Gambel's Quail Life History

Habitat

Habitat ScrubGambel’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.Back to top

Food

Food SeedsGambel'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.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest GroundFemale 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.

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.

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:0.9-1.0 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.
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Behavior

Behavior Ground ForagerYou’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.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernGambel’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.Back to top

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. Back to top

Credits

Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Gee, Jennifer, David E. Brown, Julie C. Hagelin, Mark Taylor and Jill Galloway. 2013. Gambel's Quail (Callipepla gambelii), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

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