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Gambel's Quail

Callipepla gambelii ORDER: GALLIFORMES FAMILY: ODONTOPHORIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Gambel’s Quail are gregarious birds of the desert Southwest, where coveys gather along brushy washes and cactus-studded arroyos to feed. Males and females both sport a bobbing black topknot of feathers. The male’s prominent black belly patch distinguishes it from the similar California Quail (the two species' ranges don't overlap). This ground-hugging desert dweller would rather run than fly—look for these tubby birds running between cover or posting a lookout on low shrubs.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
9.8 in
25 cm
Wingspan
13.4–14.2 in
34–36 cm
Weight
5.6–7.1 oz
160–200 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Northern Bobwhite; slightly smaller than a Chukar or Gray Partridge
Other Names
  • Colin Gambel (French)
  • Cordorniz de Gambel (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Birders in Hawaii may catch a glimpse of Gambel’s Quail on the slopes of Mauna Kea volcano. The Hawaii Division of Fish and Game introduced this popular game bird (mostly from game farms) to all of the main Hawaiian Islands in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Today a few remain on the Big Island, as well as on Lanai and tiny Kaho’olawe.
  • Gambel’s Quail are part of the “scaled quail” complex, which also includes California Quail, Scaled Quail, and the Elegant Quail of northwest Mexico. The species hybridize in captivity and in the wild; you can find Gambel’s x California Quail hybrids where their ranges overlap in southeast California.
  • Like many desert-dwelling species, Gambel’s Quail populations undergo a “boom-and-bust” cycle. A year with ample winter-spring rainfall that generates lots of green vegetation will yield larger clutches and an abundance of chicks. Dry winters mean less food and lower productivity.
  • Just before her eggs hatch, the female Gambel’s Quail calls to the chicks, who cheep to each other from inside the eggs. The eggs hatch in synchrony, with the chick cutting a neat hole in the largest part of the shell and leaving an intact piece of membrane to serve as a “hinge” — the chick pushes on the shell and opens the “door” that it has created.

Habitat


Scrub

Gambel’s Quail live in thorny and brushy vegetation throughout the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave deserts as well as parts of the Great Basin, up to a mile high in the easternmost part of their range. Look for them along river valleys and creeks, in washes and arroyos, at springs and seeps, and in the chaparral and oak woodlands of high desert settings. In agricultural areas they seek out irrigation ditches, brush-lined river channels, and brushy fencelines edging irrigated fields. In Arizona the bird’s range overlaps almost exactly with that of the western honey mesquite, which supports large numbers of quail. Other plants that make for productive Gambel’s Quail habitat include desert hackberry, catclaw acacia, yuccas, saguaro, and prickly pear cactus. In washes and riparian settings in the eastern and westernmost parts of their range, they occur near dense thickets of saltbush, saltcedar, arrowwood, and screwbean mesquite.

Food


Seeds

Gambel's Quail eat mostly plants. They eat seeds of grasses, shrubs, forbs, trees and cactus, and will pick mesquite seeds from cattle and coyote droppings. They also eat leaves and grass blades. From summer into fall, berries and cactus fruit, including cholla, saguaro, and prickly pear become an important part of the diet. Gamebel’s Quail also eat insects, especially in spring and through the peak of nesting season. Chicks eat only animal matter for the first few days after hatching, including beetles, small worms, moth caterpillars, and grasshoppers.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
5–15 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
1.1–1.3 in
2.8–3.4 cm
Egg Width
0.9–1 in
2.3–2.6 cm
Incubation Period
21–31 days
Egg Description
Dull white to buff with irregular, cinnamon-brown splotches.
Condition at Hatching
Covered in dense down, and immediately able to leave nest and follow parents.
Nest Description

The nest consists of a simple, bowl-shaped depression or scrape measuring 1.5 inches deep and 5 to 7 inches across. Small twigs edge the border of the nest bowl, which is lined with grass stems, leaves, and feathers.

Nest Placement

Ground

Female Gambel’s Quail typically select a concealed nest site on the ground, shielded beneath a shrub or in a clump of cactus or other protective vegetation. Occasionally they build a nest in trees that provide a stable platform, occasionally as high as 32 feet off the ground.

Behavior


Ground Forager

You’re most likely to see Gambel’s Quail in groups (coveys) on the ground, walking and foraging or scurrying between patches of cover. When alarmed they break suddenly into flights that tend to cover short distances but can be up to half a mile. Otherwise their flights are confined to “short hops” up to roosting spots and across barriers such as canyons. Look for groups feeding on vegetation together in the early morning and late afternoon. The covey spends midday in shaded, brushy spots screened from predators, such as a wash or vegetated fenceline where the birds take dust baths, preen, and sleep. Coveys tend to be family groups with an adult pair and up to 16 young that stay together in a home range well into fall. In winter, several coveys often combine to feed together. By later winter or early spring, these larger coveys break up again, and a few birds —mainly juveniles and males—join new coveys. As the breeding season approaches, male Gambel’s Quail find an elevated perch—often a fence post, tree, or shrub—and give a kaa or cow call. Courting males perform a ritualized foraging display called “tidbitting” to attract a mate. As a female approaches, the tidbitting male extends his legs, fans his tail, and stands with his head near the ground and tail in the air. He may also offer the female bits of food. Gambel’s Quail are considered socially monogamous, but some females desert a mate and her brood to take a new mate and lay another clutch, leaving her original partner to raise the chicks on his own.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Gambel’s Quail are numerous. Between 1966 and 2014 populations appear to have been fairly stable, possibly with a small decline, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. However, it's difficult to estimate long-term trends because the boom-and-bust nature of this species means their year-to-year numbers are extremely variable. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 5.3 million, with 74% living in the U.S. and 26% in Mexico. Gambel's Quail is a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species, rates a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. Gambel’s Quail have been a popular target for hunters in the Southwest since the frontier days. Concerns over hunting’s impact led to strict bag limits and short or closed seasons by the 1950s, and efforts to increase quail numbers in that era included trapping and transplanting birds, establishing refuges, and providing water sources. Research eventually showed that these efforts had little effect on populations, which are mostly responsive to the presence or absence of winter rains. Bag limits were eventually increased and the length of hunting seasons extended to as much as 125 days per year. Restricting livestock grazing may improve habitat for Gambel’s Quail.

Credits

Range Map Help

Gambel
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident (nonmigratory).

Backyard Tips

Gambel's Quail are ground-feeding desert birds—so they are likely to visit yards that offer birdseed and water at ground level. They sometimes also come up to elevated platform feeders. You can attract them with sunflower seeds, cracked corn, millet, and milo. Visit Project FeederWatch for more information on how, what, and where to feed birds in your backyard.

Find This Bird

Look for Gambel's Quail in the early morning and late afternoon, when temperatures are moderate and the birds are active. You'll find them in shrubby or thorny areas where they forage on the ground in fairly large groups. At times, one member of the covey will post a lookout on a fence post or shrub top; otherwise you'll need to look carefully at ground level. If you get too close without seeing them, they may startle you by suddenly exploding into flight.

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