the Kodachrome Canyon area of southern Utah. In and around public campgrounds are some of the best viewing opportunities as the birds come by to check for food.
But it is the Gambel’s Quail that most people are familiar with. This species is the one most often found in the Sonoran Desert, giving birders more opportunities to study the behavior, life style, and life cycle of these fascinating birds. They are commonly seen throughout the Sonoran Desert and have proven adaptable enough to become common backyard birds in suburban and even densely populated urban areas. Historical data shows their numbers and range have shrunk since early settlement and pioneer days, but they remain one of the more abundant native species.
Uniqueness of Species Top-knots
Gambel’s Quail are easily distinguished from other quail species in their physical appearance, coloration, and field marks. Gambel’s have a comma-shaped top-knot that extends from the top of their heads and bends forward. It is composed of anywhere from six to thirty small black comma-shaped feathers that are tightly bunched and originate from a single spot above the forehead. Sometimes this top-knot grows longer and has more curve to it than most top-knots. Seeing a bird with such a large top-knot makes us wonder if it interferes with their vision. Evidently it doesn’t. California Quail have a similar top-knot but they are not seen in Arizona. Mountain Quail, also not found in our area, have a long, almost straight, top-knot that is more like a plume or an exclamation mark than a comma. The Scaled Quail have less of a top-knot and more of a tuft of short white feathers forming a line down the middle of the head. The Masked Bobwhite and Montezuma Quails lack top-knots altogether.
Gambel’s Quail are usually encountered as family groups, called coveys. In cooler winter months several families may join together to form a much larger covey (forty to fifty or more birds), while in spring and summer breeding months they remain as single family units. They are much more likely to seen walking along the ground, usually in single file, with the adult male leading the family group, followed by the young and the adult female at the rear. Single family coveys usually number between ten and twenty birds, although as many as thirty have been observed as a single family group. It is thought that families of more than twenty may have an unmated sub-adult female or two that has added a smaller clutch of eggs to the mature mom’s larger clutch. The largest single family covey I have seen was a family with twenty-seven babies, a sub-adult female, and the adult breeding pair. In our archived article on the history of quail in Arizona on our website (wildbirdsonline.com), it was Gambel’s Quail that was the most numerous and common of all wildlife in the state. Early naturalists working in the region, military outposts, and pioneers along the Gila River valley, in their westward journey, noted in their journals that they encountered flocks of walking quail that were estimated to be in the millions. Several reports noted that a single large winter covey could easily be a mile or more long. Pictographs and petroglyphs recorded the familiarity of these birds to the native inhabitants in pre-historic times.
Being primarily ground-dwelling during daylight, they are wary and always on the lookout for a wide host of predators. Quail eggs, babies, adolescents, and adults are all vulnerable to attacks from other birds, particularly raptors and roadrunners, snakes, coyotes, bobcats, Gila monsters, some insects, human hunters, and others. It is, however, domestic cats, feral and otherwise, that take more quail than all other predators combined.
Flying and Walking Speed
While they are most often observed walking along the ground, they can fly short distances to escape predators, establish observation posts, forage in trees and low vegetation, and roost at night. Even babies ten days to two weeks old can fly up to a roost in the evening with the adults of the covey. While their flying skills aren’t as well developed as most other species, quail can fly at treetop level for up to about one hundred yards, well enough to escape most predators. Typical flying speed is about forty M.P.H. Typical running speed is about fourteen to fifteen M.P.H. The sighting of a family group, marching along in single file, is heartwarming enough to put a smile on our faces and make us brake our vehicles when they cross a road or to stop us in our tracks as we walk along a trail.
Due to relatively high predation rates, the quail hens can have multiple broods each breeding season. Here in southern Arizona, the climate allows for a long breeding season. It can begin in late winter and end in mid-autumn, although the bulk of the breeding will take place between March and September, but, depending upon daily temperatures and other climatic conditions, breeding season can begin earlier and end later. Each adult female will lay an average of ten to fifteen eggs per brood. If two or three of their babies from that first brood survive to adulthood, that’s an average percentage. To insure their continuation, females may rebrood a second time. If, however, predation or natural causes of death mean that only a single baby or two, or no babies at all, survive to grow into adults, the females will continue to brood until enough babies survive or the breeding season ends.
