This quail is a desert inhabitant, favoring bare soils with scattered shrubs, small trees, and cactus, but with water nearby which coveys visit daily. Thus, drought conditions result in population stresses and lower reproductive success. Gambel’s quail avoid grassland habitats without shrubs or some emergent vegetation because they nest at night off the ground. The male is distinctively colored with a bright reddish-orange cap and a white stripe fringing it. A curved bushy black plume feather extends out of the top of the head and bends over the front of the face. The face and throat are black and again with a white stripe surround them. The breast and sides are gray with a burnt orange flank with white dashes. The back and tail are gray. Females are a drab light brown with some of the same dark orange sides and white marks as the male, and also with the black plume feather on top of the head.
The range of the Gambel’s quail is centered around the Sonoran desert, comprising southern New Mexico and Arizona, southeastern California and parts of Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, and extending down into Mexico. The species doesn’t migrate but is a permanent resident where it occurs. They spend most time on the ground and travel rapidly with short flights when necessary. The diet of Gambel’s quail consists mostly of plant matter, seeds and berries, with some buds and cactus fruits taken when available. They will sometimes come into urban desert neighborhoods and feed on seeds spread on the ground there or spilled from a bird feeder.
Gambel’s quail forage in flocks outside of the breeding season. In the spring breeding pairs form that are monogamous and the male and female isolate themselves from other nesting quail. The female builds a nest of grass and twigs on the ground, normally hidden under a shrub or other vegetation. Females lay about a dozen brown-speckled eggs and the precocial young leave the nest soon after hatching, following the parents around. The chicks feed themselves, starting with mostly insects and transitioning to plant matter as they mature.
The Gambel’s quail is named after a young naturalist William Gambel, who traveled west from Philadelphia at the age of 18 where he collected plant and animal specimens for research. Among the new species he described for western science were the Gambel’s quail, the Mountain chickadee and the Nuttall’s woodpecker. Of course these species were well known to native tribes who had called the Sonoran desert home for thousands of years, such as the Pascua Yaqui, Tohono O’odham, Gila River, and the Cocopah. Gambel returned to Philadelphia, where he earned a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1848. He ventured west again on a wagon train, serving as the medical doctor for the adventurers. Reaching a gold mining camp on the Yuba river, north of Sacramento, he treated miners there in a typhoid epidemic, to which he himself also succumbed, dying in 1849 at the age of 26.
Gambel’s quail, as ground dwellers, and using ground nests, may fall prey to a variety of predators, such as raptors, snakes, and carnivores like foxes and coyotes. Roosting off the ground in trees or shrubs, and hiding their nests in dense brushy vegetation helps to protect them.
The Audubon Society predicts some range expansion in New Mexico and the northern parts of Gambel’s quail range in Arizona and California as climate warming proceeds. The population is considered of least concern by the IUCN, though numbers do fluctuate according to local climatic conditions.
Photos taken along Highway 60 west of Socorro near the Box Canyon recreation area. Camera was the Nikon P900.