The name "quail," with roots in Middle Dutch through Old French, is related to "quack," an allusion to the vocalization of the European quail. The name "Gambel’s" is a recognition of William Gambel (1821-1849), an American naturalist who died on an ill-fated winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada. The scientific name "callipepla" comes from the Greek kalli (beautiful) and peplos (robe).
Gambel’s quail are pear-shaped birds with short legs and roundish wings. Both sexes are gray above and buff below, with white-streaked russet sides. Males have a black throat and face and a head plume (called a "topknot"), a red cap and white headband. Females have a less prominent plume and lack black coloration and red head cap. The birds have a 14-inch wing span and average weight of six ounces.
The species’ range is focused in the Sonoran desert of Arizona and Mexico, but it extends into southern New Mexico, up and down the Rio Grande, up the Colorado River drainage into Utah’s canyon country, and west to California and southern Nevada.
Food and Water
Gambel’s quail eat seeds of forbs, grasses, shrubs, trees and cacti as well as herbaceous material, fruits and berries. They are ground feeders, generally seeking food in the morning and afternoon.
They obtain water from food material, but they may also require some free water. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, biologists built small water catchments (so-called "gallinaceous guzzlers") in Arizona, California and Nevada to provide the quail with water, but the practice was discontinued when a study revealed that the birds could survive perfectly well without such help.
Habits and Habitat
Gambel’s quail inhabit brushy and thorny vegetation of southwestern deserts. They are often closely associated with honey mesquite, although these plants are not essential to the birds’ survival. The birds range up to a mile, often along river valleys and drainages. They use shrubs and trees as a nighttime roost, resting a few inches to a few feet off the ground, a habit not typically found in other desert quail. They appear commonly in the suburbs.
These gregarious birds often join together in groups known as coveys, which may total 20 or more individuals in fall and winter. They produce a location or assembly call, "ka-KAA-ka-ka," to locate a mate or other covey members, issuing the call most often in midmorning or late afternoon. They emit a distinct "chip-chip-chip" when alarmed.
Natural predators include bobcats, Cooper’s and Harris’ hawks, cotton rats, king snakes and coachwhips, although the impact these species have on Gambel’s quail populations is not fully understood. Like other quail, Gambel’s quail commonly sprint into dense undergrowth rather than taking flight.
Pair formation begins in March. Females select nest sites, which are almost always located on the ground and usually concealed or protected by foliage. The typical nest is a shallow, bowl-shaped scrape, lined with grass, leaves and feathers. Clutches of 10 to 12 white to buff eggs hatch three weeks after laying, usually peaking in late April or May. Wet winters and springs lead to larger populations, creating a boom-and-bust cycle which corresponds with wet and dry years.
Chicks all hatch on the same day and are precocial and down-covered. They leave the nest soon and may form mixed-parent, mixed-age coveys of 30 to 40 chicks. Average life expectancy is 1.5 years although a rare Methusaleh may live for up to four years.
Humans are the Gambel’s quail’s most important predator. Hunting seasons last up to 125 days with individual hunter limits of up to 15 birds per day. The average estimated kill between 1993 and 1995 exceeded 1.2 million birds per year. Trapping in the 1800’s appears to have decimated populations, but the practice is now outlawed in the United States.
Gambel’s quail have been introduced to the Hawaiian Islands and can be found on Kaho’olawe and on the big island on the slopes of Mauna Loa.
David B. Williams
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