Gambel’s Quail exhibit some traits and characteristics that we humans strongly identify with. Both male and female adults share equally in the responsibilities of parenthood. Both will make shallow scrapes to serve as nests. These shallow scraped dirt nests are often located at the base of tall grasses, mesquite, cacti, sage, creosote, and other shrubs. The nests will be minimally lined with grasses, plant down, sticks, feathers, and other objects found in nature. Each individual scrape or nest is only used for a single brood. Once a nesting site is used, the family never returns. Subsequent broods will have a new nesting site. Hens occasionally lay eggs and incubate them in old nests of roadrunners and sometimes even lay eggs in the nests of Cactus Wrens and thrashers. Many of our customers have unexpectedly found quail eggs in their outdoor potted plants. This should come as no surprise as each laying hen tries to find the best protected location for each clutch. Potted plants are frequently found in private patios adjacent to homes or not in the easy, everyday reach of some of their predators. Garage doors left open may be an inviting place to find a suitable box or pail to deposit eggs in. Each quail hen lays eggs that are visibly unique in coloration and patterning. Eggs are smaller than most chicken eggs and range from dull white to buff or pink-buff, and irregularly blotched, spotted, or dotted with purples and browns. Color markings tend to dominate on the larger, more rounded end of the egg. The Wild Bird Store has several groups of Gambel’s Quail eggs in our educational display and each group shows the visual differences between hens’ clutches.
Weight and Age
Quail are born precocial, meaning when they hatch out of their eggs they are already feathered, eyes open, and ready to run with their parents. As newborns, they weigh just grams, but they mature quickly and adult males typically weigh between six and seven ounces while their female mates weigh a half ounce to an ounce less. Average lifespan in the wild is not certain, but a captured bird that had been banded six years and five months earlier suggests that seven to eight years may be a probable average lifespan.
While only the hen lays the eggs, the female adult will sit on and incubate the eggs while the adult male will usually guard the nesting hen, with or without babies, from a high perch in a nearby tree or bush. If the female becomes incapacitated or predated upon, the male will assume all the parenting duties to ensure the survival of the brood. And vice versa. If attacked, both male and female will defend the young if at all possible. Relatively new research has found that males, who were thought to never incubate eggs, will share that duty with the adult females. Already known was the fact if the female is predated upon or dies for any reason, the adult male will assume all parenting responsibilities, including incubating the eggs.
Education of the Young
Once all the eggs have hatched, both parents continue to teach their young all the skills they need to thrive and flourish. Immediately after the eggs have hatched, the family heads off for a normal day of foraging, avoiding predators, finding roosting places and drinking water, taking shelter from the brutal sun in mid-day, and otherwise performing all the daily chores quail must not just to survive, but to thrive. The accompanying babies learn all this and more from their parents as a result of performing their normal functions. The adults are great teachers for the young. Parents will teach their babies to recognize the various calls and vocalizations necessary for personal and group communications.
Calls and Vocalizations
When foraging or simply moving from one area to another, members of the covey utter low chuckles or grunt like young pigs – quoit, oit, or woet; a lone bird, separated from its mate or the family flock, will sound a “location” call – the familiar chi-CA-go-go. Some of these calls can be heard from a distance of up to a mile under the right conditions. Mated pairs will form life-lasting bonds within the covey in late winter. When the larger winter coveys dissolve into smaller family coveys, usually by March, the mated pair begins their breeding season. Researchers still have much to learn about breeding displays of New World quail. Often these ritual displays occur unseen by humans. They may happen in the cover of heavy vegetation or remain unseen for other reasons. Studies of captive birds have provided some of the most current information we have. Courtship displays in the wild have been most reported for the Mountain Quail. It strikes me as a little odd that less is known about the courtship displays of the Gambel’s species, as they are more numerous and occupy a greater range. However, one trait shared by many of the New World quail is that they perform “tidbitting,” in which an adult, usually the male, picks and dabbles with food and ruffles its feathers in front of a potential mate. With some quail species, males and females sing mating duets together. The Wild Bird Store sells a few models of quail calls.
Range and Name Origination
Gambel’s Quail occupy the largest range of the species found in the American West. They are known to have hybridized with other species of quail where their ranges overlap. For example, hybrids with California Quail have occurred in southern California and along the lower Colorado River Valley at the western edge of the Gambel’s range. On the easternmost part of their range, they have been known to hybridize with Scaled Quail. They were described in the literature as early as 1843, when they were first named. Their name originates with Thomas Nuttall, an early American naturalist who named this species in honor of his protégé, William Gambel, who was an early bird specimen collector in Southern California. In all their ranges, the various quail species are seeing declines in their numbers and, in some cases, the shrinking of their normal ranges. Several causes for this are in play simultaneously: overgrazing of grasslands by cattle, hunting, drought, wildfires, climate change, and, in certain areas, the invasion of fire ants, which disrupt incubation by adults and may kill young chicks.
The diet of the Gambel’s Quail is not too dissimilar from that of other quail species. Differences in habitat, and the foods found within each habitat, dictate exactly what they consume. The foods they seek out and hunt are quite varied, compared to many other species. They will eat both plant material and animal proteins, in the form of insects. In fact, insects provide more nutrients that any other single type of food. They get vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, amino acids, other proteins, essential oils, and other benefits from the insects they hunt and eat. Favorite insects include, but are not limited to, ants and grasshoppers, usually found in large enough numbers to allow the quail to feast and fatten up, beetles, caterpillars, and a host of other insects. Baby quail, not unlike many other baby species, eat a diet heavily dominated by or exclusively composed of insects. Insects found in large numbers, such as ants, grasshoppers, beetles, and caterpillars, tend to dominate the insect content of their diet. However, they will consume nearly any insect they come across. Breeding adults also have insect-dominated diets.
As the birds mature, they diversify and extend the foods that make up their complete diet. Quail, being chicken-like birds, have similar anatomy and foraging habits to chickens. They have short, well-muscled legs for extended walking, running, and scratching the ground. The claws on the front-facing toes are long and sharp, excellent tools for excavating grubs and insects. With quick sideways movements they use their feet and legs to sweep through leaf litter and other ground debris to explore for insects, new plant shoots, and other vegetative foods.
Quail eat a wide variety of plant foods. They can easily dig up tubers and bulbs of plants. New shoots and young plants may be eaten whole. Otherwise, they may pick the tenderest parts of the plant and leave tougher, woodier plants and plant parts. They will consume tender leaves, buds, and flowers, as well as any insects contained within. Native grasses, shrubs, and trees provide a host of foodstuffs for quail. Legumes may be the most important of these foods. Typically, beans and seed pods of native thorny plants such as mesquite, Palo Verde, ironwood, and acacia are favored. Grass seeds, grains, and other seeds are also eagerly consumed. Native fruit, especially cactus fruit such as prickly pear, cholla, and barrel are sought out in season. And, native berries, especially hackberries, and cultivated berries of all sorts are appreciated as part of the backyard feeding station.
The Wild Bird Store sells a variety of high-quality food for quail. Perhaps the most popular of these are the blocks. We sell compressed quail blocks and seed blocks, as well as compressed food cylinders of nuts and another composed of nuts, dried fruits, and seeds. The twenty-five-pound Oñate block is the most popular. It will feed many quail for months on average. Our exclusive insect meal, Nuts ‘n’ Bugs, provides them with a high-energy, high-protein addition to their diet.
We manufacture two models of a platform feeder to feed quail and keep their food fresher for longer amounts of time. The basic quail platform is a slotted platform with airspaces which allow airflow and drainage, mounted on four eight-inch legs. The more complete housing for the blocks and cylinders is the Quail Pavilion. It is constructed exactly like the simpler quail platform but with the addition of four corner posts that support a peaked and overlapping roof which, in turn, shelters and protects the block from damaging sun and rains. The simple platform extends the life of the blocks by doubling its normal lifespan. The larger, more expensive, Quail Pavilion will extend the life of the blocks by many months, demonstrating its cost effectiveness. Both are constructed in our on-site woodshop from the highest quality materials. We use only extremely long-lasting inland incense cedar and the glue we use, in addition to nails, is one of the highest rated, environmentally sound, exterior adhesives available.
Additionally, quail can be fed nearly any seed, grain, or mix. We sell a high-quality ground mix, called Sonoran Songbird, as well as a basic economical “scratch” mix, for feeding quail directly on the ground. The songbird mix is composed mostly of seeds and a few grains. Scratch mix is a combination of three grains: cracked corn, whole wheat berries, and milo. Quail will also eat other non-commercial grains such as oats and barley. The single highest quality food we offer for quail is a crumble-type ground food which the quail easily prefer over all other foods. It is ground fine enough for newly-hatched babies as well as fully mature adults. It is the most nutritionally complete and balanced food. Providing this food practically guarantees that you will have quail visiting your feeding station twice a day. The best method for providing any of these mixes is directly on the ground, as quail are among the best known of our strictly ground-feeding backyard birds. Choose a spot where you can clear the ground of any rocks and gravel to create a three-foot diameter circle of clean dirt surface. I even suggest sweeping the cleared ground to create the best, and most natural, surface for them to feed from.
If you provide any of the foods they prefer, they will include your backyard in their daily food circuit. Each and every day of the year, they awaken in the morning and begin their circuitous route throughout their territory, searching for food. This will occupy most of their morning hours. After a short siesta, they will repeat the same food circuit in the afternoon. Because they are creatures of habit and thrive on routine, they arrive at your house at almost the same time every morning and afternoon. So, to be able to feed your quail without feeding all the neighborhood doves and pigeons, put your loose quail food or mixes out minutes, not hours, before their expected arrival. Once on the scene, they tend to dominate their food, driving other birds away from their feeding area, even larger birds like doves and pigeons. The covey will form a protective circle on the outside of the feeding area comprised of adults and sub-adults. Meanwhile, babies and juveniles occupy the center of the feeding circle. Once the younger birds have eaten their fill, the mature birds will step in and finish off whatever is left. If your quail, for example, arrive at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. each day, put your food out for them five or ten minutes before they arrive to ensure they receive the majority of it. If you put food out for them hours before they actually arrive or at different hours each day, other birds are likely to consume it in its entirety and none will be left for the quail. Once you learn their schedule, it pretty much ensures that the quail will consume the majority of the food, especially the specialized quail food. This is probably the best method to ensure that they routinely visit your backyard feeding station, twice a day. They may come singly, or in pairs or small family groups, to peck at your blocks whenever they need a snack during the course of the day. Other than the platforms for blocks and cylinders, described earlier, no specialized feeders are required to feed quail.
Drinking Water and Bathing
Early research suggested that Gambel’s Quail, being a native desert-dwelling bird, didn’t require regular visits to water sources and were thought to get enough of their moisture needs met by the foods they ate. This has been proven false. These birds live in environments where naturally occurring fresh water sources are rare, but at least once a day, preferably early in the morning or late in the afternoon, they will travel to their favorite drinking water sources and “tank up.” In remote areas, this often happens at cattle ponds as most desert terrain lacks naturally occurring ponds or lakes, streams, creeks, and rivers. Even after rainfalls, water that forms puddles quickly sinks into the ground or evaporates. I have observed large winter coveys of several dozen quail assemble at cattle ponds. I have observed similar sightings at the naturally occurring oasis of Quitobaquito Springs at Organ Pipe National Monument along the Mexican border in the southwestern part of the state. Sometimes ranchers will use metal tanks for watering cattle rather than bulldozing a cattle pond. Metal cattle tanks usually have water a few feet deep and quail and other birds run the risk of drowning in such tanks if they fall in and cannot get out. Gambel’s Quail is thought only to need water for drinking purposes as they seem to prefer dust bathing to water cleansing. I cannot remember ever seeing quail use a bird bath for other than drinking. I have observed them dust bathing though. In fact, I have a few dust-bathing scrapes on my property that I see quail use frequently.
Depth of Water/Keep it Fresh
Over the years I have lived in several locations and in each I had bird-feeding stations with multiple bird baths. The only baths I’ve ever seen them approach and drink from were ground- level baths. This makes sense as most natural water sources and puddles are on the ground. While I’ve had a variety of pedestal and hanging baths, I never once saw quail approach elevated bird baths. It is very important, especially at this time of the year, to make sure your bath water is only one to one-and-a-half inches deep, otherwise baby quail can drown. In fact, all baths should keep that same level of water for all species. Even large birds, like Cooper’s Hawks, can effectively bathe in water that shallow. Any species’ babies can drown in water two inches or deeper. The absolute favorite ground-level birdbath that quail and many other species prefer is the Rocky Mountain Spring bath. We normally sell two models. One is the plain and simple model and the second has a dripper system installed as part of the bath. The models are the same except for the dripper. They are cast from tough, durable epoxy resin, have a somewhat rock-textured surface for a sure grip, appear like rock natural to the backyard, and have a slanted bottom that goes from very shallow to about one-and-a-half inches deep, allowing birds from babies to mature adults to use the depth that suits their size best. However it is also important to keep in mind that all birding backyards should have at least one birdbath, as water is more important and harder to find in our desert environment, than food. A fresh, reliable source of drinking/bathing water will attract more species of birds than any single food type will. Our only responsibility is to be sure to change the water daily, just as you do for your pets.